Louisa Alcott: The Fifth Little Woman

Given how often I reread Little Women, it’s surprising that I’d seen none of the film adaptations until Greta Gerwig released hers last Christmas. For those less familiar with the world of Louisa May Alcott, Little Women is a coming-of-age story about four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War. Meg, the oldest, matures from vapid girl to wife; Jo transforms from an aggressive tomboy to a sensitive writer; Beth leaves her shy shell behind in childhood; and Amy goes from spoiled baby to talented artist, all under the guidance of their mother as their absent father fights in the war. There’s someone for everyone to identify with, as well as lots of lessons, heartbreaks, and joys to share and draw upon for readers at different stages of life. If read as a child, the story sticks with you. When I saw Gerwig’s adaptation in theaters in December, the stakes were high.

I shouldn’t have worried. Little Women (2019), much like Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), glows. Gerwig is an incredibly talented director. In addition to an intelligent script and skilled actors, Little Women is visually gorgeous. The costumes are beautifully designed, giving the entire movie a bit of a fairytale feel. Pastels and huge skirts play off of gilded interior rooms and lush exteriors (though I miss the giant sleeveless tulle dress Amy is supposed to wear in France). Similar to Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005), Gerwig makes daily life in her period piece seem romantic and appealing; I, too, want to swap pickled limes with girls in pink dresses! I also want to put on a play with paper masks and glittery stars in a creaky upstairs attic! The film’s lighting gives it a sense of nostalgic longing. Every scene from the March girls’ childhood glows golden; even the wintery scenes carry a summer warmth.

In one of the larger differences between the novel and the film, Gerwig breaks up the novel’s original chronology. The lighting, as well as the clothing and hair differences between the characters, makes these temporal transitions clear. Rather than watching the relationship between Jo and Laurie as in the book, Amy and Laurie draw the most attention, and the mention of Beth’s ill health in the first scene frames her illness as one of the driving forces of the narrative from the very beginning. Gerwig’s manipulation of the timeline makes the film her own, while keeping true to the characters of Alcott’s novel. However, Gerwig’s skills as a writer and director shine through in the changes she makes.

Similar to Jo in the movie, Louisa May Alcott wrote her novel acquiescing to the demands of her publishing industry. She finished the novel with a picture-perfect bow—all the women are either dead or married. Nearly every character ends up with happiness so pure it feels fake. The ending’s perfection cracks under the weight of the tropes it had to hold. Readers finished feeling angry, regardless of whether they wanted Laurie to marry Jo or firmly believed that Jo must never marry. Passionate readers play-acted Little Women with their friends or wrote fanfiction about how stupid Amy is. The original novel remains deeply flawed because by trying to please everyone, it pleases no one.

It’s clear from this film adaptation that Gerwig fussed over the flaws in Little Women. She solves the deep problem of Alcott’s novel with a new ending. The film shows Jo’s opinionated pitch of her book to the publisher, resolving any righteous anger the reader might have over Jo’s apparent lack of agency in the Alcott’s book. Gerwig creates an ending that dissolves the sticky sweetness of the novel, as well as the novel’s imperfections that troubled young girls like me.

There’s no easy way for a viewer to fix the problems that Gerwig’s little women face when the credits roll. Instead of feeling frustrated with the simplistic ending, I drove away from the theater sad that it felt so right. Gerwig made me confront the reality that, no matter which character I identified with, my life could not be wrapped up neatly with a sweeping kiss from a German professor. 

Perhaps I expected too many easy answers from the media. Little Women was always a sort of comfort food to me, something to play with, to fuel my imagination. Gerwig’s rendition is a beautiful homage to a book that clearly meant a lot to her. She paints Beth, Jo, Amy, and Meg with touching detail that draws equal attention to both their strengths and weaknesses. 

However, it made me feel like a writer when I would fix Alcott’s ending in my own stories, making Jo run away to England or find love with a woman. Gerwig’s changes in Little Women take away the work I  used to associate with reading the novel, but leaves behind her signature sadness at a life unfulfilled—similar to the way I felt leaving Lady Bird. 

I recommend Gerwig’s version with my whole heart. I know that I will watch it again. This movie clearly belongs to its director, playing with time, dialogue, and pacing in fresh and gorgeous ways. Gerwig offers an incredible 21st-century look at Little Women that does not shy away from the empowering ending that Alcott couldn’t publish, and leaves her thumbprint of artistic vision and research. Go. Watch. But leave room in your heart for your own version of Little Women. Alcott would have wanted you to have it.

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