Little Women - Greta Gerwig

With its arrival on Netflix, it certainly seems fitting to review what has been one of my favourite films from last year: Little Women by Greta Gerwig

Little Women: from a book to Netflix

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s homonymous book, the 2019 film gives a new life to a story beloved by so many since it was originally published in 1968. Although it is the seventh adaptation of the novel, most notably following the 1994 film of the same name directed by Gillian Armstrong, it is safe to say that the 2019 Little Women stands out against his predecessors for a variety of reasons.

Little Women

Firstly, the director employed a non-linear narrative that intersects two temporal planes – the one of childhood and the one of adulthood – that are very much divided in the chronological narration of the book, so much that the book is divided into two parts, the second of which divided into a second volume altogether in some publications.

In Gerwig’s film, the story jumps back and forth between the present timeline which begins in the Fall of 1868 and sees the March sisters now adults and the past timeline beginning seven years before when the four characters are still little women.

The director marks the difference between the two thematically – with the past timeline representing childhood and the present being the March sisters’ transition into adulthood – as well as visually through colour grading.

The past scenes are characterized by warm colours, suggesting a joyful and perhaps romanticized childhood and the warmth of the family home as the characters look back at the past as “a perfect moment that is forever gone” as Gerwig herself said.

This sets a stark contrast with the cooler tones used to depict the present timeline in which all the sisters now live apart from each other as they start making their way into the adult world.

Gerwig explained her decision to use such a non-linear structure throughout the film, a bold choice that sets the first apart not only from the book but also from the other adaptations of the novel. It is clear from her interviews that she did not just want to do something different or new but this choice plays into a wider framework.

It refers to the constant tendency that is especially evident amongst females to interrogate and look back to our younger selves: we are, to use the director’s words, “always walking with our younger selves.”

There is so much more to be said about Gerwin’s Little Women and the changes made to the original novel: from the larger space given to the characters of Amy and Meg to the various depictions of feminism that we get to see through the four sisters becoming women.

However, it is also worth noticing that the 2019 film is only the second adaption to be directed by a woman – perhaps this is one of the reasons why the film manages to modernize and re-tell a classic story in such a convincing way, with subtle but significant changes.

Most interestingly, the ending departs completely from the one written in the original novel and this – like the other changes made in this adaptation – is a conscious choice made by the director after researching extensively about Louisa May Alcott’s life through her diaries and correspondence with fans.

Little Women

While in the book the main character ends up getting married and having her own family like her sisters do, the movie goes in another direction, one that is arguably able to stay true to the original sentiment of the author in a way she could not have done.

At the end of the film, the past timeline converges into the present but the dual narrative emphasized by different colour grading remains an integral part of the film as it depicts two different endings for the main character, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan).

The reality of author Jo, and virtually Louisa May Alcott herself, discussing her book – incidentally called Little Women – with her publisher and the fiction of her character Jo who chases after her love interest and eventually gets married are differentiated by depicting the former in cooler and greyish tones and the latter in the warmer colours originally associated with childhood, which may be seen as an illusion in of itself, as it represents a fictionalized and romanticized memory.

This brilliantly represents the pressure that was most likely put on the author herself at the time to have her heroine get married, seen as the acceptable ending for 19th-century audiences. Gerwin herself explained this in an interview, saying that it was never the original plan to have Jo get married but she only did it “to please her readership and her publisher and to make it financially successful.”

In her adaptation, Gerwig herself said she “wanted to give Louisa May Alcott an ending she might have liked” and I believe she succeeds in this as she is able to play into this debate while staying true to the original novel. At the same time, this film is able to represent what may have been Alcott’s original ending for her character and to stay true to the author’s life as well as Alcott herself never got married and she clearly modelled her heroine after her own self.

It may seem, then, that we finally live in an age where the main character can have her happy ending without getting married or being involved in a romantic relationship of some sort. However, it was more complex for Gerwin to do so than we may think. In fact, the director herself has to fight, much like Louisa May Alcott did, to have the main character remain unmarried during the production of the film, as she revealed in an interview.

Luckily for us, Greta Gerwin succeeded and gave us an even more powerful representation of what was already an inspiring and compelling story.