I belong to that group of people who used to say, as children: “I am Jo March”. So when I first stumbled upon a trailer that advertised an upcoming Little Women film featuring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and, most importantly, Meryl Streep, I felt compelled to see it. (I had only heard of Greta Gerwig’s name before, but didn’t know anything about her. She’s won a new fan now).
The movie left me with a few thoughts that I explored and collected here for your benefit. Here are the five reflections, in no particular order. Enjoy and leave me your opinion in the comments!
Reflection No. 1: Timelines intertwine and it’s refreshing
I’ve never cared very much about movie adaptations of Little Women. The book had been a huge staple in my primary school reads, but by the time I was a teenager and developed into a fangirl, I was on to newer reads and art forms (read: manga), and Alcott’s book, though always crucial to me, remained almost buried in childhood.
At some point I stumbled upon the 1994 version, aired on TV – presumably around Christmas time – and this is the only movie rendition I’ve ever seen, prior to Greta Gerwig’s.
I haven’t seen it in ages, but I like it and remember to be pretty faithful to the book. With honorable mention to the gentlemen Christian Bale (Laurie) and Gabriel Byrne (Professor Bhaer), this is the “comfort” period piece you go to in case of need; but nothing groundbreaking.
On the other side, Gerwig takes liberties. First, she intertwines timelines between Part 1 and Part 2 of the novel: between the past, with our teenage heroines on the verge of adulthood, and the present, little women indeed growing up. The film begins with Jo going to a publisher and moves on from there, alternating between past and present and among sisters.
I must say I liked this. I think it adds to the narrative. After all, this classic is so widely known that, even if you’ve never actually read the book, you sort of know the characters and the story anyway (perhaps through a previous rendition). The audience has the basis covered, so we can well play around a little and rebuild the narrative. For me it worked: I enjoyed being retold the story this way and even cried multiple times during the film – an absolute first for my standards.
Reflection No. 2: “I can do whatever I want”
Not only she manipulated timelines, Gerwig really took quite a lot of liberties with this retelling: to the point of making up episodes (some spot on, some not as convincing) or casting handsome French young actors to play middle-aged not-a-single-handsome-feature German Professors, to opening up the ending to interpretation (in the light of which, the aforementioned handsome French guy could actually be a cheeky choice).
In other words, she mixes it up and moulds the March world her own way, to get her message across. Even though I might not especially like the details of how some of her choices turned out (there is a Meg episode I don’t approve), I am still extremely happy that Greta put them in. Overall, the fact that she chose to do so speaks to me of two things:
- After a hundred and fifty years from the first publication, not only is the story still relevant today; but it is so ripe with meaning that it can be manipulated and retold in a way so to extract even more juice. And, we’re finally mature enough to own and perform this operation.
- Greta’s attitude to making this movie is bold and insightful and I cannot but like this. (It helps that I find myself on the same page as her on most topics, judging from articles and interviews). Also, she said “Men have been putting glasses on hot women and saying they’re awkward, so I can do whatever I want”. Respect, sistah.
Reflection No. 3: Comparing the movie to the book is like looking for Prince Charming
As stated in the headline.
When I saw this movie Little Women I hadn’t (re)read the book for the past twenty-five years, and I hadn’t been following any major fandom for at least five years. My fangirl muscles were definitely rusty. This has probably been a blessing to me.
In the past, for any movie based on a book I loved, I would go to the cinema like going to war: armed with the sharpest focus to dissect the tiniest detail that would prove not compliant to my very own vision of the book. The scrutiny would make or break my good opinion of the movie.
It threatened to happen again at the outset of the film, but it gradually waned to let me appreciate the movie as it is, with and because of its aforementioned liberties.
And I realized that comparing movie to book is nonsense. Taking every detail you see on screen, matching it against what your imagination built from the book is like looking for Prince Charming in real life and expecting him to be endowed with all the exact same specifics you dream about in your imagination. Nonsense.
But this is liberating: I am freer to enjoy and appreciate others’ renditions of works of literature I love, without being upfront judgmental about them and especially without approaching them, a priori, with a “my vision vs your vision” mindset, that is by definition closed.
And besides, Jo and Laurie ain’t ending up together anyway.
