Little Women - an American classic, and how Gerwig retold it so well

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

A year after it’s initial release, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell reflects on what it is about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women that stands out above all others.

A year exactly since I first saw it, I watched it again on St. Stephen’s Day. 

There is something about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I only have to think about it to feel emotion welling up inside me. Joy, heartache, loneliness, laughter, hardship and gut-wrenching loss. They swirl about, confused, inside me, in the same way that life happens. I know the story so well. I have read the book countless times, a page or two are beginning to escape its stitched seams. I saw the stage adaptation at the Gate Theatre. Just like the March family, I am one of four girls, and the 1994 movie adaptation was a staple in my house - we were our own Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. But it wasn’t until I watched Gerwig’s film that I understood the story of the Little Women.

First published in 1868 and written by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women is a series of books written by a young woman about the everyday lives of young women. Devoid of sensationalism and almost absent of obvious plot, it was so rare to find a text that spoke about the ordinary, normal experiences of growing up as a girl. The story often reflects Alcott's own life, who too had three sisters. Relationships amongst sisters are an extreme version of love. Bitter rows are like nothing else, the most hurtful, deepest felt, but are balanced by the joy of shared euphoria. It felt true, and I think that is what drew me back time and time again. 

In 1994, Little Women directed by Gillian Armstrong was released. Much like Gerwig’s 2019 release which was brought to life by some of Hollywood’s most sought-after names, including Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep, Armstrong’s Little Women (1994) featured a star-studded cast. Susan Sarandon held court as Marmee, with Winona Rider, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst and Gabriel Byrne all among the cast. It told the familiar story of the four sisters and their mother, getting on with daily life and growing up, while their father fought in the American Civil War. With their best friend and neighbour Theodore Laurence (Laurie), his grandfather and the girls’ Aunt March, the movie was both lovely and sad, a dutiful depiction.

The draw to Little Women is nothing new. It has been adapted for the stage and screen copious numbers of times, with musicals, plays, mini-series and six film versions. The numerous directors who have undertaken this book all mourned the loss, bemoaned the experience of sisterhood and understood the story. But Gerwig understood Alcott. 

Gerwig’s film opened in Irish cinemas on Christmas day 2019, and I went with my three sisters to see it in an almost empty theatre the day after. I came out of the cinema, one hundred and thirty-five minutes later, reeling. It was the same story I had consumed so many times, the same Jo, the same Laurie, but it was so different. Every other rendition had been clouded by rose-tinted glasses only for Gerwig to remove them. A certainty for so much of my life had been turned on its head, it was like gasping for air. By restructuring the plot, and through beautiful use of colour, Gerwig told the very same story from a heart-wrenchingly different perspective.

The wonder of this change in perspective is that the film was written using almost exclusively Alcott’s own words. To know the story, the characters so intimately, Gerwig’s Little Women could only have been a project of love. There is a duality to Gerwig’s film that exposes the depth of the original novel which was overlooked, both in my readings and by other directors. Simultaneously, Little Women (2019) tells the very same sweet family-friendly story while also representing the struggle, pain and trials of these 19th-century women. One of the moments which stays with you is Jo’s deep loneliness; “Women. They have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition. And they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely”. 

Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist, and her despondency at the lack of justice in the world was clear in all her characters. One of Gerwig's best additions to the original text was a captivating monologue delivered by Florence Pugh as Amy;  

“I’m just a woman. And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.” 

Amy was never depicted as the most favourable character in previous renditions. Her openness about ‘marrying well’ and her ambition previously has seen her cast as spoilt and unfeeling. But in this one powerful speech, Gerwig gives life to her character. She gives her space to explain the burden of financial hardship on this family of women she has lived, the true sacrifice Meg gave to marry for love, and in turn, the need for her to marry well in order to protect her poor parents and sisters. “The world is hard on ambitious girls”.

Flicking between present and past, unlike all other adaptations, and the book itself, the movie does not progress chronologically. When I first watched the film, this began as a surprise. The change in colour, almost temperature, of the different times stood out - the warm sepia tones and beautiful colours of ‘before’ jarred with the cool-toned ‘now’. As the movie progressed the change in tone allowed you to switch between past and present easily. However, in a heart-wrenching scene of grief, I became confused. The clarity between the two colours was skewed. As she stood still in the breeze, the tone around Jo changed from the cool blue, to warm sun. It wasn’t until the film ended - a happy ending in the warm tones and sunshine - that the reason for the change in colour became clear. The final scene sees Jo, the earnest writer, publish her first novel ‘Little Women’. As the publisher told Jo about her novels; “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. Either way”. The golden light was the novel - the joy, happiness, love, happy ending. The cold, hard shots were the truth, the real life of the March sisters. It changed the story of Little Women from a book to a lovely, but tough story of Alcott herself.

It is rare that a film ever truly does justice to its literary sister. Gerwig’s bold directorial moves were not art for art’s sake. They told Alcott’s story honestly and ardently. No other great book in my mind has been made better by a film adaptation - except for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.