“Little Women”: What Is It Like Being a Woman in Old-Timey Arts?

Little Women!

You can have your Charlie’s Angels. I’m here for the March matriarchy.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was one of my favorite films of 2017 and left me looking forward to her future endeavors. She’s finally returned to theaters with her take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the 1868 novel that many of you were probably required to read in school, or perhaps cheerfully read on your own because someone trustworthy recommended it to you or it was shelved in a special library display alongside numerous other 19th-century books written by women that you’d already read. Either way, chances are your Little Women experience goes back farther than mine.

How far back are we talking? Full disclosure: prior to 2019 my Little Women experience consisted of a hazy memory from decades past in which I saw the scene where one of the girls-who-would-be-women gets a drastic haircut for altruistic reasons. I have no idea if I ran across one of the first four cinematic adaptations on TV when I was a kid, or if some sitcom paid it homage. All I know is I already knew of that plot point. I deemed that insufficient data and decided to do some homework before heading out to the theater: I rented Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version on YouTube. I enjoyed that in and of itself (so many familiar faces!), and appreciated that it conveyed the novel’s basics so I’d have an idea of what was supposed to happen in case Gerwig sold out and bowdlerized the whole thing into a ripoff of Hustlers.

Thankfully this did not happen. Little Women is among the hundreds of “classic” novels I failed to read in my youth, but if it intrigued the director of Lady Bird, then it was bound to intrigue me. I was a little annoyed in advance that one site recently chose to run a dubious thinkpiece about how men were supposedly avoiding the film in droves, based entirely on one (1) tweet from one (1) critic who cited her scientific research drawn from chats with three (3) whole males. It’s been 28 years since my last statistics class, but I still recognize an extraordinarily poor sampling pool when I see one.

Regardless: I, a male, willingly saw Little Women in defiance of the three dudes who purported to represent the grossly generalized aesthetic will of 150 million other dudes. And it was my idea to see it in theaters, not my wife’s. I refuse to pretend this counts as some groundbreaking accomplishment.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time there were four girls in the March family, living with their mom a.k.a. Marmie (Laura Dern) and trying to make ends meet in their Massachusetts home during the Civil War while Dad is off doing his part for the Union. All four girls are intelligent and talented, but in different ways. The eldest, Meg (Emma Watson from Harry Potter and the Smart Friend Who Carried His Dead Weight), is nearing the age when one is expected to marry and have a family, and she isn’t exactly reticent to do so. Main character Jo (Saoirse Ronan from Lady Bird and three other Best Picture Oscar nominees) is a gifted writer who loathes the very idea of marriage and who devotes her free time writing plays and stories for the quartet to act out. Then there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen from HBO’s Sharp Objects), a piano player non pareil. Rounding out the sisters is Amy (Florence Pugh from Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow), an enthusiastic would-be painter who tries to look 13 but doesn’t quite.

The ladies of the March house have their ups and downs. Every so often they want to strangle each other, but the sun never sets on their anger, their decorum kicks in sooner or later after every misstep, and their favorite free-time moments are spent with family. Some of their challenges come from outside; some, from each other as their maturation processes vary in speed and collide without warning. Then there’s a time jump, we catch up with them in adulthood, and some stories wrap up more happily than others.

Past this point I think it’d be safe to assume any remaining readers have already read the book and/or watched a previous version. I won’t spoil the clever ending (more on that later), but as I was saying above, it’s likely I’m the farthest from an Alcott scholar in our huddled little blog circle here.

That being said: Gerwig diverges from past adaptations by restructuring the narrative timeline. The book’s second half is now a framing device that introduces Our Heroines as adults: Meg the mother of two, married to the tutor John Brooke (James Norton, a much shallower groom in Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive”); Jo the aspiring writer, living in New York; Amy the would-be painter, living in Paris with elderly fussbudget Aunt March (the Meryl Streep); and Beth…um, well, everyone loves Beth. The book’s first half is then spliced between segments into golden-hued flashbacks, nostalgia for growing up mingled with the more unpleasant incidents that would shape their lives.

Eventually, of course, someone refers to the foursome as “little women”, but it’s not the same character who did so in the 1994 version.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Tethering the two halves at disjointed angles is Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird) as Ted “Laurie” Laurence, the next-door neighbor who becomes Jo’s best non-related friend, opens his big mouth and ruins everything, hits the skids in upper-class melancholy, then works out a Plan B that’s creepy at face value and yet is a thing that can and does happen in real life.

Other males around the periphery include Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as the patriarch of the March household, who eventually returns from the war; Chris Cooper (American Beauty, The Muppets) as Laurie’s grandfather, who happens to have a spare piano; and Tracy Letts (Lady Bird‘s dad and a boss in The Big Short) as the editor who keeps buying Jo’s lurid horror stories, but at reduced wages because sexism.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Recurring nemeses include the various expectations placed upon women — by society, by elders, and by other women. Named male characters are responsible for a bit of that, but not all of it directly. A few times men attempt to speak women’s minds for them, but that’s as chauvinist as they get. Macho swagger is easy to vilify and therefore set aside in favor of subtler targets. The Marches bump up against the limitations of 1800s gender roles, which among other dictates holds that any career track beyond “wife” is daring and presumptuous. Marriage is customary and looms large over them — embraced by Meg, rejected by Jo, dabbled in by Amy but not too seriously while she’s still young, and Beth…well, everyone loves Beth.

Then we have the boundaries between classes. On one end, Meg receives party-dress tips and offers from her high-society friends, since she lacks their shopping resources. On the other, the Marches respond with charity at their own expense when an immigrant family down the road (their homeland varies by version) is in danger of starving during the winter holidays. Everyone tries to do their part to keep the household going while Dad’s away at war, scrounging for every penny possible, each according to their skill set. Family and teamwork and all that.

