There is no denying the legacy of Louisa May Alcott’s famed novel “Little Women”. Published in 1868, the story of four sisters growing up and evolving from young girls to womanhood has become almost required reading for generations of youths and has been adapted six other times for the big screen. The seventh time it sports quite the cast and a capable female filmmaker to help adapt it for a modern audience. The 2019 version of “Little Women” sees “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig as both director and writer while Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen each play one of the March sisters who are each defined by different artistic interests: writing, acting, painting and music respectfully. In a time where female empowerment has become a major theme it only seems natural that a story like “Little Women” earns an updated adaptation, but with such a long line of predecessors and a powerful legacy to uphold does this new rendition earn its own existence? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Little Women”.
So I had a lot of expectations for “Little Women” seeing is it was led by Greta Gerwig and star Saoirse Ronana who together made “Lady Bird” my top movie of 2017 but I’ll admit that I wasn’t as familiar with the source material or past adaptations. I had read “Little Women” in my youth for school but didn’t remember most of it and had honestly never watched any of the movies so this 2019 retelling was a unique experience for me compared to many others as this was not only a reintroduction of the material to me but also my very first time seeing it brought to the screen. With that in mind I absolutely loved it. “Little Women” sports an amazing cast including the likes of Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen who imbue their characters with their own individual personalities, quirks and charm giving each of them depth beyond simply their separate artistic interests. Every one of the girls gets a chance to shine and learn and grow as the movie progresses, sometimes together and other times through their own experiences. The chemistry of these four talented ladies really sells their bond. But it’s not just the four main women who shine. The likes of the always great Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern and others add delightful secondary characters to the fold who all play important roles in either supporting or challenging the four main women on their journeys.
“Little Women” is not only well acted but also well written, scripted and paced. Gerwig not only controlled the screenplay but the presentation as well and was clearly inspired in both roles by presenting us with an immersive world that sends us right back to the 1800s when life and the expectations of women were very different. The set pieces and shooting locations are stunning and the costume designs felt period accurate with a splash of creativity incorporated into even the smallest details. But what’s most impressive is the pacing and structure. At first, I found “Little Women” to be a bit jumbled as it often shifts from flashbacks to the film’s present day to show how these sisters grew up together and got to where they are. This was a bit confusing at first but eventually I caught on to what the movie was doing, using the past and present to contrast each other for effect. As the movie progressed, I found this to be a fun way to show us the story in a nonlinear fashion similar to how a book would shift from one era to another between chapters. The fact that Ronan’s Josephine is telling the story in semi-narration as she is actually writing the “Little Women” book as the story moves forward was also a nice touch. As director, Gerwig knew when to keep things lighthearted and fast moving and when to slow down and let a moment linger. It proved to be a great approach that allows viewers to relate better to the struggles these women face and makes their individual roadblocks that much more engaging. When we see a moment that’s exciting and bombastic contrast with a moment in the present that’s more somber we can understand why this is such a struggle to them without having to go back an hour into the movie to relive that moment. Normally this would feel like a gimmicky tool to cut corners with storytelling but here is feels natural, effective and appropriate to the kind of narrative being told especially seeing as it focuses on the personal growth and evolution of four different women.
Of course there’s also the feminist aspects in this film and a lot of people will probably find it pretty heavy handed and pandering especially for the culture of society today. For me though I didn’t mind it. Every one of these women struggles with their place in the world and the sacrifices they have to make for their own happiness. Ronan’s Josephine is a rebel, Emma Watson’s Meg wants nice things despite being in a marriage with a poor man, Florence Pugh’s Amy wants to escape her sisters’ shadows and Eliza Scanlen’s Beth, the most innocent of them all, is too submissive and afraid of the great big world. While Beth’s story is a little bit different and serves more as a way to keep the other three sisters together, Josephine, Meg and Amy are each given moments where they highlight different struggles of making it in a man’s world. Josephine doesn’t want to marry and become submissive to a man, but as a consequence she’s lonely. Meg wants nice things to impress the people she hangs out with but truly loves the husband she married. Amy feels she needs to marry into money because she can’t make money as a woman leading to one of the best moments of the film where she confides in Timothée Chalamet’s character about the imbalance of power between men and women in the workplace and household. These lessons are not only extremely timely for today’s world but they’re presented in such a way that they feel like natural parts of the narrative significant to each character arc rather than force-fed plot points to add some social subtext to the story. It’s tasteful, it’s effective, it’s as subtle as it can be without sugarcoating things and it is uncomfortable considering the truths it decides to reveal. That’s how this story is supposed to feel and if that’s too much for you well then this is not the picture for you.
If there is a problem with this adaptation it’s that sometimes it betrays itself and gives in to the clichés it is often trying to uproot. But even its cliches feel fun and well crafted. No matter what holes I tried to exploit to criticize this film I kept seeing more and more of what Gerwig was trying to do. For example, one of the most glaring potential contradictions is that the movie, and even the trailer, says that women have minds, souls and hearts of their own beyond romance and yet almost every character requires love to be happy by the film’s end leading to a typical romantic drama cliche finale that the movie itself even acknowledges is pretty basic. At first I found this to be a flaw in the movie, an inability to stick the landing even if it follows suit with the novel. However, thinking it over I realized the point isn’t that women should be able to survive without love. Quite the opposite in fact. The movie even states pretty clearly this is not the truth. The use of cliched romantic scenarios in the ending actually drives home the idea that falling in love doesn’t hold women back. Society’s belief that this is all a woman is good for is what holds them back. If anything this cliche is used in a very different manner than we’re used to as a way to acknowledge that trying too hard to be an individual especially at the cost of your own emotional happiness can be a long and lonely road. It’s okay to go against the grain but to deliberately avoid something to spite society can actually cause more harm than good. Kind of sounds like a pretty relevant message for today’s world don;t you think”? So even at it’s most cliche “Little Women” is telling us something important and doing it well.
In the end I truly enjoyed this movie. Having never seen a cinematic adaptation of “Little Women” before this film actually makes me want to experience the other six films to see what I’ve been missing and to compare them to see how this idea of sisters growing together and finding their way has transformed over the years. The 2019 version is definitely a keeper and a timely retelling of a timeless story. In the capable hands of Greta Gerwig with very committed performers on board “Little Women” packs heart, charm, drama and even at its most cliche some real significance in the story it tries to tell. Whether it’s the typical coming of age elements, the female empowerment themes, or even its examination of female roles in a bygone era of American history there’s so much that “Little Women” offers that it’s worth experiencing several times just to appreciate it on different levels. Like “A Star is Born” did last year, “Little Women” shows that telling the same story over and over again can have its merits and I’m thrilled that my first time seeing this particular story gave me something great to behold.