‘Little Women’ – the best movie adaptation of the novel to date
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As a woman, bibliophile and – you guessed it! – feminist, I’m supposed to love Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel, “Little Women,” about four sisters and their mom, living in Massachusetts during the Civil War.
Well, I don’t. I don’t hate it, but the adventures of Lassie or the Black Stallion always appealed more.
Still, I’ve seen every movie version of “Little Women” ever made, from Katharine Hepburn’s galumphing (but beautiful) Jo March in the 1933 version to the horrendous 1949 incarnation with a squeaky-voiced June Allison to a cringingly respectable mid-90s version starring Winona Ryder as Jo (Alcott’s surrogate) and Christian Bale as Laurie, the boy next door she adores but doesn’t marry.
So, nothing prepared me for Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” an altogether splendid and imaginative rendering of something that had always seemed too familiar and, well, cozy.
Gerwig, who made her directorial mark with last year’s marvelous “Ladybird,” doesn’t assume we know the book and if we don’t, she doesn’t care. She jumps around in time, starting when the March girls are adults. The seemingly frivolous Amy (Florence Pugh) is abroad, studying art in Paris, all expenses paid, as a companion to the sisters’ crotchety Aunt March (Meryl Streep, having as much fun as anyone).
The oldest – steady, lovely Meg (Emma Watson) – is married to a poor tutor (James Norton) and they have a family. Shy, big-hearted Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is, well, out of the picture.
And Jo (Saoirse Ronan), our protagonist, the headstrong, tomboy-ish would-be author, is in New York, trying to sell her writing to a recalcitrant editor (Tracy Letts) who firmly believes that stories about females should end with the heroine either married or dead.
Then we skip back in time and catch up with the March’s and their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), several years earlier. Their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away, fighting for the Union, and times are hard. But they are even harder for others and Marmee teaches by example; a Christmas morning feast is dutifully carted over the river and through the snow to a less fortunate family.
Their act of kindness is observed by their wealthy next-door neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) who plays Santa himself, replacing their given-away goodies with gifts of his own. He will figure repeatedly in their lives – not just as a benevolent figure who invites the timid, music-loving Beth into his home to use his piano, but also as the means by which Laurie (Timothee Chalomet) comes into their life.
Laurie is Mr. Laurence’s grandson and he can be a wastrel, a borderline scoundrel and just plain spoiled. But the March girls – especially Jo – bring out the best in him and he becomes part of their pack. He participates in their plays (written by Jo, starring Meg) and generally becomes part of the family.
But the bond between him and Jo is especially strong – like playful puppies from the same litter. And that provides the movie’s romantic spine – even though we’re told within the first 10 minutes that Jo has turned down his proposal of marriage.
Gerwig sees things in this material that I’m not sure even Alcott herself saw – things about relationships, wealth vs. poverty, selfishness vs. generosity and, fundamentally, what future is available to a woman. Aunt March lays it out pretty harshly to Amy: Meg has married a poor man, Jo doesn’t wish to marry, Beth is, well, out of the picture, and the only one with any chance for a future is Amy, who must marry and marry well, so as to support to rest of her family.
It’s the economy, stupid.
However, “Little Women” is so much more than a thematically-wise movie. It’s beautifully shot, with sunny summer days at the beach (think Winslow Homer) and snowy winters that look like the best Christmas card you ever sent.
And the sound – the rustle of petticoats, the giggles, the arguments, the heartfelt sighs, the lovely score
Let’s face it: a movie based on “Little Women” has somehow always seemed, well, “precious.” This one is not. It’s as full-blooded and lively in its way as “The Irishman” or “Avengers: Endgame.” (And it’s better than both).
The ensemble cast is superb, with Ronan, Pugh, Chalomet and Dern as, perhaps, first among equals. Movies like ‘little Women” aren’t just great. They are a gift.