‘Little Women’: Alcott’s novel adapted for the screen


Literary adaptations on screen have the potential to elicit a Marmite-like response: the audience either loves them or loathes them. As a loyal reader of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, my expectations were high for Greta Gerwig’s adaptation. Featuring a star-studded cast, including Saoirse Ronan (with whom Gerwig had collaborated with for Lady Bird), Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, breakout star Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet, the excitement in the packed movie theatre (including my own) was palpable. 

Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women strikes the ideal balance between respecting the sanctity of Alcott’s novel without compromising artistic licence. Instead of adhering to Alcott’s chronological order and opening with the first March family Christmas, the camera follows Jo as she runs to sell her stories for publication, shifting our focus towards Jo’s trajectory as a writer. Nevertheless, Gerwig does not subdue the nuances of the March family dynamic.

Literary adaptations on screen have the potential to elicit a Marmite-like response

Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux ingeniously shot the entire movie in 35mm film, and the iconic childhood moments are imbued with a golden glow of nostalgia. The playfulness and rivalry characteristic of the March family are still injected with the same vitality as the novel: the audience laughs when Meg’s curls burn, delight in the sisters’ spirited establishment of the Pickwick Club, and sigh as Jo and Amy navigate their rivalry through a series of iconic pranks. 

In this adaptation, Gerwig aimed ‘to explore authorship and the distance between how you fictionalize something and what actually happens’. She complicates our response through embellishing the romance plot between Jo and Professor Bhaer, making it more convincing. A stuffy old man in the novel, Bhaer (played by Louis Garrel) is instead young, attractive, and significantly more likeable, and he emerges as an equanimous counterpart to Jo.

Gerwig’s meta-literary commentary is established through flashbacks between Jo’s meeting with her publisher and the events that occur in the March family household, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. While Jo and Bhaer share monumental and intimate moments towards the end of the film, it is up to the viewer to decide whether this is part of Jo’s story, as Jo, like Louisa May Alcott, needed to pander to the marriage plot to secure publication.

Jo’s monologue to Marmee is a poignant and powerful addition by Gerwig

One cannot on the adaptation without admiration of Saoirse Ronan’s emotional range and Timothée Chalamet’s on-screen dynamism and excellent chemistry with Ronan: Jo’s monologue to Marmee is a poignant and powerful addition by Gerwig, a rendering the relationship between Jo and Laurie more bittersweet. In a manner evocative of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Gerwig incisively focuses on the relationship between financial agency and creative expression for women, rendering Alcott’s text even more prescient in the 21st century.

Gerwig’s significantly more sympathetic portrayal of Amy is invaluable to the relevance and quality of her adaptation, and her pivotal decision to cast Florence Pugh ensured her success. Many readers, including myself, who favour Jo among all the sisters may harbour a strong dislike for Amy’s character, especially her constant attempts to undermine Jo in the name of sisterly rivalry, and her marriage to Laurie, whom many readers view as most compatible with Jo. However, any preconceptions of Amy as an insufferable home-wrecker and selfish prig will be completely cast away by Pugh’s charismatic portrayal of Amy.

Gerwig’s emphasis on the need for financial security and the difficulty of securing financial independence is most strongly voiced by Amy. In the film, Amy comes to the realisation that her family’s financial security hinges upon her marriage, and begins to view it as a financial transaction. Pugh aptly describes Amy as a ‘most delicious naughty hungry little flirt’, and her transformation to a self-awareness and pragmatic young woman is my favourite aspect of Gerwig’s adaptation. 

Image: Flickr via Creative Commons

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