Little Women: How Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation pulls off the impossible

I was so excited about Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that my mate Juji and I went on opening night. Anticipation ran high, yet there was so much doubt: how could you top Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Susan Sarandon as Marmee or Christian Bale as Laurie? How could you top that original and wonderful adaptation? How can you bring something new, even if you manage not to just mess it up entirely?

The immediate and obvious pluses were the visual beauty of the cinematography, lighting and costumes and stars really was just as heavy-hitting as the originals, including Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, Laura Dern as Marmee, EMMA WATSON AS MEG (sorry can’t not yell that), and Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

The original movie stepped routinely through events spanning about seven years. It met the challenge of ageing the youngest, Amy, at first barely older than a sulky child, but who matures to a practical young woman of marriageable age, through the expedient of switching young Kirsten Dunst to an older actress who looked markedly different. Jarring, but seemed necessary and justified at the time, and both actresses played their parts well.

Gerwig made a different approach by casting four women who in reality range between 21-30, and keeping Florence Pugh (24) playing Amy throughout. This requires a different suspension of disbelief, especially since 30-year-old Watson is still very girlish, and visually they all appear around the same age – slightly jarring in itself as their differing levels of maturity are integral to the plot.

My doubts increased to alarm as Gerwig messed with the narrative structure, seesawing back and forth between past and future events in a way I initially felt was for no reason than just to be different.

Half an hour in, however, I saw what she was doing: how cleverly she was layering the narrative to pick out, mirror and magnify the parallel themes and points occurring in events separated by years.

The previously relatively minor roles of Aunt March and Amy receive a new depth and life, and realises the potential for the previously relatively minor plot line of their relationship and interactions to illuminate a feminist narrative.

And the portrayal of Jo, a wilful muse caught between longing for family, certainty, belonging and companionship, and desire for economic, intellectual and emotional independence, further strengthens this feminist aspect in its examination of whether a woman who prizes freedom above all else can still yearn to love and be loved.

This story has always had complex feminist themes. Ostensibly a domestic tale of females fending for themselves set in Civil War-time America as Dad’s off fighting, it discusses the role of marriage as a necessarily economic consideration as opposed to an expression of love and free will; the lack of options for women to make their own livings; the pressures on the one who marries for love to then face the consequence of poverty; and the pressures on the one who must consider doing the opposite, marrying for money and sacrificing love in order to support her family.

Yet Gerwig has achieved the seemingly impossible – examined all this in a way that fully satisfies a modern audience, but is never overt, preachy or belaboured. Instead the film is fun. It’s as breathless and headlong and sparkling as an episode of Gilmore Girls. It is subtle, humorous, playful and cleverly rounded off in a truly satisfying ending. It’s sumptuous, full of the radiant beauty of the all-star cast, its landscapes drenched with the golden light of all the civil War-era paintings that inspired it.

Gerwig has told this story of family and femininity, of the intimacy of sisterhood, of nostalgia for the past and longing for love and purpose, in a way better than I dreamed possible.

I basically wept like a busted tap on and off for the final hour. Go and see it at the cinema. It’ll be wasted on the small screen.


Further recommended reading on the artworks that inspired this treatment: How Greta Gerwig Built Her ‘Little Women’ in the New York Times