Reflection No. 4: La Mamma is the ultimate boss
Of course, watching the movie made me want to re-read the book. What a glorious immersion in my first decade of existence it was! I had soaked in the book aged eight or nine, when being sixteen or seventeen felt as close to being an adult as I could imagine.
Once again, Jo’s spirit and freshness are the best thing I rediscovered in the book. She’s absolute fun in her remarks, way modern and unbridled and I adore her just so much because of the way she shines amidst chapters upon chapters of preachy morals.
However, re-reading at thirty-plus, the greatest novelty in my renewed appreciation of Little Women is my enriched view of Marmee.
I experienced a slight cognitive dissonance at the movie’s Laura Dern, because she freaking looks like a businesswoman I knew and looked up to professionally as an example of female leadership on the workplace. La Mamma doesn’t look like that!
But then I re-read the book and noticed yet again how amazingly collected and in charge Marmee always is.
There is a line of hers which struck me from the very first time, aged nine, and it is when they receive the telegram that Mr. March is very ill and should be assisted immediately. Marmee’s got to take the blow and then set up everything so she can depart to Washington as soon as possible, without leaving her children in trouble. She says:
“She’s [Hannah] right; there’s no time for tears now. Be calm, girls, and let me think.”Marmee to the girls, Chapter XV “A telegram”
This “let me think” captures my admiration every time: in the face of bad news, potentially tragic, she won’t let herself down in petty emotional drama but stays rational and grounded to organize her departure.
In business-speak, this is called Setting Priorities, Dealing with Constraints and Managing a Team to Deliver the Result (bonus points for Achieving This In a Critical Situation). Big Management Ideas Spelled Out In Fancy Names Like It’s Anything New. But, really, every mamma in the world does this every single day and they don’t make such a fuss over it.
Perhaps, the question is that they should.
Reflection No. 5: Every piece of self-help advice you need is here
The book is unbelievably preachy. As a child, those paragraphs seemed to me honorable and profound, but now they just sound boring. However, if you look past the self-righteousness, you notice that the novel is packed full of self-help advice. A few examples:
When you feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful.”(Marmee to the girls, Chapter IV “Burdens”)
“It would be well if you went apart each day, to meditate and pray”.(Aunt March’s maid Esther, to Amy, Chapter XIX “Amy’s Will”)
“My dear, don’t let the sun go down upon your anger; forgive each other, help each other, and begin again tomorrow.”(Marmee to Jo, Chapter VIII “Jo meets Apollyon”)
Engage Close People to Help You
“I asked him [Mr. March] to help me so, and he never forgot it, but saved me from many a sharp word by that little gesture and look.”(Marmee to Jo, Chapter VIII “Jo meets Apollyon”)
I am sure if I re-read again the book more attentively, I’d be able to find more. It’s fun to see how differently such pieces of advice and common sense are communicated and transmitted through time. Next time I turn to self-help, I’ll think again and may as well go back to Little Women instead.
Bonus Reflection: The movie tagline is “Own your story”
Deserves a special mention because it is so kickass, resonates an awful lot with me and couldn’t come at a better time in my life.
Over to you
Did you see the newest movie? What do you think? If you read the novel as a child, what is the one thing you most remember or enjoyed? How do the book and / or the movies speak to you?
Sources and Resources
I’ve googled a lot while writing this piece and found out quite a number of documents and content to fuel and support my thoughts. They were created by far more competent people than me and I recommend you have a look. Enjoy and don’t hesitate to suggest more!
- Greta Gerwig on Little Women: Reel Pieces with Annette Insdorf (video)
- Sarah Blackwood, “Little Women and the Marmee problem”, The New Yorker, December 24, 2019
- Greta Gerwig, Little Women (screenplay)
- Matt Donnelly, “Saoirse Ronan Knows ‘Little Women’ Is the Performance of Her Career”, Variety
Googling also provided me with more inspiration that I would like to explore in the future. Do you know about these works and what do you think? Feel free to suggest others if you so please!
- Eve LaPlante, Marmee & Louisa
- Rudin, Shai (2019), “The Hidden Feminist Agenda and Corresponding Edification in the Novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott“. Childhood, Vol. 3. pp. 115–132
- George Cukor’s 1933 Little Women (with Katharine Hepburn as Jo)