Gerwig ventures farther into letting the Marches fully explore their creative sides and the places those might take them. They’re aware what they’re “supposed” to do with their lives, but Marmie gives them free rein to explore their passions, follow wherever their impulses lead, and see how far they can keep up that pursuit. As the prominent one who’s starred in the most Best Picture nominees, Jo’s quest to establish herself as a writer and retain creative ownership is the most in-depth and easily relatable to anyone trying to ply their humanities-rooted wares in the 21st-century gig economy. Amy avails herself of the finest art teachers Europe has to offer, but questions whether her talent deserves them. With Laurie’s grandpa as her enamored patron, Beth regales one and all with classical piano pieces for as long as she can. Some hallways to the future require a male to open doors, but Jo best exemplifies the fight to be true to herself and to compromise as little as possible.

Meanwhile in the other corner sulks Laurie. If the women are each getting their way to the extent the fates will allow, where does that leave him? Once spurned, his initial impulse is to lean into directionless abandon, sample a bit of the libertine life, and pout stylishly. He has some musical talent himself, but he has his own roles and expectations confounding him. Unlike Jo, happiness eludes him until he embraces compromise in more than one arena, or at least learns that it’s okay to let shattered hopes in favor of finding new ones.

Thus does the entire cast race to see who can sustain their talents for as long as they can before they’re squashed or withered away. Marmie sums it up two-thirds of the way in: “There are some natures too noble to curb and too lofty to bend.”

Other messages of note include immigrant poverty and antiwar sentiments, which may seem like contemporary commentary amplified, but most of it was in the original text, whether implicit or explicit. It didn’t take much digging to extract those thoughts.

Nitpicking? If you’ve never read the book or seen any previous film versions, the restructured version may lose you. Some who know the story well might be a little irked with the Nolan-esque rearrangement. As with Lady Bird, the film is edited at a brisk clip and presumes the audience will pay close attention, keep track of contextual clues, and do quick math without Gerwig holding their hand or having characters read entire paragraphs either from the book or from the SparkNotes guide. Watching the 1994 version beforehand helped me out tremendously and was far more pleasurable than reading the Wikipedia summary. One member in our party went into the theater cold and came away with more questions than joy.

In my scorecard the film’s only real sin is its paucity of Laura Dern, who only got slightly more screen time here than Kelly Marie Tran got in The Rise of Skywalker. She’s surprisingly underutilized compared to her recent, vibrant, take-no-prisoners turn in last month’s Marriage Story. She wasn’t quite reduced to the level of Concerned Mom, but her minutes fell dangerously close.

So what’s to like? Again, my Little Women experience is limited and lacking for bases of comparison, but I absolutely adored this one. Ronan wins yet another period piece with grace and charm, even when dealing with multiple threats such as men’s criticisms and a sister’s petty, disproportionate revenge. Watson seems much more relaxed on screen, possibly because I’m used to it being her job to reassure adjacent man-children that they’re totally heroes. Even the other sisters receive healthy shares of time in which to inhabit their individual arcs and explore true growth from beginning to end. Yes, even Beth, for all the lifetime she’s allowed. And it helps that Chalamet turns in a more nuanced, less whiny version of Laurie than young Christian Bale did in ’94, though maybe the latter can be chalked up to my difficulty with accepting the future tantrum-throwing John Connor as a smiling teenage suitor. For Chalamet, sincere beaming seems effortless.

The sets look grand even when they’re humble. The bouncing back and forth between flashbacks and flash-forwards was simple to roll with, each lensed in their own color schemes for easier discernment. I wish I could’ve brought a notebook to capture more of the insightful, artisan-crafted dialogue — some of it from the original text, some from Alcott’s own words in other sources, very little of it feeling dated and much of it ringing with truth and wit. In one of the most memorable moments, Gerwig calls back to the ’94 version’s alarming fake-out moment, reworking it in a different fashion that’s playful at first, only to swerve hard into the most devastating scene. Yes, there were tears here.

And then there’s the film’s biggest change between screen and page: that ending. One could no doubt debate for days whether or not Jo should get married at the end to her new acquaintance from New York, the scholarly Mr. Bhaer (French actor Louis Garrel). Is it a betrayal of her character for her to give in to demands of the book’s original readers and say “I do”? Would it be advisable to upend Alcott’s final say and let Jo assert for herself an asexual happy ending? Gerwig devises a wonderfully meta solution that straddles both sides of the argument, splits the difference, and finds there can be tremendous joy and confident individuality in compromise if one knows how to negotiate.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Little Women end credits, though I was secretly hoping they’d tack on this key scene from The Simpsons:

For more March Madness after the film, the official site also has a “Which March Sister Are You?” quiz.

(I got Meg. I’m fine with my choices.)

5 responses

  1. ” Full disclosure: prior to 2019 my Little Women experience consisted of a hazy memory from decades past in which I saw the scene where one of the girls-who-would-be-women gets a drastic haircut for altruistic reasons. I have no idea if I ran across one of the first four cinematic adaptations on TV when I was a kid, or if some sitcom paid it homage.”

    Likeliest culprit is the Little House on the Prairie episode where the girls act out The Scene from “Little Women” at school (Nellie is Meg, Mary is Marmie, Laura is Beth – and complains she only has one line, “Yes” – and some tertiary character we never see again is Jo). The tertiary character cuts her hair for real to buy a dress for her mother…yadda, yadda, yadda.


  2. Pingback: 25+ more Little Women Reviews​​​​​​​ – Hey, Men Like This Film, Too – Movies, Movies, Movies

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