In which I assess a new take on an old favorite
*WARNING: SPOILERS (PLOT-WISE AND PRODUCTION-WISE)*
Yesterday, a rainy Sunday afternoon, I had the long-awaited privilege to see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. And it warmed my heart in all kinds of ways. (Not least of which was thanks to a rich, coppery color scheme against the backdrop of fiery Massachusetts foliage. Commencing homesick-for-New-England mode.)
Suffice it to say I went in with high expectations, due both to my knowledge of Gerwig and my protective feelings toward Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-69 masterpiece. Like generations before us, I and my bookishly minded contemporaries spent our adolescences aspiring to be Jo March, a seemingly fearless wordsmith undeterred by hard times or an antipathetic publishing world. Despite not growing up during a war–or at least not on the home front of one–I was a would-be writer, and one half of a close sisterhood; so I identified strongly with Jo and sought to emulate her. For me, this latest iteration reaffirmed all those feelings of kinship while managing to cast these familiar characters in a new and revelatory light.
Writer-director Gerwig brought her star Saoirse Ronan along from 2017’s Lady Bird, and in some ways I think it is this connection which forms this Little Women’s emotional foundation. The headstrong heroine of that film lacks the familial support around which Jo’s life revolves, but Gerwig informs her adaptation with a similar sense of chaos. The first and prime example of this is her choice not to tell the story in order. There are flashbacks and cutaways, time-jumps and vignettes, and we are not always sure whether we are inside Jo’s “novel” or outside of it. It feels pleasantly scrambled, not unlike the nonlinear way in which memories come back to us. It’s a deconstruction of sorts, and I found myself absolutely on board.
The chemistry between the central quartet is palpable. Each sister gets her own timeline in miniature. In the aforementioned ‘scrambled’ fashion, we watch Meg make her debutante entrance, fall in love with John Brooke, and battle financial difficulties; we watch Beth gravitate toward the piano at the neighboring household, under the grandfatherly guidance and benediction of Mr. Laurence, while increasingly succumbing to her own illnesses; we watch Amy grow from acting the petulant baby of the family to flourishing as an artist in Paris and courting aristocrats; and of course we watch Jo chase her dreams, try to learn to take criticism, and throw all her personal relationships into constant flux. These individual threads only serve to further illuminate their time occupying the same space, helping one another and turning on one another, insulting one another and building one another up. And their time together gives us a frame of reference for their feelings as they grow and physically part ways–for example, Amy’s perception of being perpetually overshadowed by Jo, which she acts upon by burning Jo’s first manuscript. The depiction of a tumultuous life among siblings is impassioned and real.
We also watch Marmee (played sympathetically by Laura Dern) as she attends selflessly to the needs of the local less fortunate and yet simultaneously displays striking humanity; in one of my favorite moments, when Jo remarks that her mother is never angry, Marmee says, “I’m angry every day of my life.” Women’s rage struggles to be given a platform now, let alone in the psychological crunch of the Civil War, and a line such as this felt like a breath of fresh air. It speaks to how far we still have to go in this respect.
Stunningly, though, at the end of the day this version of Little Women may truly belong to Laurie (a downright vulnerable Timothée Chalamet). It is his search to discover precisely where and how he fits into the March family, arguably the people among whom he was always meant to be. He is the tie that binds the sisters’ individual threads, appearing at Meg’s ball, ultimately proposing to Amy. His relationship with Jo is the most complicated and compelling. Gerwig’s interpretation cemented in my mind how right Jo is that the two of them could never be a married couple. But Jo is wrong about the reason. It isn’t because they would aggravate each other to no end; it’s because they are already closer than a traditional romance or even friendship could allow for. He is a part of her family and he is a part of her. They are almost each other’s twin, their bond intertwining them to a point of inseparability. The bonds of marriage pale in comparison.
I have seen other sources use the ‘twin’ image to paint Jo and Laurie as androgynous, genderqueer halves of one whole: her nickname conventionally masculine, his conventionally feminine, their love for each other bound up in their sense of self-identity. This lens, and the queer status it confers on them both, completely alters our view of Jo’s later romantic partner, Friedrich Bhaer. The original novel was published in two volumes over two years, allowing readers to develop predictions and attachments before the ending was revealed. Alcott famously matched up Jo and Fritz because 1) her publisher pressured her, against her wishes, to marry Jo off, and 2) she wanted to be a thorn in the side of the legions of Jo-and-Laurie stans. Jo and Fritz’s relationship does not figure nearly as prominently in Gerwig’s adaptation as I recall in other versions (including the 2005 Broadway musical, which I would also recommend to anyone); but we do see him attempt to give her his opinion on her stories, which she does not take kindly to and which she lets color her opinion of him. The fact that he shows up abruptly at the March homestead in Concord after the upheaval of Beth’s passing and Amy’s marriage seems like a literal translation of Alcott’s attempt to shoehorn Jo into a romance. This is reinforced by Jo’s own stubbornness in the face of the publisher Mr. Dashwood’s request that she marry off her heroine. Is it a matter of convenience? Does Jo’s commonality with Laurie mean she could literally be cast as a lesbian, with Fritz as her beard? Alcott herself never married, and the question will likely be batted around forever by fans and scholars. That said, I never saw the argument so clearly and legitimately as in this film.
The fact that I experienced the film alongside two friends, one Spanish and one Canadian, in a cinema near-packed with Germans (who I’m sure all supported Fritz), attests to the universality of this story. The characters are beloved, and the scrapes they get into and the challenges they face continue to resonate with audiences despite our ever-farther removal from their time. Gerwig’s adaptation allowed me to experience the sisters’ losses and victories, highs and lows, with renewed vigor. It reminded me how many reasons there are to love this tale, and gave me new reasons to love it too. And I might be biased, but if you didn’t want to be a writer before, just let it try to change your mind.
*One more great line, contender for Sickest Burn: “What a disappointment [Laurie] turned out to be. Must be the Italian in him.” – Aunt March (a faultless Meryl Streep)
Image: a shot from the film as used in Vogue