When I die, I want to come back as Greta Gerwig.
That’s how much I loved Little Women, the film that she wrote and directed, which was released on Christmas Day.
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel is the fourth Hollywood film based on the book that was published 150 years ago. Katherine Hepburn starred as Jo March in the earliest version in 1933, followed by June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy) in 1949, and Winona Ryder in 1994. Greta’s genius is to stay true to the original story but to present it in such a way that feels utterly fresh–a period piece that speaks to our lives today.
The film opens with Jo March living in a boarding house in New York City, tutoring children for a living while trying to get published as a writer. One editor agrees to publish a short story–after editing it to a fraction of its size. He’s a condescending fellow, yet, with only a raised eyebrow or two, he accepts her obvious ruse that she’s there representing the work of a friend. Later on he advises her, “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. Either way.”
It’s in New York that Jo meets her intellectual equal, a poor German professor who attempts some honest criticism of her writing, essentially saying you’re better than this. This being crime stories and sensational Gothic thrillers. Jo is angry and insulted. She’s writing what sells, and she’s doing it in part to help support her family back home. Soon she’s called back home to Concord, MA, because her sister Beth has fallen ill. As she travels back on the train, the film flashes back in time, and we meet a younger Jo, her three sisters, and their mother. (Mr. March is away in the Civil War serving as a chaplain.) It’s a loving but rambunctious household that’s short on money, but full of sisterly camaraderie, dreams, disagreements and jealousies.
Unlike the novel, the film is not structured chronologically and continues to go back and forth in time, juxtaposing the girls’ lives and individual personalities with the young women they become. The back and forth makes the audience pay closer attention to what’s happening, and the result is a thrilling revelation–reminder is perhaps the better word. As children, our minds are full of limitless possibilities, but despite the inevitable set-backs and heartbreaks soon to follow, it’s clear we can still triumph in adulthood–if only we can hold tight to the best of our childhood memories and dreams.
Little Women is a domestic drama, but I don’t see it as just a chick flick. Inevitably more women than men will see it because it’s about four sisters, not four brothers, but that’s too bad. All of us–men and women–are living out our own domestic dramas. A domestic drama reminds us of our shared humanity. We love; we despair. We’re rich or we’re poor, and sometimes the rich help the poor or the poor help the rich. Life seems unfair, but somehow we persevere or we right a wrong done to somebody else.
It’s Greta Gerwig who wrote the scene where Jo and Amy are talking about the novel Jo’s working on, based on their own lives. Jo says that nobody will care about the March family’s domestic struggles and joys, but Amy tells her, “No, writing them will make them important.” And that’s just what happens in the film, in front of our very eyes.
That scene wasn’t in Alcott’s novel, but part of Gerwig’s genius is to infuse the film with the spirit of Louisa May Alcott. Little Women is semi-autobiographical. Greta found entries in Alcott’s journals that she used in the film in various ways–as dialogue and even to tweak the way the story ends. Like all novelists who write books based on their lives, Alcott jumbled the facts. She helped financially support her family, but–unlike Jo–she never married. It was Louisa who volunteered in the Civil War (not her father). She worked as a nurse and contracted typhoid, from which she never fully recovered. She went on to write her novels, but she died at 55.
Little Women was originally two novels: Little Women and its sequel, published the following year. The first one was was an immediate best seller, but I was surprised to learn that men at the time (1868) were just as infatuated with the novel as women were, awaiting the sequel with the excitement of modern-day Game of Throne fans.
Theodore “Laurie” Laurence is one of the love interests in the film. He’s played by rising star (heck, he’s already a star) Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy; Call Me By Your Name; Lady Bird). Laurie’s a neighbor come to live with his rich grandfather, and he first spies on Jo and her family from an upstairs window. “He wants to be one of the March sisters,” Gerwig has said in interviews. “He wants to be part of the club and he wants to hang out with them and there’s nowhere he’d rather be than with those sisters. And that is also what male viewers can experience.”
Another way Gerwig puts her own stamp on this film is to make the main storyline about the central conflict of any artist. How does a writer or a painter make a decent living from her/his art? And how can she/he do so in a way that still allows for personal expression and fulfillment? Amy March wants to grow up to be a famous painter. She also knows she’s expected to marry rich given that her family is relatively poor. She does grow up to be a good painter, but after going to Paris with her rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) to study art, she realizes she’ll never be great. Still, Laurie urges her not to marry the dull but rich Fred Vaughn. “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is,” she retorts with passionate anger. Amy, as written by Gerwig and performed by Florence Pugh, is a force in the film. In the novel, she’s usually everyone’s least favorite character. She’s the selfish baby of the family and does something unforgivable to Jo, but in this film I love her. And so does everyone else from what I’ve heard and read.
This past summer Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (he wrote and directed Marriage Story), her partner in love and frequently-in-work, signed on to write the script for Barbie, which Margot Robbie will produce and star in later this year. The main character is based on the iconic toy, but naturally there’s a twist to the story. With Greta and her partner at the helm, it should be interesting.