"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents": thus begins Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, now turned into a stylish film by Greta Gerwig, with the four March sisters played by Emma Watson (Meg), Saorsie Ronan (Jo), Eliza Scanlen (Beth) and Florence Pugh (Amy). This 2019 version is definitely very classy and it captures Alcott's feminist message more explicitly than the 1994 movie, the one with Wynona Ryder as Jo and the wonderful Susan Sarandon as Marmee.
I went to see Gerwig's Little Women this afternoon, on the day of its UK release - it is a bit of a tradition for me to go to the pictures on Boxing Day, my mother always used to take us when my sister and I were little and I did that with my son too, when he was a child.
Little Women is a much-cherished coming-of-age novel and writer Louisa May Alcott was a feminist and a libertarian. She wrote swashbuckling stories which did not sell particularly well. Little Women was more or less commissioned and she really wrote it to get out of debt. It brought her fame and financial stability but she did not care much for the novel and used to grow impatient with fans, who demanded sequels.
The interpretation given by Gerwig to this American classic is quite compelling. In the film, Alcott and Jo at some point merge and it seems only natural that Alcott should become a character in her own novel, as the film reaches its conclusion. I will not introduce spoilers, you will have to see the film yourselves to find out.
Gerwig's movie captures all the most important moments of the novel, with reference to both Little Women and its sequel Good Wives. It does not hold back on the theme of sibling rivalry, definitely present in the book but suitably chastised by Alcott. Gerwig leaves out all sermonizing and moralising and this makes the movie relevant and contemporary.
The casting was good; I particularly liked Emma Watson's Meg, it was a bit of a surprise to see her in that role but Watson is a very good actor and delivered well. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was just perfect.
As a book, Little Women is part of our childhood; for so many women around the world, the vicissitudes of the March girls, their joys and sorrows, have acquired the status of personal memory. Alcott's book has a very clear message about women, and financial freedom, which the movie does not fail to convey. A nineteenth-century woman could only find fulfilment in marriage, hoping to marry money; in one of the best scenes of the movie, an adult Amy tells wealthy childhood friend Laurie (whom she later marries) that as a woman of 'middling talent' she has to consider marriage as an economic proposition. Women like Aunt March, played in the movie by Meryl Streep, a grand old lady of means, a status conferred to her by birth, were few and far between and the price they paid for their independence was spinsterhood. Thus, despite all their wealth, they were regarded as social misfits.
In our times, things are better, but only just. As Gerwig said in an interview:
"One of the fascinating undercurrents of the book, to me, is this interplay between art and money. So much of this book is about lack of money and resources, how if you are a woman there is no clear path for how to get them”. I can think of countless times, throughout my life, when I had to contend with my desire to work creatively and my inability to secure resources and I know that being female did not help my endeavours.
I definitely recommend the movie. I also recommend reading the book again. Louisa May Alcott said that Little Women was just some 'rubbish' she 'scribbled' on-demand, there is in it much preaching, which can be very off-putting - fortunately, the movie avoids it. But Little Women is primarily about these vibrant young women, full of life and resourceful, quite extraordinary in their ordinariness. They are the protagonists of this novel, all four of them: the male characters seem to be there only in a supporting role.
This alone makes Little Women such a wonderful and enduring tale, one which can be revisited again and again. It is meant for women, but it is not only for women.
Last but not least, the book has a message about thriftiness and simplicity, which Gerwig's movie readily picks up and renders beautifully through costumes and domestic interiors. Somehow, this resonates with our contemporary concern with sustainability and upcycling and a desire for a simpler life.
But I shall have to expand on this in a different post.
*** Should you wish to compare the different versions of Little Women made over the decades I strongly recommend this video