150 years after its publication, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women remains a rite of passage for young women and girls alike. The March sisters, particularly Jo, were ahead of their time and taught girls that it was okay to go after their own desires, whether they be domestic or daring. The charming adventures of the March sisters continue to spark joy and inspire those who partake in their adventures.
Alcott’s prized prose has inspired nine versions, ranging from silent films to TV specials. However, the two most notable adaptations have always been George Cukor’s 1933 film and Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version. What makes Little Women’s adaptations stand out from other books-to-films is that each film puts its own spin on the sisters. They’re all refreshingly different, while also staying true to the original character.
Greta Gerwig’s rendition brings the most modern take to these characters, using timely concerns, such as women’s inequality in ownership and property, as backdrops for the story. While some films venture into the melodramatic territory while discussing these topics, Gerwig makes these emotions utterly accessible. You’re not merely a fly on the wall examining these young girls live their lives; you are them, and Gerwig has no problem letting you into their world.
Saorise Ronan reunites with Gerwig as Jo March, a free-spirit who would instead be writing than practicing proper etiquette. She’s one of four sisters who’s left to take care of the household while her father (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Civil War. The eldest, Meg (Emma Watson), is reserved and has more traditional values in mind; Amy (Florence Pugh) is spoiled and precocious, focusing her talents on her art; Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is delicate and shy, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. Tethered together by their saintly mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), they’re encouraged to be their best selves—no matter what that may be.
They’re joined by Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothee Chalamet), the rich boy next door who considers himself a part of the March family and is lovesick for Jo. Chalamet has been on the rise to stardom for a couple of years now, and Little Women is another sad, white boy role that he can add to his resume. He embodies Laurie better than his predecessors (sorry Christian Bale fans), and his chemistry with Ronan is just as hot as it was in Lady Bird. That being said, he doesn’t add anything new to the character but better utilizes the material that he’s given.
As usual, Ronan is a tour de force, perfectly embodying this firecracker of a woman. Her sharp tongue and independence cause a lot of trouble, but you’re constantly cheering for her to succeed. She brings new complexity to Jo’s character. Ronan has no problem channeling Jo’s stubbornness, but she also brings a quiet sadness to the character. There’s a scene where Jo has a moment of weakness and regrets her actions, simply because she’s lonely. Giving Jo this emotional vulnerability humanizes the character and tells its female watchers that it’s okay to cry and feel like this.
However, it’s Pugh who’s able to hold her own against Ronan and dominate the show. Pugh has had an amazing year with Fighting With My Family and Midsommar, but it’s her role as Amy March that is having people turn their heads. Amy has been regarded as the unlikable sister in Little Women (and I’m certainly not one to argue that point), but Pugh gives a layered, nuanced performance making Amy more human rather than just a spoiled brat. She shares a scene with Laurie, where she talks about marriage being an economic benefit for women, and you can’t help but wish that this was the Amy March you grew up with.
Gerwig’s Little Women implements a non-linear timeline, beginning seven years into the future and alternating between that and the past. This type of maneuver can be risky, but editor Nick Houy knocks it out of the park with fluid transitions between the different timelines and creating a cohesive story out of what seems like bits and pieces of different scenes. It spares the audience the suspense of what happens next. We first see the outcomes and then gradually watch the plot unfold over time.
Alcott intended for Little Women to focus on the March sisters’ wants and desires, but readers couldn’t help latching onto the idea of Laurie and Jo being together. When Jo inevitably turns down Laurie’s marriage proposal, she was sent hate mail by frustrated fans. In (what I consider) the ultimate troll move, Alcott paired Jo up with the older, fatherly Fredrich Bhaer, a poor German professor.
Gerwig substitutes the gruff professor with a handsome, younger iteration (Louis Garrel) and cuts his story down significantly, reducing his screen time to mainly flashbacks. On paper, it feels like a disservice to Jo to deprive her of one of her significant storylines, but in actuality, it works perfectly. Instead of having Jo’s inspiration stemming from Frederich’s criticism, Gerwig uses Jo’s relationship with Beth as her primary motivation to start writing about her family.
With Lady Bird and Little Women under her belt, Gerwig has proven herself to be a distinct voice championing the experiences of complicated women. With her impressive and non-judgemental handling of these iconic characters, she sends a message to young girls saying that they have a right to express themselves in any way they please.