Updated: Feb 18, 2020
By Lillian Ward ('20)
Greta Gerwig, the director of Lady Bird, recreates the classic Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott, through a feminist lens.
Using paintings in the Metropolitan Art Museum for inspiration to bring the setting to life, Gerwig creates a vibrant and visually stunning version of the 19th century. While the novel takes place during the Civil War, it instead focuses on portraying the daily struggles of the March sisters, whose father had joined the Union army.
The protagonist, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), is a free-spirited aspiring novelist. Ambitious and headstrong, her impulsiveness often gets her into trouble. At a New Year’s Eve party, Jo meets Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet), the grandson of the Marches’ wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence. Laurie matches Jo in his knack for getting into trouble and playing pranks. As Laurie and Jo’s friendship grows, he forms a close bond with the family. Throughout the film, the audience sees Jo juggle the tensions of her friendship with Laurie, her love for her family, and her drive for independence.
Jo wants to find her path and seems immune to the societal expectations placed on women. “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” she declares to her sister Meg (Emma Watson).
Meg is the eldest sister who has more conventional aspirations, like marriage and a family, than her sisters. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is quiet, shy, and a talented pianist, but she often suffers from long bouts of illness.
Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest sister, is second to Jo in terms of her drive and ambition. She aspires to become a famous artist and study in Europe.
One of the most interesting aspects of how Gerwig adapts the story is how she portrays Amy, who is often perceived as an unlikeable character in the novel. The readers dislike her for burning Jo’s manuscript in retaliation after Jo refuses to take her to a play.
In the movie adaptation, while Amy does burn the manuscript, she is more complex as a character than was portrayed in Alcott’s novel therefore, making it harder to outright hate her. Although she says that she will marry rich, she later breaks down in front of Laurie about how marriage for women is always an “economic prospect” as women were defined by marriage during this era.
Gerwig doesn’t shy away from portraying the struggles of what it means to be a woman during this time.
One of the most notable scenes, which mirrors an actual scene from the novel, features the sisters’ mother, affectionately known as Marmee (Laura Dern), telling Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life.”
The decision to mention Marmee’s anger validates her character as genuine and not simply an angelic maternal figure who is content with her role in society. She found herself in a world where women's lives were subjected to the whims of men that led to her anger towards marriage.
Gerwig suggests that while Marmee is a maternal figure, she is human first.
The climax of the film is the result of the building tension between Jo and Amy. The resolution between them is complicated, bittersweet, and genuine.
Despite this, the ending of the film leaves viewers a little confused as to the relationship between the two sisters.
The last scene shows Jo’s glowing face as she watches her ambitions come to fruition. Her novel is finally printed but leaves the viewers wondering if the scene is simply part of the fiction Jo crafted. Either way, married or not, viewers know Jo gets her happy ending.
However, the film has recently received some backlash as to the lack of diversity in the film. Little Women historically has often been endorsed as a novel that represents the experience of growing up as a girl in America. But to say that every girl growing up in America sees herself represented in the portrayal of the lives of four white women living in civil war Massachusetts is a stretch.
The novel, like many other novels written in the 19th century, simply doesn’t contain much diversity. Still, it is hard to disregard the overarching theme in the film; the female experience as told exclusively through the female perspective. In Little Women, it is the women who decide what they want from life and who they will be, which is precisely the philosophy championed by the modern young female.
While disappointing, it is unsurprising the electing directors of the Golden Globes don’t exactly seem to be moved by the tale of female empowerment, especially since historically the nominees for best director have been all-male (Gerwig is one of 5 women to be nominated in 92 years of the Oscars). This year, Gerwig was snubbed by the Golden Globes. Still, the film receives recognition through Saorise Ronan’s nomination for best actress and best music for French composer Alexandre Desplat. “Little Women” asserts that the story still, and will perhaps continue to be a source of strength and inspiration for the next generation of Jos, Amys, Megs or Beths.