There was absolutely no need for another movie version of Little Women. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version (with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) was already pretty much perfect, and George Cukor’s 1933 version (with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Francis Dee and Jean Parker) was pretty good too. I haven’t seen the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version, but its cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien) sounds amazing. Greta Gerwig assembled an equally great cast for her adaptation (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen), but rather than simply play the familiar story straight, she’s jumbled up the narrative and shifted emphasis away from its family melodrama elements to something more in line with her interests as evidenced by her previous work, both as a director (Lady Bird) and in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America)–that is, the story of how a young woman becomes an artist. It’s now a story as much about its own creation (both the film and Louisa May Alcott’s novel) as it is about the emotional highs and lows of its ostensible subjects. As such, it bears as much relation to Whisper of the Heart or Paterson as it does to previous Alcott adaptations.
It begins with Jo March, aspiring writer, living in New York and selling short genre fiction pieces for quick cash. A handsome critic tells her she’s wasting her time writing trash, which annoys her and not just because it’s true. But she gets a message from home: her youngest sister Beth is sick, possibly dying, and so she returns to Concord, Massachusetts. Flashbacks fill in the episodes that come first in the book and previous movies: a Christmas visit to poor neighbors, Jo and her older sister Meg’s trip to a dance, third sister Amy falling in ice, Jo and the girls’ friendship with neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), etc. These are interspersed with present day events: Amy in Europe with her aunt and Laurie (after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal), Meg and her husband barely eking out a living, Jo depressed about her work. The back and forth between past and present builds a seductive rhythm, as events mirror and comment on each other with ever greater frequency, culminating in Beth’s two serious illnesses, which Gerwig freely cuts between, doubling the usual melodramatic effect.
The film reaches its height though not with death, or with love and marriage, but with work, as Jo finally realizes what she should write about and Gerwig shows the process in detail: spreading papers on the floor to organize ideas, switching from one hand to another as the apparently ambidextrous author cannot stop to rest her cramping, ink-stained fingers, finally the physical process of printing and binding the book itself. There’s even a neat meta-fictional twist as Jo and her editor debate the Jo character’s ending, opening up the possibility that all the flashbacks we’ve seen are scenes from the book Jo is writing, that the real Jo and her family are not exactly the same as the Marches we’ve always known. Just as, of course, the Marches are not the Alcotts, and Lady Bird and Frances are not Greta. Tracey Fishko turned her friends and family into literature in Mistress America, and they all hated her for it. Jo’s story ends much more happily. At least, that’s the way she wrote it.