Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

the four main characters of Little Women (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) in gif format
the titular women. Giphy.

I’ll start this with a confession: while I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women—I read it a lot, actually—it never spoke to me as much as Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. (I think that the urban element of Betsy-Tacy made it perfect for me, an urban child.) I’m a white woman who read Little Women, perforce, but am not Little Women‘s ideal audience: that would be someone who adored it. Nonetheless, I watched it with my mother, and—somewhat to my surprise—I did adore it.

Melisande with the words This Post is Dark and Full of Spoilers.
this is neither particularly dark nor particularly spoilery, but here’s your warning. Giphy.

This isn’t exactly a review, and it isn’t exactly a spoilerfest, contrary to the warning I’ve put above: I don’t think it’s possible to spoil something initially published in 1868 and ’69, and besides, I’ll talk less about plot and more about cinematography and artistic choices in this adaption. The adaption is exciting; it’s defiant, and cut with crystal, a sharp, striking piece of art and commentary built loyally around a text written more than 150 years ago, its sharp own political commentary unblunted by age.

Gerwig frames the past with the present, creating stories within stories, highlighting time and unreality with the warmth of her color schemes. The past is bathed in gold: the present, not so much. But the present, for all its pain and sorrow? Ah, the present is also a place of triumph, and Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan let us revel in Jo’s triumph to the very fullest as she claims her power, authorial and personal, for herself in those final scenes—even the very last sun-drenched ones, as she sweeps around Aunt March’s house, now hers, with Little Women in her hands.

I’m perhaps not the one to speak to purity of interpretation and of vision—I’ve already admitted that while I read Little Women a lot, it didn’t speak to me as did the Betsy-Tacy series, I being an urban creature—but I would argue that Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is representative of its source material, an adaption strong and true. Jo’s fury at the limitations of the life allotted to a woman of her era is there, blazing forth. Amy, relegated to the sidelines and to everyone’s loathing (she burns a manuscript!) is allowed for once to shine: I’m not going to pretend I always liked her, even in this adaption, but oh, she’s a rich and wonderful character, as full of life and defiance as Jo, just running with it in a slightly different direction.

Jo March saying I intend to make my own way in the world gif
and she does.

I tend to identify the least with beautiful Meg and saintly Beth: I might not always like Amy, but I surely do understand her. In Gerwig’s and Emma Watson’s hands, however, Meg becomes a figure of pathos: a young woman who marries for love and tumbles into a world even harder than the one her mother inhabited. I did some eye-rolling when she bought her yards and yards of silk—let’s face it, I don’t spend $50 on a dress now—but I could understand the shame and grief and frustration of always having to go without, while conforming to the worlds allowed a proper wife. And poor, saintly Beth? Between Gerwig and Eliza Scanlen, she’s allowed to feel, and even sometimes to be petty.

Amy and Jo are both revelations, to me, in Gerwig’s Little Women. They’re fierce and furious and brilliant, chafing at the confines of the worlds allowed them, throwing themselves up against the breakwaters of their world. Jo refuses to be bought and sold; she refuses to submit to Laurie, refuses to turn into the docile woman society demands. (I think, in the end, that Aunt March loves her for it: there’s a reason she leaves Jo her house, and it isn’t just out of spite.) Amy circumvents society, claiming it for her own while loathing its constraints. She admires Jo, and despises her, and Gerwig allows her moments of singular brilliance and power when she decries a woman’s lot, telling Laurie that she better get something in return for marriage, since she’s giving up her very self to do it. She’s hard-headed and clear-eyed, and Jo appears to have borrowed a little of her iron spine as she sits across from her publisher, bargaining for her own copyright, and a better deal on royalties.

Amy March and Aunt March in a carriage together
I actually like Aunt March a lot.

Not everyone was enamored of this adaption of Little Women, of course. A lot of folks wanted to know why this, why again, why now—and, though things can be adapted forever, in our world that focuses on whiteness, that’s a reasonable complaint. The shifting times weren’t universally popular, though I thought they were genius. The dudes weren’t universally liked, although I kind of feel like that’s the point. My mother didn’t like the first half, but she thought the second (where people started dying and sobbing!) was great. I thought all of it was amazing, but I cried during about 98% of that second half—Beth dies! Jo’s so lonely! Jo’s up against a horrid, sexist world! Amy’s up against an unfeeling, sexist world! Aunt March is horrible and she’s dying and I love her! (I actually really did love Aunt March. She reminds me of my grandmother—it’s true! my grandma wasn’t warm and fuzzy!—but also, I appreciated that, in her way, she tried to take care of those she loved.) But oh, what a powerhouse, and what powerful performances. (My mother and I were definitely not the only ones to discuss Jo’s queerness.)

The warm, gold-toned world of the past bleeds into the present in that final sequence, which feels rather like a dream sequence after watching Jo, sharp and fine, bowler-hat-wearing, armed with her own version of Amy’s cold righteousness, watch her book be printed. Is Jo really married to what’s his name, who’s so much darker and handsomer here? I have no idea! I don’t think it matters! I do think that Amy’s kicking Laurie’s ass, and that delights me no end! And this beautiful adaption of Little Women ends in sun-bathed defiance, as Jo faces the world with her book, and Amy dominates her small corner of the world, both of them ready to live as fully as they can, both of them pushing at the boundaries allotted to them by a society for which neither quite cares.

Little Women beach scene
in the gold-tinged days of yore.

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