The latest version of your Little Women seems to have come exactly when we needed it. At the tail end of a decade whose sociopolitical and cultural climate might be described by some (ok, by me) as a dumpster we all set on fire and shoved down a steep, greased mountain, I am a little surprised that there is still an appetite for what I call ‘warm hug’ movies. You wrote the ultimate warm hug of a book, so in that sense, the timing of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is perfect. It arrived at a time when there is just so much going on that is soul-suckingly awful, so I think audiences are in just the right mood to embrace an earnest, sentimental period piece – at least, if the noisy sniffles and hanky blows I heard in the theatre are any indication.
I’ll admit my initial reaction to the news of a Little Women remake was, “Why?” I’m generally pretty tough on remakes, and perhaps especially so on a remake of a book I loved to pieces as a kid. Happily, Gerwig’s film succeeds in making an old favourite new again, bringing a fresh, modern perspective to the story without losing the nostalgic, old-fashioned heart of it. As much as I loved your book, I will say it had long since ceased to feel relevant to me. This film made it resonate with me again, although much differently as an adult than it did when I was a child.
Back then, I idolized Jo March; Jo was bold, outspoken, wanted nothing more than to write stories all day, and took no shit from anyone. While I also wanted nothing more than to write stories all day , I was shy to the point of being practically mute, consumed with anxiety over what other people thought of me. I was jealous of the March sisters’ loving, loyal dynamic – except when it came to Amy, who was a complete asshole. I also had an Amy of a little sister, so I could relate to Jo’s frustration.
In Gerwig’s film, the Jo-Amy tension is written so well it will resonate with anyone who ever grew up in a state of perpetual war with a sister they would have happily set on fire, but who would go on to become their ride-or-die person. Gerwig reimagines Jo and Amy’s battles for the 21st century by adding an element of physical aggression to the mix that makes the dynamic between the sisters that much more lively and relatable, crying and arguing passionately, but also launching themselves at each other like crazed luchadors, which was definitely more in line with how my sister and I settled shit.
Other characters are also well served by this modernizing approach to the narrative. The saintly, uncomplaining Marmee of the book is so beautifully augmented by simply letting Laura Dern give in to and express rare moments of frustration and even anger. Even old Aunt March has more to do here than in the book. It is in her scenes that Gerwig’s script is at its most political, with Jo, Amy, and Aunt March arguing fiercely about gender roles and the very value of a woman in their time (and, by extension, our own).
There is only one point at which Gerwig tries to stretch the story beyond its limits. A short scene in which Marmee volunteers alongside a Black woman to provide aid to soldiers returning from the Civil War tries to make some sort of statement about race, but it feels shoehorned in, unconnected to any other part of the plot. I’m guessing this was Gerwig’s attempt to aim for some kind of onscreen diversity, but let’s face it – Little Women is white as fuck, and there is nothing achieved by trying to make it otherwise.
Little Women is part of a current trend of re-examining and reimagining historical fiction. It doesn’t always work – characters in 1819 talking like people in 2019 takes skill to pull off, and purists (and bigots) will grumble about forcing ‘modern sensibilities’ onto historical narratives. But I think the approach works particularly well when it comes to stories by and about women (#BringBackAnneWithAnE!!).
If you think about the best loved female-centric classics, we love them for what is between the lines as much as what is printed on the pages, and recent remakes tend to focus on reading between the lines, taking license when fleshing out narratives and characters, but taking care not to make them unrecognizable from the people and stories we have loved for generations.