It would be understandable if you groaned when it was announced over a year ago that we were getting a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” It is, after all, arguably one of the most read novels by a female writer in American literature and has a boatload of screen versions. Let’s count them. There are three acclaimed films from 1933, 1949 and 1994 starring Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, and Winona Ryder; a mediocre mini-series from 1978 with Susan Dey; and another mini-series from 2017 featuring Maya Hawke. That’s not even getting into the numerous stage and radio adaptations in the past century, by the way. So what else could another update of “Little Women” bring us in 2020? What spin can actress-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig put on the classic tale?
It feels redundant to write a synopsis of Alcott’s story, but here’s one for the few who are unfamiliar. In post-Civil War Massachusetts, the March sisters and their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), get by while the father of the home is a chaplain for the Union Army. The four sisters are Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a writer; Amy (Florence Pugh), an artist; Beth (Eliza Scanlen), a pianist; and Meg (Emma Watson), the oldest and most domestic of the group, who marries quickly into adulthood.
We see, over a decade-long period, the girls grow into women. They struggle with their relationships with each other, as well as the beaus in their lives, like next door neighbor ‘Laurie’ Lawrence (Timothee Chalamat), tutor John Brooke (James Norton), and college professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel).
A couple things crossed my mind once I was done viewing Gerwig’s “Women.” For one, it’s hard to believe Ronan was two years older during filming than Ryder was in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation. The talented young actress has fully graduated from child stardom to A-lister and hasn’t lost any of her zeal for the camera. The second thing is that Garrel, who is cast as Professor Bhaer, is the first to bring any appeal to the role, and it’s almost a shame Gerwig chose to just use him as a deus-ex-machina rather than an actual character.
Another thought is that the fresh elements to this “Little Women” are bound to be polarizing. Gerwig chose to direct the story in a non-linear style, which might be a little confusing to those who haven’t seen or read the previous versions.
The ending will also likely be divisive to fans, as the final scene is completely different than the one we’ve seen portrayed time and again, and it is also very meta.
It also takes a while to get into the modern-sounding dialogue delivery by the cast, especially when it comes to Pugh’s portrayal.
At the end of the day, though, it’s still “Little Women.” If you’ve loved these characters this long, you might appreciate Gerwig taking a more personal interpretation of Alcott’s story. If anything, we get one of the least awkward interpretations of the Amy and Laurie pairing (though Jo and Laurie is just as frustrating as ever).
It took a while for awards voters to warm up to the classic historical drama this Oscar season, but since the new year hit it looks to be gaining quite a lot of traction, which is good for Gerwig and her actors, and also amusing since Gerwig’s longterm boyfriend Noah Baumbach is another contender this season with his own “Marriage Story.” Whatever film wins will still be a worthy start to the start of a new decade in filmmaking.