Fun fact: I have read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The latest cinematic version of Alcott’s plodding Victorian prose bears some similarity to it. Oddly enough, there have been four film versions of the famous(?) nineteenth century novel, and this latest one makes five. In 2018, there was also a three part series that aired on PBS. Why all the focus on this boring book? I do not have the first clue as to an answer.
If you are not familiar with Little Women (and I could not blame you), it is the story of the four March sisters (Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen)) and their . . . I do not know, adventures I guess, in Civil War-era Massachusetts. There is the mature Meg, the rebellious Jo, the sickly Beth, and the vain Amy. It is their mom, Marmee (Laura Dern), that reigns in their stereotypes, er, varying attitudes. Thus the women are presented with soap-operatic set pieces by which they use their predictable attitudes to navigate.
If my attitude towards Little Women seems a little grim, allow me to explain. I am a sentimental person at heart. One day while in high school, I was home sick. Scrolling through the television channels, I happened upon the 1994 iteration, starring Winona Ryder as Jo March. It featured all the traditional nostalgia of a Christmas movie, real people with real emotions, and it moved along as a story. Would Jo ever settle down, or would she remain the dreamer, scribbling her life away? I could identify with this kind of character. So taken was I by the story that I decided to read the book. I plowed through it and was immediately grateful for the Ryder movie because it hits all the high points. The book gets bogged down in painful detail of their daily lives. So Meg goes to a ball and acts in a way rather unbecoming of a woman from transcendental New England. Do we really need to know what every member of the family thought about this act? Or how they behaved in light of this for days after? Some may enjoy this, but I did not.
Despite my misgivings, I still have a soft spot for Little Women. Thus I was a bit aghast at this latest installment. While watching it, I began making a list of things that were not in the book or previous versions: Jo March never danced in a bar in New York City; Marmee never said “Or call me Marmee. Everybody does;” that was not how Beth was given access to the Lawrence’s piano; people did not sit on staircases in the Victorian Age; Jo’s hair would not have been cut that short; Amy never said she had loved Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) all her life; finally, Jo never really has that much a change of heart in her feelings for Laurie.
These are all rather nitpicky items. Where Little Women took the most liberties was in the notion that the March sisters were some kind of trailblazers for female equality. It cannot be argued that Alcott was different, and her characters were somewhat atypical for the mid-nineteenth century. But I am fairly certain that she never envisioned Jo March raging against the idea of being married in one moment, and then complaining about being lonely in the next. I suspect that director Greta Gerwig wanted to put a modern spin on Little Women. It is a common enough goal of many movie makers: raiding old material and giving it a fresh take. The problem with doing this with Little Women is that the times and setting matter a great deal. While the March’s certainly push social boundaries, they would not have ignored them with dialog more fitting in a modern feminist sense.
Still, they were moments in Little Women that I genuinely enjoyed. I liked how they handled the Pickwick Society, though this went by way too fast. The biggest take away for me, though, was when Jo says, “I can’t believe childhood is over.” Despite being yet another invented line, it reminded me of 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” In other words, we all grow up. Little Women is about growing up, moving on, and dealing with the trials we are presented with, as when Beth dies.
That is about it. That was all I liked about the newest cinematic take on Little Women. I knew I was in for a disappointing experience from the very first scene when it starts off with Jo trying to get one of her stories published in a New York newspaper. This does not take place until roughly halfway through the book. Thus whenever there are references to earlier events, they are all done in flashbacks, and there did not appear to be any rhyme or reason to them. Major characters like Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) (who Jo eventually marries) is introduced in the first fifteen minutes and not seen again until the last fifteen. What? And the main tension in the book throughout, whether or not Jo and Laurie will get together, is practically not there, and the short argument they have over it makes no sense when it happens. In summation, I spent most of the film sighing, shaking my head, and whispering “No, no, no. . . .”