Photo | columbia Pictures
Greta Gerwig has translated “Little Women” for the big screen with all of the warmth and wit of the novel intact, and has also managed to imbue the viewing experience with the passion of a reader. With a few wonderfully clever touches, this beautiful film honors not just the story itself, but the act of reading and loving it, and to watch this film is to sit in the company of a filmmaker who has clearly been as deeply moved and influenced by Louisa May Alcott’s novel as so many of us have been.
The novel was originally published in two parts: the girl’s childhood and their lives seven years later. Gerwig moves the action back and forth between these two time periods, so that when Jo March sighs, “Childhood is over,” we feel it even more. The casting of the four March girls is superb: Emma Watson as the ladylike eldest, Meg; Saoirse Ronan as Jo, the tomboy writer and stand-in for the novel’s author; a heartbreakingly sweet and delicate Eliza Scanlen as Beth; and, perhaps most notably, Florence Pugh brings a true depth to the youngest sister, Amy, a character I have personally loathed since my own childhood.
If you have been somehow misinformed that this version is “modernized,” let me assure you that everything is there on the page that we see on the screen — perhaps a slight emphasis on issues that are very much authentic to the story and the time come through in this version, but this film is a master class in how to make a fresh, vital version of a story that has already been adapted multiple times. Amy, for example, is not technically different from how she is written, but somehow the actress highlights aspects of her character that explain some of her more vexing qualities, and adds a very satisfying dimension. She takes one of the most troubling plot points — her marriage — and makes it, finally, believable, and all the more devastating (to me!).
I cannot decide if my favorite scenes were the dear, warm family scenes, or the scenes of Jo writing, but everything you love from the novel is beautifully brought to life here. You will rejoice in the attic theatricals; Marmee (Laura Dern) as a firm but kind warrior for justice in and out of their cozy household; and, oh lord, our most romantic-looking current actor, Timothée Chalamet, as Laurie, the object of many different feelings from various March sisters. It is all utterly perfect. I was worried that Dern might be too contemporary looking to play Marmee, but she simply brought out Marmee’s strength in a way we have not seen before.
But there is also something more, which is implied when we consider the novel itself through the lens of what we know about Alcott. Through the depiction of Jo writing and publishing her book, this becomes a story about the importance of the book itself. You have to imagine what the book meant to writers and artists like those who created this work, or if the book really meant something to you, you can just remember how it felt reading it. Aspects of watching this film verged on holy for me, and the welcome urge to go home, don a top hat and write in an attic has returned.
An amazingly clever addition shows Jo being told by her publisher that she must change the ending of her book so that the heroine gets married, which is what actually happened to Alcott when she wrote “Little Women.” Of course, this scene is not in the novel, but it works perfectly in the film. Then, Gerwig gives us a meta narrative that shows the novel’s ending and Jo/Alcott in another light, and it was so moving, satisfying and perfect.
The emotional payoff for all of the events of the story — the devastating death, the questionable marriages and Jo’s literary achievements — are incredibly powerful. The actors and Gerwig dug deep into the source material and delivered a highly personal interpretation that crackled with life as if it were written yesterday. More than anything, the love, not just between the perfectly cast characters, but between the filmmaker and the film, are profoundly evident in every gorgeously shot moment.
“Little Women” is now playing at the Crescent Theater, Regal Mobile and AMC Mobile 16.
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