The recent film Little Women (2019), written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is the seventh film adaption of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott. To me it begs the question, is another period drama centered around white women necessary right now? While that is a valid critique, I think that this film offers a fresh new interpretation of the story, and is definitely worth your time.
Gerwig not only takes creative liberties by telling the story through flashbacks as opposed to chronologically, she also chooses to insert elements of Alcott’s own life into the character of Josephine “Jo” March, played by the brilliant Saoirse Ronan.
The story starts in 1868, with Jo living in New York City trying to earn money as a writer, which she sends to her mother (Laura Dern). The film then jumps seven years back to Concord, Massachusetts, showing the March sisters’ childhood. All perfectly cast, each March sister has a distinct personality that captures your attention. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest and most responsible, loves acting, but hopes to get married and have a family. The second is Jo, who is very independent and unconventional, loves to write, and is not so sure about marriage. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who has a great talent for playing piano, is the most reserved and innocent. Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest, who loves to paint and draw, often finds herself in trouble and yearns for Jo’s attention and friendship.
In their adulthood, Meg is married with children, but struggles financially because of her husband’s occupation as a tutor. Beth still lives with her parents and is seen dealing with weakened health after contracting syphilis when she was younger. And Amy is in Paris, accompanied by their wealthy unmarried aunt (Meryl Streep), perfecting her painting skills and hoping to receive a marriage proposal.
The film jumps back and forth between these two timelines, contrasting the nostalgic childhood of the March sisters and their adventures as teenagers to their present day lives as grown adults navigating the real world. Gerwig adds this juxtaposition visually, by contrasting the brighter and orange-toned colour palette of the flashback scenes to the gray-toned, slightly dulled colour palette for the present timeline. These transitions are at times unexpected but work in favor of the story.
In one scene, a younger Jo wakes up to find that Beth, who has just contracted syphilis, is no longer in her bed. Worried, she rushes downstairs to find her happily eating food with their mother. The film then jumps forward to the present, where Jo wakes up again to see Beth’s bed empty. She walks downstairs, slower this time, and finds her mother alone, crying. Beth is someone who asks very little of others and is extremely pure hearted, so her death later on in the film will inevitably leave you heartbroken.
Of course, the film also showcases the difficulty of being a woman in this time period while trying to maintain your own agency. In the present, Jo is speaking to her mother and feels conflicted after reflecting on her decision to reject her childhood friend Theodore “Laurie” Laurence’s (Timothée Chalamet) proposal years ago. She gives an emotional monologue on how she is tired of the restrictions and roles pushed onto women, as they have so much more to offer. At the same time, she feels so lonely that she considers settling and marrying someone she does not love. Ultimately, like Alcott’s own life, and unlike the book, the film does not end with Jo getting married—rather, her triumph becomes her novel getting published.
Despite the relatability of the film, Little Women was recently overlooked by the selection committee at the Academy Awards, only garnering six nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Gerwig did not receive a nomination for Best Director, which exemplifies that the struggles of Jo March and Louisa May Alcott are still a reality for women today. Hence, while this heartwarming story will inevitably leave a smile on your face, it is also a relevant story about women living in a society where they are expected to fill certain roles, and are rarely celebrated for their creative work.
Hence, while this heartwarming story will inevitably leave a smile on your face, it is also a relevant story about women living in a society where they are expected to fill certain roles, and are rarely celebrated for their creative work.