By Alan Hurst
When it was announced that Great Gerwig, fresh off the success of the wonderful Lady Bird (2017), would be turning her attentions to yet another film version of the Louisa May Alcott classic “Little Women” my first thought was, really? Another version? At the time the BBC had just broadcast a three-part TV adaptation featuring, among others, Emily Watson and Angela Lansbury that garnered decent reviews and there was soon to be a poorly received modern retelling hitting theatres in 2018.
We had already seen successful big screen adaptations in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn, in 1949 with June Allyson, and in 1994 with Winona Ryder. There was also a really lousy 1978 TV miniseries with Susan Dey and other notable TV personalities of the day. The 1933 and 1949 versions are a regular part of Turner Classic Movies rotation, and the 1994 version by director Gillian Armstrong is acknowledged as definitive, pleasing both critics and audiences and netting Winona Ryder an Oscar nomination for her work as Jo. There was also a Broadway musical adaption in 2005. Despite a decent score, the production played for just 157 performances, but it did get a Tony nomination for lead Sutton Foster.
Would audiences care about a new version? Was there a way to breath some relevant life into the old chestnut? The answer on all accounts is a most definite “yes”.
Little Woman tells the story of the March family, specifically the loves and lives of the four daughters: the oldest Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlon) and Amy (Florence Pugh). There’s also their very supportive mother Marmee (Laura Dern), and their rich, irascible Aunt March (Meryl Streep).
Gerwig, who wrote and directed, has dusted off the original novel, played around with its structure, but managed to stay faithful enough that purists would have no reason to complain. With its mid-19th century setting intact, the story still feels very of its time, but at the same time very contemporary. That’s where Gerwig’s rethinking of the film’s overall structure and narrative come into play.
One of the charms of the 1949 version is the film’s opening scenes showing a technicolor Christmas landscape straight out of a Currier and Ives painting. Very quaint, very pretty and very true to the novel. But Gerwig has elected to start things off seven years later, with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) trying to pursue her career as a writer in New York. She then takes us back seven years earlier to the March family’s Connecticut household during the Civil War. By jumping back and forth, she gives the film an energy and immediacy that other versions just didn’t have. We get to see where the four March girls are headed and what events and decisions help them get there.
We also get to see them grow, make mistakes, fight, love and support each other with a truer sense of the constraints of the time – when marrying well was presumed to be the ultimate goal.
Gerwig has cast the film very well.
Ronan, who excelled as her Lady Bird two years ago, again delivers as Jo, the story’s major focus. At once practical, passionate and talented, Ronan is the first actress I’ve seen who is able to show the character’s conflicted drive as a writer.
One of the pleasant shifts in this adaptation is the prominence of Amy (Pugh), perhaps the most challenging and frustrating of the quartet. Elizabeth Taylor delivered a very funny performance as Amy in the 1949 version, but that script barely scratched the surface of that character’s potential. Gerwig has given Pugh a lot to play and for the first time we see that, in addition to her vanity and temper, she’s very practical and gets the financial implications of marrying well and what it will mean for her. She’s tutored along the way by an appropriately flinty Meryl Streep.
Gerwig’s script manages to give all the character’s some cracks in their armour. These characters feel like real people. Marmee is no longer the self-sacrificing saint – Laura Dern is able to shade the character with some frustration and a touches of anger. Timothee Calamet’s Teddy Laurence – a suitor for both Jo and eventually Amy – is no longer matinee idol perfect. He’s a little spoiled, a little sloppy but ultimately quite endearing.
The film deservedly received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Score, as well as Best Actress for Ronan and Best Supporting Actress for Pugh. I’m one of those who think that Gerwig deserved a Best Director nomination, probably in place of Todd Phillips for Joker, but it wasn’t meant to be. The film’s best chances for some Oscar gold will be for Gerwig’s sharp and well-structured script and the superb costumes.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.