Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women is quite the critical success. Gerwig started out as an actress in indie mumblecore films. Mumblecore is a term coined fifteen years ago for slice-of-life films made on almost no budgets at all with naturalistic acting, real sets, and situations that seem to be made up as the camera records them. Lacking production values and big-name actors, the best of them still hold audience interest, even though Hollywood-style professionalism and polish are absent.
More than a decade after her humble mumblecore beginnings, Gerwig is a darling of the Hollywood industry. In 2017, at age 34, she wrote and directed Lady Bird, a modern coming-of-age film with a heavy mother-daughter theme, featuring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, which scored high with audiences and was nominated for five Oscars.
Continuing the mother-daughter storyline, she has written and directed an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic book. Saoirse Ronan takes the lead role of Jo March, a spunky, independent type who shuns lacey fashion, wealthy beaus, and dance parties, favoring long stays in the attic of her New England home where she writes stories and performs plays with her three sisters. Meanwhile, the father is away fighting in the Civil War, their financial resources are very limited, and their mother devotes her days to charity work. More than other adaptors, Gerwig plays down the family’s poverty and the mother’s risk of catching a contagious illness from the poor she treats.
Gerwig has created three-dimensional characters for Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth – characters who must hold appeal for a modern audience in order to make the film palatable. She succeeds to a point, yet the March sisters are steeped in a late 19th Century morality. Occasionally, these girls indulge in demonstrations of ill temper and have misadventures, but they believe in the overriding values of forgiveness, charity, and unconditional love of family. In one telling scene, Marmy (mother March played by Laura Dern), confesses to Jo that she has suppressed unpleasant feelings quite regularly her whole life. That’s not a philosophy easily relatable to a 21st Century audience.
Maybe it is because of the discrepancies between life today and in the novel of the late 1860s, that Gerwig made the decision to present Alcott’s story out of chronology. While Alcott’s novel was meant to entertain, it also offered instruction. in the words of critic Barbara Sicherman, the story “validates virtue over wealth.” Morality tales can be a hard sell for some current audiences. Gerwig’s Little Women is a series of fast-moving scenes from the life of the March family. Two of my friends were confused by the upending of the chronology, but I commend Gerwig for her creative move. At the same time, I take issue with the ending which is filmed in a ridiculously happy, fantasy style – more fitting of the ending of a Disney cartoon than Alcott’s story.
Reflecting on the relatability of the characters in the film, other than Jo, for me, the one with the most contemporary qualities is Aunt March, played by Meryl Streep. Why? Sad to say, because she is less of a goodie-goodie. This character has a sharp edge and cynicism that many of us share in 2020. While showing brief moments of humanity, she coldly advises Amy to marry money or the family will dissolve into ruin. Without money, what will the family do? Because Gerwig hasn’t stressed the financial woes of the Marches that are a part of the original story, Aunt March comes off meaner than she really is!
There have been fine stage and screen adaptations of Little Women. Quite entertaining is George Cukor’s 1933 film which stars Katharine Hepburn as Jo. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 moving, Oscar-nominated filmization features Winona Ryder as Jo and Claire Danes as the ailing Beth. On the whole, Gerwig’s version has plenty of virtues and will stand high among the long list of adaptations.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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