Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women remains one of the most perennially popular books of all time. It tells the story of the four March sisters and their close family and friends, facing domestic troubles, love, loss, and sibling rivalry in the years during and following the American Civil War. It’s popularity has extended to Hollywood, where the novel was adapted to the screen six times between 1917 and 2018 – most famously by George Cukor in 1933, starring Katherine Hepburn and Frances Dee, and by Gillian Armstrong in 1994, starring Winona Ryder and Claire Danes. It now hits its seventh iteration, with a late 2019 release written and directed by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird).
For this new version, Gerwig has assembled an outstanding set of actors. They are in large part so perfectly allocated that they represent something of a dream cast. Saoirse Ronan, who starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird, plays Jo in a much looser and more confident manner than she did Lady Bird in that earlier film. Florence Pugh plays youngest sister Amy so well that, in tandem with the screenplay, presents a version of the character that is arguably much more likeable than in the novel. Eliza Scanlen gives Beth a deeply believable combination of sweetness and frailty. Emma Watson nails her performance as Meg, but admittedly does struggle with an American accent from time to time. The surrounding cast are all strong, without a weak actor in the bunch. This includes Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, Chris Cooper as Mr Laurence, a superb Meryl Streep as Aunt March, and Bob Odenkirk as Mr March. Among them the real standout is Laura Dern as the girls’ mother, bringing a vitality and presence so strong that she owns every scene in which she appears. It’s one of the finest performances of the year, and is set inside the absolute best ensemble cast I have seen in an even longer time.
The film is handsomely staged and beautifully costumed. While it may seem a bit superficial, costuming makes up so a large part of a period drama’s appeal. Here it looks wonderful, with Jacqueline Durran’s design work excelling in terms of aesthetic and use of colour. The use of colour extends to the set dressings, giving the film a rich and powerful look.
Gerwig’s screenplay and direction take a proto-feminist novel and transform it into a contemporary feminist film. It is not that she radically changes any of the characters and plot developments, rather she undertakes an exercise in teasing out Alcott’s own early feminism and placing under a lens. Material already embedded in the novel is brought to the fore, while other elements in the novel are quietly pushed away. The result is an adaptation that feels both resolutely faithful while also being brightly refreshing and aggressively contemporary in tone.
Gerwig takes one major liberty with Alcott’s novel: she transforms Jo’s aspiring writing career into one that leads to her writing Little Women itself. It creates a seismic shift in the text, effectively allowing her to adapt not only Alcott’s work but Alcott herself. The scenes of Jo working her way up to a literary career are a delight, with some of the best and funniest scenes occuring between her and her New York editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts). The narrative is essentially split in two – as it was when Little Woman was originally published in the UK – and both play concurrently, with the first half played in flashback in-between scenes in the second. New resonances between the two parts are discovered, particularly when the film runs both periods of Beth’s illness at the same time. This is a perfect example for future filmmakers in how to adapt a novel: it remains largely faithful while opening up a fresh and relevant interpretation.
It is also a refreshingly physical film, eschewing polite seated conversations and instead throwing in characters running like maniacs – check out Jo bounding through New York after selling a short story to a magazine editor, dancing like nobody’s watching, hugging one another with intensity, and collapsing with grief at tragic news. The Marches touch one another constantly: handshakes, arms around shoulders, tight embraces, fierce wrestling matches. When paired with Yorick Le Saux’s energetic cinematography it forms the most energised and kinetic Little Women ever made. It feels real. It feels like now. It is absolutely one of the best films of the year.