Other than the matter of Professor Bhaer being FRENCH (which, do not worry, gentle readers, we will cover here in due time), I think I have found my adaptation of Little Women.
I’ve heard from some of you who still prefer the 1994 treatment starring Winona Rider as Jo. Let’s not forget the 2018 PBS miniseries, starring Maya Hawke as Jo (I compared the two adaptations here). I get it—I do. There have been lovely, charming and delightful film versions.
But as a devoted fan of Little Women—the immortal 1868 novel, I believe Greta Gerwig and company have delivered a sprightly, vivacious, emotional and oh-so-faithful rendition of my second favorite book of all time. This is a fast-paced, gorgeous film that drops you into 1868 while revealing ageless insights about the human condition in 2020—and beyond.
Maybe it was the way writer and director Gerwig played with time. While the book itself is told chronologically, from the time the March sisters were playacting pirates in their attic to a grown-up gathering featuring their husbands and children, the movie jumps forward and back and forward again.
For my 83-year-old mother, who read the book decades ago, and my husband, who has never read the book, this was sometimes a bit confusing. Even for myself, who reread it as recently as two years ago, I had to quickly reorient myself a few times as the story flew back and forth.
One bonus of this reshuffled timeline was that we are introduced to the characters as women and men, not girls and boys. We witness Jo March, the heroine to beat all heroines (except my beloved Anne of Green Gables, naturally), furiously writing away in New York City, forging her own path towards fulfilling her dream of authorhood.
We also meet Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) at the outset and behold his crackling chemistry with Jo (though not nearly as crack-a-lackin’ as Gabriel Byrne’s Bhaer, who, admittedly, was a walking, breathing, bubbling beaker of chemicals). This cleverly puts Jo and the professor at the forefront, so he doesn’t seem like a consolation prize later on.
Consider with me the heated debate for 151 years now about whether or not Jo and Teddy should have ended up together. Gerwig’s time flips give weight to my firm opinion, which is that Jo and the professor are perfect together. But Greta—dear Greta!—can we have a wee word? As much as 36-year-old Garrel does embody the spirit of Bhaer (humble, wise, kind and rather smoldering), a Frenchman simply cannot (and did not) utter one my favorite lines from the book: “Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you … Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?”
Of course, that’s just me. I adore Professor Bhaer and Jo together, which made the ending of the film challenging—yet ultimately satisfying. I knew from my reading about Louisa May Alcott that she resented having to marry off all her Little Women, especially Jo. Jo was her in so many ways. Louisa did not care to be married herself, and (rightfully) felt constrained by society and her publisher, who insisted that Jo be married off before the book ended. The scenes in which Jo wrestles over these plot points and royalties with her publisher (Tracy Letts) are among the movie’s most compelling. We get a peek into Alcott’s real-life; a bonus for us literary geeks. As much as I enjoyed the way Jo and the professor’s story ended up, I was also proud of Alcott for fighting for her rights as an author. The romantic in me and the egalitarian in me were both happy.
The casting is impeccable. Watching Saoirse Ronan as Jo is like watching a storm blow in and out. She is willful, tender, fierce, relentless, ambitious, and loving. Wonderfully, the other sisters, traditional Meg (Emma Watson), sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and artistic Amy (Florence Pugh) all get filled out a bit more in this adaptation. Normally, one would describe Amy as selfish or horrid or bratty, but I was shocked to see her grow beyond all those things into her own strong, multifaceted person. Pugh is dynamic and vigorous as Amy, and instead of resenting her evermore for burning Jo’s manuscript (a heretofore unforgivable offense), I found myself cheering her on as she fought for her own art and love. Amy is altered here for the better. All four of the sisters were portrayed by actresses from the UK and Australia, a fascinating choice considering Little Women is an American classic.
Some of you don’t love Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, but I thought he brought a certain wistful, bereft, orphan spirit to the character that has been lacking in other portrayals. The scene where he pours out his very soul at Jo’s feet tore me to pieces. His hurt pulses through the screen. First, his parents died and then the woman he loves abandons him emotionally, or at least that’s how he felt. No wonder he ran away to Europe to try to be a worldly rake. No wonder he failed.
Rounding out the cast is Laura Dern as a tougher, more human Marmee (Dern lends her sonorous voice to a brand-new Little Women audiobook); and the venerable Meryl Streep as crabby, imperious Aunt March.
The two hours fly by, maybe because of the constant flash-forwards and flashes backward.
I only cried about eight times.
But Gerwig’s Little Women is not a sad movie. Sad things happen, but it’s a triumph and a tribute to sisterhood of all kinds. Written a century and a half ago, the novel was always way ahead of its time in terms of gender roles and expectations. Today, on the cusp of a new decade, we still wrestle with our roles and expectations. What fits and what doesn’t?
And like the March family knew so well, life can be hard and painful.
In the words of Louisa May Alcott, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship.”
In Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, fleshed out anew in this movie, we find joyful, brave companions for our own storm-tossed journeys. Each one a dear friend; each one a heroine for the ages.