Little Women was first adapted for the screen in 1917. Since then, it has been remade something like 20 times. Every iteration is a reflection of the era in which it was made, and every generation has its touchstone version—for my mom, Jo March could only ever be June Allyson, and for many people my age (though admittedly not for me) it’s Winona Ryder. As someone who frequently bemoans Hollywood’s acute case of Endless Retread Syndrome, I went to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with low expectations and not a little bit of “was there seriously nothing original they could have greenlit?” grousing. I took my tween daughter, who has not read the novel and whose interest in the 19th century remains … yet to be developed. I prepared for the worst. Nothing against Gerwig—far from it—I just wasn’t sure there was anything more to extract from Alcott’s novel. And I admit I feared this version, as a reflection of its own cultural moment, would go the way of Anne with an E, painting over a 19th century text with a thick layer of contemporary moralizing.
I left fairly convinced that Gerwig’s version is the best one I’ve seen, in part for a whole lot of skillful and heartfelt performances, but more for Gerwig’s thoughtful, provocative and genuinely innovative script and directing style. For me, it’s far and away the best illustration of the phenomenon of a text taking on a life of its own. Saoirse Ronan is a subtler and in some ways more subdued Jo March than, say, June Allyson—she softly trades “irrepressible” for “tenacious and a bit wistful” (and only says “Christopher Columbus!” once, in what is presumably a little reminder of the Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson’s versions of the character). Florence Pugh knocks the role of vain, sensitive Amy out of the park. (Admittedly she had a lot more to work with in this script than Elizabeth Taylor or Kirsten Dunst ever did.) Those Oscar nominations were thoroughly deserved. As was the Best Picture nom.
Many have written of the Academy’s failure to recognize Gerwig on the Best Director front, and I have yet to see a take that doesn’t boil down to out-of-hand dismissal of a woman director and a property that, despite having been validated by literally 20 screen adaptations in a century, is perpetually marginalized because half the title is the word “women.” As much as I’d be thrilled to present an alternate case (both because I value debate and because I don’t want to believe it), I cannot. The Academy chose to honor a paean to itself (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), a WWI combat movie (1917), a Scorsese crime epic (The Irishman) and a portrait of a psychopath villain from Batman comics (Joker). Parasite appears to be aerating things a little, but on what grounds did Gerwig not deserve a place on this list? Even in that second (or is it native?) language of Hollywood—box office—Gerwig has kicked Martin Scorsese’s butt and, given their relative budgets, kept pace decently with Quentin Tarantino and Sam Mendes. (Joker is a whole other baffling story.)
Unlike some folks, I don’t actually care what the Academy does. The Oscars are a massive exercise in solipsism, and they’re cynical as hell. I don’t usually watch the ceremony, and I’ve never spent a picosecond worrying about what they are honoring or validating or, God help us, normalizing with their choices because that has never remotely seemed to have anything to do with merit. Maybe I’m even more cynical than the Academy—or hey, Todd Phillips—but there it is. I happen to be a woman, and I’d be pretty quick to say Academy Awards should not be doled out to directors merely because they managed to get a movie through post-production even though they have ovaries. I’d even be somewhat likely to shrug if five male directors were nominated in a year when for whatever depressing reasons there were no worthy entries by women. Unfortunately that’s a thing, and I don’t personally feel the solution is being less discerning when it comes to quality.
But, look, a discerning nominating committee would not have privileged Joker over Little Women. Gerwig deserved a lot more attention. And I have a funny feeling that would have been clear if voters had simply screened the film. I would bet you a large amount of hard currency that there are a whole hell of a lot of For Your Consideration copies of the film sitting unopened in piles of mail. Because it’s Little Women. De facto, a “women’s movie” and therefore a trivium. Hollywood confidently (and correctly) assumes men and women alike will watch innumerable permutations of Bond, Bourne and that Liam Neeson character who has no end of shenanigans with the nefarious Marco from Tropoja. But here, 20 successful adaptations later, we still gotta pretend Little Women is a niche property only relevant to girls.
Gerwig has done something amazing with Louisa May Alcott’s incredibly evergreen fictionalization of her own adolescence and early adulthood. She makes it contemporary without betraying its soul. In doing so, she creates remarkably rich layers of dialogue between the film and its own predecessors, the film and its source text, the film and its maker, and between the filmmaker and the system in which she made the film. She extracts the universality of a hero’s odyssey and cuts it like a diamond so that as it moves it refracts the light and sparkles. The script uses contemporary vernacular, and it does it in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or cheap—in fact, it supports the argument that, 150 years after the book, we may be using different words but we’re still (unbelievably) having the same exact conversation about what it is and is not acceptable for women to do. Jo’s story explicitly dovetails with Alcott’s, just as it did in real life. The stochastic, piece-y timeline bolts back and forth as if someone were paging through the book looking for a favorite passage—yet it doesn’t feel random or confusing at all. The fragmented timeline seems to presume viewers are already familiar with the story, and with this heavily mined, 150-year-old story I am not sure there was another valid choice to make. Something about that presumption is inclusive of the audience rather than exclusive—rather than making the film accessible only to people who already know the story well, it opens up some sincerely compelling meta-layers. Jo March, Louisa May Alcott and Gerwig all become ensconced in a dialogue about how art is made and brought to the public. It neatly exposes its own compromises and likens them to Jo’s. It’s splendidly made and, for my money, truer to the novel than any of the adaptations I’ve seen, precisely because it privileges theme and character and voice and metaphor over fidelity to the book’s narrative structure. And yes, it gets very explicit that Jo has a harder time being taken seriously as a writer because that is what the story is about.
The film is bookended, if you will, by scenes between Jo and Mr. Dashwood, a curmudgeonly, mutton-chop-sporting publisher (who is fleetingly mentioned in the book but not a significant character). Gerwig includes a subplot, of her own devising but certainly in keeping with the book as well as the rest of the movie, in which Dashwood blows Jo March off and doesn’t really want to publish her homey little tale about her sisters because he, as a dude, is firmly convinced it isn’t relevant—only to change his mind once his children get their paws on the manuscript and are riveted. By the end, Jo has, by virtue of her own inspiration and tenacity, managed to flip the power dynamic between them completely, going from meekly accepting low rates for potboilers to calmly negotiating royalties and copyright while Dashwood increasingly looks like he has sustained a moderate blow to the head. There is a whole vast allegory in those scenes. It unfolds neatly, softly, cultivating impact with its craftiness and restraint. The montage of the book being physically printed and bound could easily be the subject of a long critical essay in its own right. The emphasis it places on the importance of making something of your life, your story—physically making something—is profound and somehow optimistic that every societal obstacle to someone’s success can in fact enable enduring achievement. That’s not a message that only resonates with women, though it’s a shame we identify so strongly with it. Everyone needs that message. Everyone.
Amy Glynn writes Paste and keeps a close eye on AB 5.