Funny thing about “the classics” of literature: Everyone is assumed to have read them at some point, but fewer and fewer of us actually have firsthand exposure to them anymore. We borrow their archetypes based more on their endless reiterations and adaptations than on their original coinages. That’s how we get, for example, the common misconception that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a supernatural horror story, rather than a droll tale of a stuffy, self-important fellow getting his comeuppance via a practical joke.
Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women has suffered a similar fate. Despite its having been put up on both the big and little screen countless times, you’d have difficulty finding a person of Gen X age or younger who has read the book. This is especially true for men, who are put off by the inaccurate-but-popular notion that it’s an old-fashioned, sentimental book for girls: a category deemed even more dispensable than mere children’s literature.
To dismiss it so is nearly as silly as deeming the Oedipus plays or Death of a Salesman uninteresting because they derive their drama from family conflict in domestic settings. While nothing occurs in its narrative that would have been deemed “unsuitable” for young ladies to read about in the late 19th century, Little Women is a subversively feminist tract as surely as anything written by Jane Austen, couched in the polite language of their times. Without in any way devaluing hearth and home as both the forge and a microcosm of wider society, it forces readers to contemplate the socioeconomic realities that women faced back then, and to a certain extent still do.
With Father away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War for most of the story, the March household is a sort of collectively run mini-matriarchy, each of the four teenaged sisters expected to contribute in her own way – to society at large, as well as to the family’s meager income – but each also demanding her own opportunity to shine. Each has an artform in which she excels: Meg in theater, Jo in writing, Beth in music and Amy in painting. Marmee does not dominate, but rather sets a high behavioral bar through her relentless volunteer work on behalf of the less fortunate, and is the glue that holds her spirited daughters together.
That doesn’t stop these girls of varied temperaments from squabbling, of course; sometimes, especially in the rivalry between Jo and Amy, extreme measures are taken. But the dramatic resonance of this family dynamic is not that it’s dysfunctional; it’s that it ultimately works as a unit, despite all the conflict. When something bad happens to somebody, all put aside their grievances and pull together. Alcott herself being the offspring of a family of New England Transcendentalists who started a (not very successful) Utopian commune, there’s a message here of striving for the commonweal that we don’t often see in the American literary tradition of rugged individualism.
Little Women doesn’t by any means shy away from the truth that girls and women in the 1860s had few choices in life beyond getting married and raising children. In fact, the economic constraint she feels is the central conflict confronting Jo, who stands in for the author. Even a loving family is a cage to such a rambunctiously creative personality. She doesn’t really want to marry at all, and in particular, she doesn’t want to marry her best friend Laurie, the rich, handsome and self-indulgent boy next door. Many a starry-eyed 12-year-old’s heart has broken slightly upon reading the passage where Jo turns Laurie down.
Despite flouting many of the conventions of writings by women of the day, Little Women became an immediate best-seller and has never subsequently gone out of print. Who would’ve thought that yet another screen adaptation was necessary? Why, Greta Gerwig did, and today’s audiences owe her thanks. The new version currently in theaters, for which Gerwig served as both screenwriter and director, is quite frankly a superb work of cinema, and will prove richly rewarding for male as well as female viewers.
For this project, Gerwig blurs the lines between the real-life Alcotts and the fictional Marches, and boldly interweaves the timelines of the family’s fortunes through seamlessly executed flashbacks. She also brought together several of the stars of her much-praised 2017 feature directing debut, Lady Bird. There’s an early scene in which Saoirse Ronan as Jo is standing next to a lit hearth, too distracted by her reading to notice that her hem is smoldering. When someone points out, “You’re on fire,” it’s meant literally, but it works on a meta-level as well. Ronan brings to this iconic character all the ferocity and confusion, longing and disappointment and commitment that we need to see in her. Timothée Chalamet is likewise perfectly cast as Laurie, and under Gerwig’s direction, fully embodies both the lovable and contemptible aspects of the character.
Laura Dern does wonders with a slightly underwritten Marmee (check out Sarah Blackwood’s excellent essay in the current issue of the New Yorker about the importance of the character’s bottled rage, channeled into social activism, at https://bit.ly/2u2NSXX). Meryl Streep chews her gilded furniture gleefully as cranky, disapproving, wealthy Aunt March. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen both do fine work as Meg and Beth. But the breakout performance here is Florence Pugh as spoiled, spiteful Amy, long viewed as the least likable of the March sisters. Gerwig orchestrates her arc, and Pugh embodies it, in a way that makes Amy’s resentment of her elder siblings comprehensible. The choices she makes may be less lofty, but we are allowed to appreciate the thought process that leads her to them, and even to see a little wisdom in it, as Jo herself acknowledges in the end.
All four young actresses manage to sound consistently American, if not quite Yankee, despite the fact that Ronan is Irish, Watson and Pugh English and Scanlen Australian. This adds an extra dimension of fun to a scene in which the March sisters are all dressed as Victorian gentlemen and affecting posh British accents for one of Jo’s theatricals in the attic.
This Little Women is gorgeously framed, lit and photographed, the art direction nicely evocative of how a middle-class New England family fallen on difficult times might piece together a frayed-at-the-edges gentility. While far more privileged than the neighboring immigrant family to whom they donate their Christmas brunch, the Marches clearly don’t enjoy a secure existence, except insofar as they may rely on one another’s affections. It’s a glimpse into a parallel world that may feel unsettlingly familiar to viewers who know how it feels to be always only one paycheck away from poverty.
If you were tempted to pigeonhole this movie as wholesome kiddie fare, a daytime TV weeper or a Masterpiece Theatre celebration of the upper crust, and thus easily dismissible, do not. Little Women is the sharpest, best-acted, most thought-provoking costume drama to hit the cinemas this year. With it, Greta Gerwig has fully established her place high in the firmament of dynamic young American directors.