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Little Women: Is another film adaptation really necessary?

May Alcott, Fronstpiece Illustration from Part 2 of Little Women, (image: Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Little Women was first published 150 years ago. It was first translated to screen 103 years ago as a silent film. Since then it has been made into multiple feature films and countless BBC dramas. Through these adaptations the tale of the four sisters: Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg March have been passed down to multiple generations. So, what could possibly make Greta Gerwig’s new film special? Or, might we even wonder, necessary?

Well, if Jo March’s novel is ‘For Beth,’ Greta Gerwig’s film is for Amy. Oh, and for Timothee Chalamet (19th century poet shirts suit him very nicely.) In this rendition of the famous story the film begins with Jo as an adult. She is faced with the decision of staying true to her work or making cuts and changes to earn the money her family so desperately needs. The economics of creativity remain a prevalent theme in Hollywood today. Somewhat controversially Emma Watson (who plays Meg March in the film) used Taylor swift as a contemporary example of a female artist fighting to claim ownership over her work. The notion of female economics remains central to the rest of the film. Gerwig’s focus on the role of women in society is verbalised by Amy’s soliloquy. In a moment when her male counterpart Laurie chastises her for her unromantic notion of love as a transaction of marriage. “I think the poets would disagree.” Amy unleashes a powerful truth; she lists off the legal boundaries of 19th century American marriages. Women have no way of earning money of their own. If she any money it would belong to her husband the moment she married, as would her children and her own legal rights. “So, don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition.” Suddenly the poets seem rather insignificant and Amy’s dream of marrying well becomes just as powerful and striking as Jo’s ambition to become a writer. Gerwig refuses to judge any of the girls for their dreams, and she seems to ominously warn the viewer against doing so either.

Despite this sense of political awareness, the film is also characterised by an aura of warmth and nostalgia. Visually, this is reinforced by the golden hue that surrounds the images of the girls’ childhood. In contrast to the grey tone of their adult life, dressed in black as they mourn the loss of their youngest sister. The girls catapult in and out of other people’s worlds. They are at the centre of weddings, funerals, fires, dances and fights. Their energy is most effervescent when they visit the Laurence’s house for the first time, like a hurricane they swirl around the library where Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is reluctantly learning Latin. Respectively Meg falls in love, Amy has her hand bandaged, Jo pillages the library and their Mother invites Laurie around for tea.

The thing that combines these chaotic forces together is their mother, Marmee. Laura Dern embodies the image of maternal warmth. Notably, throughout the film she also truly appears as though she could be Saoirse Ronan’s mother. A strand of each of the girls’ hair colours runs through her own. In the same way her dresses are made up of the girls respective red, purples and greens. She brings the characters together. Inviting every sub-character into her home with little fuss and lots of love. One of the most touching moments of the film, almost directly uplifted from the book onto the screen, is when Marmee comforts Jo on the floor. Her daughter regrets an earlier outburst of anger and is taken aback when Marmee retorts ‘You remind me of myself.’ Confused she half asks, half realises ‘but you’re never angry.’ Only to be reassured ‘I’m angry nearly every day of my life.’ This quiet wisdom is demonstrated most strongly by Amy. Both sheltered yet painfully aware of the world she is on the brink of, Amy is one of the littlest of all the women, yet in Gerwig’s film she emerges one of the most grown up.

The fact that Jo gets married at the end is always a little disappointing in its predictability. In her own life Alcott remained unmarried and this is the key autobiographical divergence between her and her novel. Gerwig’s decision to stick to the book in this moment is a poignant reminder of the world Alcott was originally writing from within. It is a reflection of her unique take on the story that just for a moment we wonder if Jo won’t give in to society’s expectations. Yet, the fact that she does makes it all the more poignant. So, yes. Gerwig’s film is necessary, and maybe even special. She pays beautiful tribute to a novel that inspired many 'little women' to read and write themselves.

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