Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is getting plenty of praise and acclaim at the moment, and Lady Bird is a fantastic coming of age film, but Little Women is Gerwig’s best movie. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been adapted so many times before, so it’s not the easiest thing to come in and make an adaptation in 2019 when there are other versions that audiences adore. But Gerwig manages to bring something new to the table, and frames the entire film around a contemporary, feminist lens.
She structures the movie to flow between the past and the present, to highlight the contrast between the cold blues of the present and the warm vibrancy of the past. Because that’s what growing up entails. When you’re younger the world is brighter, limitless – anything is possible. There’s also more joy, a time for effusive play and enjoyment. Becoming an adult means dealing with the responsibilities the world throws at us. To have infinite desires yet sometimes have them so far out of reach. In the present, Jo is teaching but chasing an occupation as a writer. She resorts to writing sensationalist stories because that is what sells, and her desire to write the stories she wants is put on the backburner as she needs money to pay the bills.
Amy is chasing an engagement to Fred Vaughn, faced with the obligation of being the only sister who could marry into wealth. Meg adores the finer things in life, but married a man who isn’t wealthy, and can’t provide her with the material things she desires.
Gerwig makes the March household feel very lived in and real. There’s a certain warmth when you’re inside with the girls, listening to their squabbles, and even the bleak winter setting outside feels less cold when they’re all gathered together excitedly chatting on their way to the Hummels. Even Laurie himself can’t resist sneaking a peek at them through the window.
The best choice is making Florence Pugh play Amy for the entire film. The time leap never benefits Amy as a character, since she is a mere child in the past, and a young woman in the present, while the rest of the March sisters are played by just one actress. It makes it difficult for us to truly relate and empathize with Amy, since she’s literally a different person after the time jump. Making this change allows the viewers to really embrace Amy and her character arc. Pugh handles the transition well, showing us a insolent and carefree Amy in the past, and a sophisticated, mature Amy in the present.
As an avid Jo March fan, I’ve never been fond of Amy, looking at the romance between Laurie and Amy as sudden and contrived. In the 1994 adaptation, it’s clear that all those involved were rooting for Laurie and Jo to end up together, so the Amy/Laurie romance and story is severely underdeveloped, and never feels satisfying. For the first time, in Gerwig’s hands, I actually like and understand Amy March. Being saddled with the emotional burden of being in love with a man who only has eyes for your sister, getting certain privileges from being Aunt March’s traveling companion, yet aware that this comes with conditions and strings. Unlike Jo, Amy doesn’t have as much freedom and agency, knowing that she is not good enough to live as an artist, so marriage is really the only route she can take.
There’s an affecting speech she delivers when Laurie comments on how weird it is to hear one of the March girls talk about marriage in the same vein as money. Pugh, as Amy, effectively articulates what it’s like to be a women back then, to live in a world where you own nothing, because even if she had money it would belong to her husband. The movie allows us to feel for Amy as much as we feel for Jo, and that is a tremendous accomplishment.
There’s also the contrast between the relationship Laurie shares with Jo, versus the one he has with Amy. With Jo, it was a young, boyish love, driven by his admiration for Jo and all the fun they have together. With Amy, it is different. She isn’t afraid to call him out on his bad, lazy behaviour, yet is also sympathetic to his heartbreak. Gerwig’s also arranged set pieces to highlight the chemistry between Amy and Laurie, like the tension-filled untying of her apron just before she goes out to meet Fred. Before, Laurie only had eyes for Jo, and Amy never registered to him beyond being Jo’s little sister. But when he looks at her now and says “You are beautiful”, we can see how he truly sees her for who she is. This is the changing point in their relationship, and so when they do get together, the viewers are happy and accept this, even if we feel a little sad for Jo as she suffers through her grief and loneliness.
I have always looked at Little Women as a tale about family and sisterhood, but until Gerwig’s version, I never saw how the loss of girlhood is such an integral part of the story. All my life I’ve been so eager to grow up, to chase my big dreams and be a part of a world that’s clearly made for adults. But now, as I head towards my mid 30s, I find myself longing for the time in my life when the world didn’t feel so unbearably heavy. The time of being a little woman is over, but maybe that girlish joy doesn’t have to be.
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