Greta Gerwig Updates ‘Little Women’ While Staying True to Louisa May Alcott’s Story

Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age tale following four New England sisters during and after the Civil War, gets something of a modern update thanks to writer-director Greta Gerwig. The film reunites her with Saoirse Ronan, who gives a pitch perfect performance as second sister Jo March, striving to make her own way in an age when a woman’s success was often measured by the wealth of her husband. 

Gerwig’s “Little Women” differs from the novel and previous adaptations in a number of ways. Firstly, the timeline here bounces around from Jo’s teen years, during which her kind and patient mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), manages their Concord, MA home while her father (Bob Odenkirk) serves as a war chaplain, and seven years later when she is building her career as a young writer living in New York. Ronan and Gerwig find the right balance between Jo’s romantic and pragmatic sides, as during her time in New York she boldly stakes out something for herself, going head to head with a publisher, Mr. Dashword (Tracy Letts), who wants to turn her writing into some nineteenth century version of chick lit, yet it’s never far from her mind that she has to help support her family until her youngers sister “marries someone rich.”

Emma Watson, meanwhile, explores different facets of oldest sister Meg, a character who is often criticized for being one-dimensional, as she has little ambition beyond marriage and raising a family. Here, there’s more of a focus on her life after her “happily ever after,” her marriage to poor tutor John Brooke (James Norton). Modern viewers will relate to her struggle to manage a budget, especially after she is being egged on by her wealthy friend, Sallie (Hadley Robinson) to purchase yards of expensive fabric for a dress. Apparently, going broke to keep up with fashion was a thing before Instagram.

Beth (Eliza Scanlen), however, feels less developed as a character here, although Gerwig gives her a change of scenery this time around, as her loving sister Jo saves up enough money to take her to the seaside when she becomes sick with scarlet fever for what is to be the final time. It’s a beautiful scene, as Beth speaks of her Inevitable death on the beach, but it somehow lacks the pathos of other versions of her farewell, particularly the 1994 version with Claire Danes.

Then there’s Amy, played brilliantly by Florence Pugh, even in those earlier years when we have to stretch our imaginations to buy the 23-year-old actress as a schoolgirl ten years younger. Gerwig really gets to the heart of her love-hate relationship with Jo, with whom she competes with from a young age, even burning one of her manuscripts in a fit of rage. Sure, handsome neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), Amy’s crush who loves Jo, plays a role in the rivalry, but there’s more to it than that. Amy’s passion for painting, which has been glossed over in previous adaptations, is on full display here, and she is frustrated by the difficulties she faces in getting taken seriously as a female artist, while Jo faces fewer obstacles in getting her writing career off the ground. It’s not that Amy lacks talent, it’s just that she’s more beholden to the social norms that he sister bucks. Gerwig does an excellent job of exploring both of their personalities, as well as the infamous love triangle with Laurie, which makes more sense the way it plays out here.

Meryl Streep may not be an actor that directors go to to provide comic relief, but Gerwig utilizes her well as Aunt March, Mr. March’s wealthy, childless sister. Streep brings a sardonic touch to this character, who, intentionally or not, plays an important role in the Jo-Amy rivalry. 

Both Gerwig and Jo, who writes the “Little Women” novel-within-the-film, attempt to resist tying up the story with a bow, but they both give in, in a fun way involving Jo’s German professor suitor, Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who is a handsome, relatively young man here (Alcott originally wrote him as middle-aged). When all is said and done, Gerwig has made a thoughtful adaptation that is romantic while still pleasing to jaded 2019 viewers.

Little Women” opens Dec. 25 in theaters nationwide.