“Is Jane Austen the new Shakespeare?” That’s how I opened a recent theater review, noting the profusion of Austen adaptations spilling into pop culture in recent years. It’s not just Jane, though: women writers of the 19th century, long relegated to school libraries, are squarely in the sights of publishers, theater companies, and film studios finding audiences eager for regular revisits with finely wrought characters who often spoke truths that remain (to men, at least) far from self-evident.
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which celebrated a 150th anniversary last year, has seen countless adaptations — including last year’s Kate Hamill play and a version just last year featuring Lea Thompson as Marmee. One towers above them all, though: the iconic 1994 movie directed by Gillian Armstrong with a cast including Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Susan Sarandon.
As Greta Gerwig set out to write and direct her own new adaptation, the enduring quality of that film seems almost to have been liberating. If you want a linear and heartwarming Little Women, there you go. Gerwig’s movie is more of a remix, conceived with a metatextual knowingness that becomes increasingly apparent as the film unfolds.
Amid the movie’s copious, and gratifying, pre-release buzz, you may have noticed that the March sisters aren’t played by teen actors. Meg (16 when the book begins), Jo (15), Beth (13), and Amy (12) are portrayed, respectively, by Emma Watson (29), Saoirse Ronan (25), Eliza Scanlen (20), and Florence Pugh (23).
The novel, though, famously — some would say infamously, due to a plotting controversy that Gerwig addresses with a flourish — follows the March sisters into adulthood. The new film follows their stories retrospectively, anchored by Jo’s attempt to publish a story about their lives. The book was strongly autobiographical, with Jo’s aspirations matching Alcott’s, so in a sense Gerwig is just upping the ante on an inevitable degree of self-referentiality.
Gerwig makes this a story about women telling their stories. With a finely wrought script that draws from the novel as well as other Alcott writings, the filmmaker holds these strongly drawn women in relief against a society that only saw them in terms of their relationships to men. If that theme was less explicit in the book, Alcott certainly laid the path, with a barely-there father figure and a love interest who first and foremost wants to join his neighbors’ secret world.
Casting the sisters as older, then, gives the story a Glass Menagerie quality. The women actors aren’t literally playing young girls, they’re embodying their own remembered qualities. The genius of Gerwig’s approach, which constantly skips back and forth in time, is that not only does it condense the book’s episodic structure, it casts the sisters’ youthful decisions and relationships in light of their adult trajectories.
Gerwig was, of course, the creator of the deeply beloved and wildly acclaimed Lady Bird, and she animates the new film with much of the same humane comic energy. Instead of sliding into stereotypes, her characters are simply distinct personalities. That goes for not only the “little women” themselves, but for their mother (Laura Dern, the embodiment of intelligence and strength) and great-aunt (Meryl Streep, priceless of course).
Ronan, the star of Lady Bird, shines again here, but the actor who makes by far the strongest impression in a sterling ensemble cast is Pugh. Casting the Midsommar star, with her husky voice and burning charisma, was part of a strategy that argues for Amy as the most misunderstood March sister. Her own courtship with Laurie (a smolderingly crush-able Timothee Chalamet) gets about as much attention as Jo’s, in contrast to adaptations that center the latter relationship while treating Amy as what, here, she says she doesn’t want to be: a booby prize for the young man who was always entranced by her older sister.
Filming her period film “in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” as the credits proudly declare, Gerwig deploys ample visual panache. Jo storms the grassy hills like a Hardy hero on the heath, Meg’s ball finery joins a poignant pageant just above her means (Jacqueline Durran designed the superb costumes), and Amy stands like an alabaster statue in her Paris painting studio, well knowing that she’s not expected to be much more than a static piece of eye candy herself. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux washes the scenes in a natural light authentic to the period.
Whatever your gender, you’ll leave Little Women feeling liberated and empowered by the power of transcendent art and the sweep of sheer entertainment. You’ll emerge into a world, however, where male writers still dominate stages and screens — and that’s not even including Shakespeare. As Marmee might say, here with an existential sigh rather than the book’s seemingly chiding tone, “I am angry nearly every day of my life.”