Many women have been both excited and nervous for Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The novel, first published in 1868 and 1869, has had many TV and movie adaptations, each with their own flair and interpretation of Alcott’s work. Fans anticipated that Gerwig’s film, released on Christmas Day, would offer a stronger feminist theme, with the trailer focusing on the tension between women’s passions and talents being applied to work in the world and the period’s expectation that the role of women in society was primarily in marriage.
Remarkably, Gerwig did justice to Alcott’s original story without dishonoring the time period, while somehow giving the story fresh, vibrant energy and contemporary charm. The film perfectly captured the timeless combination of sweet, comical, devastating, and romantic moments from the novel, while somehow still feeling entirely new. As John Matteson put it in his review of the film for The Atlantic, “Gerwig’s film is the first of this novel’s many Hollywood adaptations to be a work of art in its own right.” (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
A different structural approach gives new depth
Especially since the movie opened on Christmas Day, I expected Little Women to begin with the classic Christmas scene at the March home that opens up the book. But it begins in quite a different way, with the “heroine” of the story, Jo March (played by Saoirse Ronan), attempting to sell her writing to a publisher in New York and sending money home to her family, who is caring for a sickly Beth (played by Eliza Scanlen). After showing Amy (played by Florence Pugh) living the life of a budding artist in Paris with her cross old Aunt March (played by Meryl Streep) and Meg (played by Emma Watson) living the life of a struggling wife buying fabric for a new dress, the movie jumps back seven years to a chaotic scene: the sisters are doing each other’s hair before a ball, and Jo scorches a large chunk of Meg's hair off. It’s a scene that is beloved and familiar to lovers of Little Women.
Instead of continuing the sisters’ story from that point chronologically, however, the movie follows a nonlinear structure, jumping back and forth between scenes from the sisters’ childhood and adulthood.
These swings in time were a tad jarring and disorienting at first, but especially for someone already familiar with the story, this structure ends up doing the book justice by uniting critical scenes in childhood and adulthood. As A.O. Scott suggests in his review for the New York Times, “Reshuffling the plot is a way of making ‘Little Women’ more cinematic without resorting to tricks or gimmicks . . . We observe the March sisters becoming who we have always known them to be, and also figuring out, for themselves, who they are.”
In this rendition, readers experience greater depth from the same characters we’ve come to know and love. “Greta’s filmmaking is very much about little moments to find the character,” Saoirse Ronan told The Atlantic. And those little moments added to together can help even long time fans encounter new depth in the plot. For example, “[m]ost screen adaptations focus so heavily on Jo that the fact that Laurie winds up choosing another March sister tends to come off as impulsive,” Shirley Li observes at The Atlantic. “Gerwig’s film develops Amy and Laurie’s love story gradually, hinting at Amy’s crush in their childhood days and building up to their conversation about their goals.”
In some ways, this might make Amy’s decision to accept Laurie’s hand even more jarring, as he only asked after Jo declined his proposal. But Gerwig’s telling of Jo’s decline of Laurie’s hand, and subsequent scenes portraying Jo’s turmoil about her decision, suggest that her rejection was less about their relationship and more about how she feels about marriage and her period’s demands for women generally.
A surprisingly modern ending as tribute to Louisa May Alcott
Gerwig concludes this tension Jo feels about marriage in a way that is wholly modern and yet surprisingly accurate to Alcott’s intentions for the story. It seems that it is not so much marriage that Jo is resisting, as the complex realities marriage presents to her.
On Meg’s wedding day, Jo startles her sister with a hasty suggestion, “We can leave right now.” Meg reminds her younger sister that “just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” To which Jo laments a deeper concern she is carrying, sighing while saying,“I can’t believe childhood is over.”
It’s in a scene following Meg’s wedding that Laurie proposes to Jo. He fights her resistance, insisting that he’s given up all the childish debauchery she disdained in him. But Jo’s admission that she’s tried to love him in a romantic way and she doesn’t is as heartbreaking as it is relatable. For a modern woman, Laurie represents that guy that has all the markers of a potential match—wit, affection for her nontraditional ways, wealth, and good looks. But it just wasn’t clicking for Jo like it was for Laurie, or perhaps the timing was just off.
When Jo later talks with her mother about her rejection of Laurie, she reveals the depth of the conflict she’s feeling. Her speech to Marmee (played by Laura Dern), which Gerwig took mostly from another book of Alcott’s, is given with so much emotion that it’s as if Jo is realizing her internal conflict for the first time herself. She says:
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 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.
She cries to Marmee in a moving scene: her mother’s simple acceptance of her daughter’s struggle leaves her a bit less alone in her turmoil.
As readers of the story know, Jo ends up finding romantic love with the older, more intellectual Professor Bhaer (played by Louis Garrel). And while both the book and movie end with Jo accepting the professor’s proposal in a romantic, rainy scene (don’t all great romantic scenes take place in the rain?), the movie takes some creative liberty here as well.
Right before Jo’s engagement to Bhaer, the movie shows her trying to sell her latest novel about her own little family (titled Little Women, of course) to her publisher. The publisher likes it, but is unsatisfied that the book’s heroine, Jo, ends up unmarried, and he tells Jo that no one will buy her book if she ends up a spinster. In an empowering negotiation, Jo agrees to make her heroine marry Professor Bhaer (and marry him she does in real life!) as long as she gets full ownership of the book’s copyright and a more generous percentage of the royalties.
As discussed by the entertainment site A.V. Club, “[I]n many ways, Gerwig is trying to deliver two finales at once, both the novel’s conventional happy ending and a different take on what happy endings can look like. “The hat trick I wanted to pull off was, what if you felt when she gets her book the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed?” Gerwig explains. ‘So it’s not girl gets boy, it’s girl gets book.’”
This ending is a tribute to Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women semi-autobiographically, with Jo representing herself. Unlike her heroine, Alcott did remain a “literary spinster,” and only wrote a second edition of the book where Jo married Bhaer after pressure from her publisher. Alcott did not wish to end the novel with Jo married, and Gerwig sought to honor Alcott’s original intention in the movie by showing the reluctance and internal conflict on Jo’s part about caving to her publisher’s demands, as well as her own mixed feelings about marriage. As Gerwig shared with Film Comment magazine, “I just knew I could not do the ending just as the book [did]—especially because Louisa didn’t really want to end it that way, and she really did think Jo’s true fate should’ve been as ‘a literary spinster.’” As she told the AP, “If I can’t do an ending she would have liked 150 years later, then we’ve made no progress.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Alcott’s Little Women story has been so enduring through generations—because of the relatability of the characters, even while society has dramatically changed since their time. The progress that’s been made for women has guaranteed there are options in society for the sensible Megs, who are content in marriage, mothering, and home life that mirror societal norms of the time; the fiercely independent and determined Jos, who are often longing for more that simply what society is asking of them; the sweet and gentle Beths, who ground us in the meaning of the important things like charity, family, and kindness; and the dramatic and misunderstood Amys, whose honesty keeps us humble and sincere in our intentions, lives, and relationships.
Gerwig’s adaptation of Alcott’s work reminds us that we can have love and marriage, we can have professional impact, and we can have both at the same time, if we desire. But what’s most important is that we have unwavering commitment to honor ourselves and honor the women around us, for being true to who we are created to be.