When I heard that Greta Gerwig was directing a new adaptation of the classic novel “Little Women,” I was of two minds. First, the move made complete commercial sense. And second, what more could one do with the material? After all, there are adaptations for the screen and the small screen for more than a hundred years.
Without a doubt, Gerwig succeeds in crafting a new version of the novel (originally, released as two books, combined into “Little Women” in 1880). This incarnation stands as an ultimate celebration of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiography. Perhaps it’s ironic that the themes might have greater import now than they did in the years following the Civil War.
Alcott’s narrative wove itself into Americana. On a literal level, it’s the coming of age story of four March sisters, but anyone marginally familiar with it will attest that it is about so much more. Gerwig’s script tells the tale principally from the perspective of protagonist Jo March (Saoirse Ronan).
We are introduced to Jo, a budding author, as she meets with a dismissive book publisher named Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). He peruses a writing sample, makes some quick, casual edits, but offers to buy her story. Jo is shrewd and negotiates well, which amuses Dashwood.
At the outset, Gerwig grounds her film in the theme of empowerment—finding a voice and putting it to use. From this scene, the screenplay begins to jump around in time, showing us moments in the lives of the March women that reveal growth. This “Little Women” takes advantage of a time-traveling structure to deliver a timeless message.
And as the years are chronicled, we meet the other March sisters. Emma Watson plays Meg. Florence Pugh, who was so good earlier this year in the terrifying “Midsommar,” is younger sister Amy. And Eliza Scanlen (from HBO’s “Sharp Objects”) plays Beth.
Governing four adventurous daughters is the level-headed Marmee March played by Laura Dern. 2019 has been a good year for Dern. She’s getting awards buzz for her work here, as well as for her turn as a divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.” In “Little Women,” Dern provides the film with an enlightened parental foundation.
Part of the tension of the story is Jo’s strained relationship, or non-relationship, with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet). The potential coupling of Jo and Laurie will frustrate viewers not familiar with the source material. But the script that moves around from year-to-year might improve on the traditional straight telling. Gerwig gets the Jo and Laurie dynamic, perhaps, better than any previous attempt to translate the “Laurie” problem.
And Chalamet, who worked with actress Ronan in Gerwig’s joyous “Lady Bird,” should add even more interest to its target audience. The boyish actor has developed into a teen heartthrob, while also delivering on his acting promise. Chalamet is in this year’s Netflix movie “The King,” and he will play Paul Atreides next year in Denis Villeneuve’s much anticipated “Dune.”
“Little Women (2019)” is arguably the best adaptation among so many excellent cinematic versions. I do remember favorably the 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale. Gerwig’s approach, by contrast, is fresh and inventive.
In light of pop culture’s current interest in this period in American history with shows like AppleTV+’s revisionist, whimsical “Dickinson,” “Little Women” comes to theaters at a perfect time. And with the present upheaval in the attitudes that men and women have toward one another, we could all use the enduring story of the March sisters in our lives.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com