Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of ‘Little Women’ adds modern twist
Of the beloved novels that have transferred to the screen, Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” holds a special place in Hollywood’s heart. Over the years, this tale of love, rivalry and caring in a New England family has been filmed seven times including three feature films (starring Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson and Winona Ryder) as well as a few television adaptations.
Now, director Greta Gerwig, an Oscar nominee for “Lady Bird” in 2017, offers a fresh interpretation of this classic story. Without letting the conventions of Alcott’s narrative dictate her approach, Gerwig makes several creative choices in her storytelling to try to make the piece feel more current with today. Whether or not she succeeds may be less a question of how she makes movies than a preference for how carefully a film should follow a book’s narrative. Gerwig chooses to rethink how to tell this story with somewhat mixed results.
Earlier screen adaptations of “Little Women” feature traditional story lines where events happen one after the other. Gerwig chooses to mix things up by playing the adventures of the March family as flashbacks within a new narrative of how one sister, Jo, tries to make a living as an author. This gives the director the freedom to let the stories of the girls growing up jump around in time, as Jo recalls certain events, freely connecting scenes from one period with moments from another. While telling the tale out of sequence may enable us to see a more mature Jo - and, perhaps, hear a more contemporary point of view - it conflicts with the episodic nature of Alcott’s book. Watching this story in disconnected segments actually dilutes the momentum as we pay close attention to hairstyles to precisely know when something happens.
Gerwig’s approach also changes the women. While linear narratives enable characters to naturally develop - and for us to get to know them - jumping around in time can confuse how we follow what’s happening. With this adaptation, because we first get to know the sisters when they are more mature, we become less captivated by their exuberance of youth. Meeting Jo, as a driven author, makes her less moving as a heroine than when her professional ambitions naturally emerge from her sense of childlike wonder.
But the “Little Women” tale is durable enough to withstand these changes. The film is enjoyable, beautiful to look at and listen to, and some performances ring true. Saoirse Ronan, despite the interpretive changes to Jo, effectively delivers each layer she develops in this complex character. While Emma Watson may be less effective as the elder sister Meg, Florence Pugh shines as the younger Amy. Laura Dern has lovely, quiet moments as the family matriarch, although Meryl Streep overplays her few scenes as Aunt March.
For a traditional interpretation of “Little Women,” the 1994 film, directed by Gillian Lynne, continues to sing. Ironically, Gerwig seemed an ideal choice for a new take on the story, given the realistic humanity of “Lady Bird.” By choosing to depart from how the story has been told, however, she undermines her choices to tell a new story.
Film Nutritional Value: "Little Women"
Content: Medium. This return visit to the Marsh family of Concord, Mass., dilutes the source material by letting its narrative jump around in time.
Entertainment: High. No matter how the film compares to earlier interpretations, it does delight, at moments, thanks to the beauty of its production and the spirit of Saorise Ronan and Florence Pugh.
Message: Medium. As meaningful as the original novel is, as translated by earlier films, the message in this remake gets a bit lost as the film may try too hard to make its content feel current.
Relevance: High. Any chance to share a family film is wonderful. And every generation finds something new to love in “Little Women.”
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. While the movie is a bit of a letdown, as many remakes can be, you’ll find lots to talk about as a family. And you may decide to reread the book!
“Little Women” runs 2 hours, 14 minutes, and is rated PG for “thematic elements and brief smoking.”