Why should we do another Little Women movie?
Now, one could simply respond to that with “If Spider-Man can get seven live-action movies over eighteen years, the March sisters can get eight over eighty-five years” and be more than correct. Still, after having scored seven previous feature film adaptations over the span of eighty-five years, one might be curious as to why Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel (one of my favorite pieces of literature of all-time) needed another film adaptation. What can a new version of this tale bring to the table? Well, for those worried this new take on Little Women will merely be a retread of prior movies, you need not worry. Lady Bird writer/director Greta Gerwig is writing and directing this project and she brings a whole new perspective to this tale that keeps its soul while making it feel brand-new.
A key way this new version of Little Women is that Greta Gerwig screenplay tells the basic story of the Alcott novel in a non-linear story structure. The original novel went in a strictly linear fashion that followed the quarter of March sisters as they grew up from girls to being “little women”. But in the hands of Gerwig, this new movie starts out with Jo (Saroise Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) as adults living their own separate lives, with aspiring author Jo being the protagonist of the tale. From this starting point, which sees Jo being forced to return to her childhood home to deal with a sick family member, we get extensive flashbacks to their childhood that show these four women growing up in an inseparable fashion.
The disappointments of their adult lives seem so far away in these segments, especially given the differing visual approaches found in these two time periods. Adulthood for the March sisters, save for Amy in the glorious land of France, is drenched in shadows and subdued colors while the flashback scenes look like something out of a glorious postcard. The colors pop right off the screen, you can feel the warmth of the sunlight pouring through the windows. It all looks too good to be true, which is partially the point. These are supposed to be memories of the past rather than authentic portraits of this time period and goodness knows our own memories can embellish things greatly.
The default visual style of the past in Little Women gets interrupted whenever it’s time for more somber and thoughtful moments, in which case a more muted color palette and lighting approach is utilized that echoes the visual sensibilities of the scenes set in the present. It’s in these moments that Little Women brings out one of Gerwig’s best traits as a writer: her ability to create dialogue that just cuts to the bone in how it echoes realistic vulnerability. “What if this is the best version of me?” and other similar lines from Lady Bird were not a fluke, scenes like Jo and her Mother Marmie (Laura Dern) having a nighttime chat about struggling with anger are filled with similarly unforgettable pieces of poignant dialogue capturing relatable insecurity.
The highest compliment one can pay Gerwig’s dialogue in Little Women (and the same can be said for her Lady Bird dialogue as well) is that it’s reminiscent of the most thoughtful lines of dialogue from BoJack Horseman. Specifically, the dialogue in both pop culture properties are able to so accurately represent seemingly indescribable internal human experiences in concise dialogue. Those emotions or personal thoughts we’ve all had but couldn’t put into words the likes of BoJack Horseman or Greta Gerwig’s Little Women can capture in the form of dialogue so effortlessly. Jo and Marmie’s aforementioned nighttime chat, Jo and Beth at the beach as adults, Laurie’s proposal to Jo, such scenes see Gerwig’s gift for thoughtful dialogue (placed alongside lines from Alcott’s original novel) being put to incredible use.
Through this kind of dialogue and other means, Gerwig’s screenplay constantly finds outstanding ways to flesh out the characters of Little Women in a way that makes them achingly human. This potent level of humanity found in the characters also stems from this version of Little Women finding new ways to explore the different ways women try to assert their humanity and autonomy in late-19th century American society. Such exploration ends up incorporating Jo’s struggle to understand the value of stories about just her and her sisters in a way that evokes a theme in Adrienne Rich’s poem Diving into the Wreck. At one point in this poem, the author makes a reference to a “book of myths”, which is meant to be a representation of the stories that have become thought of as essential parts of canon of great literature.
Such stories tend to be centered on white heterosexual dudes and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women takes a cue from Diving into the Wreck in emphasizing the importance of stories about marginalized perspectives and why they too deserve to be put into “the book of myths”. Through making such emphasis a crucial part of this interpretation of Alcott’s text (which certainly was already about this idea to a degree), Gerwig once again finds an excellent new way of making this newest take on Little Women impressively fresh. As if all that weren’t enough, the movie also gets brought to life with all kinds of entertaining personalities. Such personality emerges in plenty of distinctive humorous moments (Pugh has a great gag involving her foot that had me in stitches) and especially a dynamite cast that has nary a dud performance in it.
One would be here all day listing off all the best qualities in the impressive gaggle of performances found in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but special praise deserves to be given towards Florence Pugh as Amy. She gets some of the biggest laughs in the film but her work on-screen also lends real humanity towards her frequently troubled dynamic with Jo. The realistically messy dynamic between Amy and Jo as well as all of the individual March sisters is one of Little Women’s best features and helps to make sure they all have such a richly believable in their rapport as siblings. There’s vivid poignant affection between these sisters even when they’re throwing pillows at one another. Such affection is realized in such an impressively moving manner that it proves reason enough alone for why this eighth take on Little Women feels so impressively fresh, brand-new and human.