Greta Gerwig offers a fresh take on a time‑honoured classic

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Little Women
Opens Dec. 25
4 out of 5

Published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been adapted for stage and screen over a dozen times. So it’s fair to wonder what else can be made of the novel — which over the years has morphed from a family drama/romance to a feminist classic.

Leave it to Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) to ensure her adaptation counts. We live in the #metoo era, but Gerwig doesn’t overplay the militant card. Instead, she fixes some pervasive problems with previous adaptations such as Amy’s inconsistency (most times the youngest March sister is played by two actresses) and the whole Jo/Laurie conundrum (films often underplay how toxic and entitled he is).

Gerwig’s decision to anchor the film on the book’s second half, and visit the past via flashbacks, gives the story another gear, one that emphasizes how the dreams of growing up and the realities of adulthood are far apart.

We first encounter Jo March (Saoirse Ronan, who carries the movie seamlessly) peddling her stories to a haughty editor under the pretence they belong to someone else. She’s struggling for money, so must agree to edits of the “got married and lived happily ever after” variety. Meg and Beth aren’t in great shape either. Married with children, Meg (Emma Watson) is also struggling financially, while Beth (Eliza Scanlen) has a weak heart and nobody expects her to make it past her twenties.

Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) is the sister who ties everything together. In Europe as a travel companion for Aunt March (Meryl Streep), she reconnects with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who after being rejected by Jo has chosen a life of debauchery. As they deal with their own demons, the sisters and Laurie look back for a clue on how to face the future.

A dynamic filmmaker by nature, Gerwig makes this Little Women less stagey than we’re used to. In Jo, she and Ronan create a character whose pursuit of a career blinds her to any alternatives or the needs of others. It’s not lost on the filmmaker that money plays as big a role as love in shaping the March sisters. But in an era where women had limited access to employment and no inheritance rights, there is no judgment. Rather, there’s full-fledged support.

Gerwig also emphasizes the relationship between the sisters. It feels organic, although Emma Watson’s limitations as an actress are put in evidence. As Laurie, Chalamet gives his character a coat of toxic masculinity that makes a lot of sense in his evolution. But the MVP is Florence Pugh. For the longest time, Amy has been treated as a narrative device with her crush on Laurie. Pugh gives her much needed depth and complexity while remaining believable as a 12 and 20-year old.

For all the great things in Little Women, there is one part that doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not Watson’s Meg, as you may think (she has always been the least interesting March sister). It’s Laura Dern as the mother Marmee. She’s more like a cool aunt, no maternal vibes at all.

The cherry on the cake is the tweaked ending, which is both on the nose and more true to the character than the one we’re familiar with. Purists may scoff, but I’d argue this version is the most accurate of all.