Did Little Women need another adaptation? There’s a 1994 film version with a star-packed cast that includes Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes; a 2017 BBC miniseries with Maya Hawke from playing Jo; and even a modern retelling of the story from a year ago. And that’s only in recent times.
Yet writer and director Greta Gerwig‘s new adaptation proves itself indispensable. Gerwig runs with the well-known narrative but makes changes that build an essential, timely and definitive version of the story.
Initially, I was disappointed Gerwig’s follow-up to the perfect Lady Bird would be yet another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 book. I was hoping Gerwig would write and direct something more personal and distinctive than a story told countless times over the decades. But I also knew I didn’t want to miss Gerwig’s take on one of my favorite books growing up. I Trust Greta, has been my mantra all these months.
To prepare for the newest Little Women, I reread Alcott’s novel. I loved reliving the book’s most tender passages, especially the descriptions of the relationship between the four sisters. I was horrified once again by Amy burning Jo’s writing. But Jo’s rejection of Laurie didn’t come as a shock this time. I understood why she didn’t want to marry him in a way I hadn’t fully grasped at a much younger age.
The book’s ending, though. It was incredibly unsatisfying. Jo marries the not-especially-interesting-in-any-way Professor Bhaer, who had the nerve to criticize her work. She ends up becoming a wife and a mother and gives up writing.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a wife and a mother is a valid choice, but not if you sacrifice your ambition and personality. The person Jo became isn’t the Jo I fell in love with. The ending is so frustratingly outdated it made me reconsider whether I would recommend this otherwise wonderful book to younger readers.
Fortunately, Gerwig’s version of Alcott’s work reconciled me with Little Women.
It’s a masterful adaptation that condenses the book without losing anything and makes the March family’s story resonate with 21st century values. Gerwig interweaves the first half of the book with the storyline from the second part when they’re adults, jumping back and forth in time for a clearer perspective on the characters and their later actions. This works especially well with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Amy (Florence Pugh).
The youngest of the March sisters is portrayed in a personable way the book doesn’t necessarily achieve. It’s not just — Amy’s vain and wants to marry for money. As she explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), she has no other option than to marry well because she comes from a family without means. And even if she were rich, she tells him, her money would all become her husband’s once she married him. It’s the reality of the time, one that consigned women to precarious positions.
Even women who married for love occasionally found themselves in a similar place. Gerwig includes a painful passage from the novel where Meg (Emma Watson) explains to her husband her expenses and the purchase of fabric for a new dress. It’s an eye-opening moment where we see the consequences of not being able to work to make one’s own money.
All the little women from this story have artistic talents. Meg would make a talented actress. Beth plays the piano. Amy paints. But Jo is the one to really pursue her professional calling as a writer. Alcott herself never married, which is why Jo’s ending in Little Women was so disappointing. And here is where Gerwig’s movie excels.
In Gerwig’s version of Little Women, there are two endings. In one of them, Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) shows up at the March home the moment Jo finds herself in a lonely place. Everyone realizes Jo fancies him. There’s even a kiss between the two of them in the middle of a crowded train station, on a rainy night, under an umbrella.
But that very classically romantic sequence is interwoven in the movie with another one, where Jo’s book is to be published thanks to her editor’s three very discerning daughters. The title of her book? Little Women, of course.
The editor tells Jo there are only two ways young women in a book end up: dead or married. Jo knows that to get her book published, she’ll have to marry her protagonist. But she’s not selling her heroine cheap — she negotiates her share of royalties and refuses to give up the copyright of her book.
Alcott wrote two sequels to her original novel, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. That contract negotiation in the movie is a wink and a reward for her readers. Gerwig takes a license changing the ending of the story, but she draws on Alcott’s life to do it.
Gerwig’s next film as a writer and possibly director is Barbie. Yes, that Barbie — a live-action film about the Mattel doll with Margot Robbie in the title role. Does a film about an arguably sexist toy sound promising?
I trust Greta.
Originally published Dec. 25, 5 a.m. PT.