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Considering that Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel Little Women has been adapted for film three times prior to the latest film version, you cannot help but wonder if there’s anything at all left to say about one text that would warrant a fourth. Fortunately, writer-director Greta Gerwig delivers a daring adaptation that does justice to the novel while also tweaking enough to ensure that Alcott’s enduring tale of sisterhood resonates with the present day.
Gerwig reteams with her Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in a star-studded ensemble boasting the likes of Laura Dern, Emma Watson, and Meryl Streep that shine amongst the lavish sets and costumes that entirely immerses you in post-civil war America. Streep is predictably a scene-stealer as the ice queen Aunt March, while Dern contrasts with passionate maternal warmth as Marmie March.
Of the four March sisters, on whom the film revolves around, Florence Pugh provides unexpected depth and nuance to the character of Amy, who, in previous adaptations is considered to be rather unlikeable. Pugh takes Gerwig’s tightly-woven script and effortlessly conveys all of the discontented younger child, the pragmatic debutante, the struggling artist and above all, the ultimately loving sister. Pugh easily surpasses Elizabeth Taylor and Kirsten Dunst to prove the definitive iteration of Amy March. When paired Gerwig’s script, she provides a compelling discussion on the economic necessity of marriage for women socially stripped of any agency to provide for themselves, to the point where Amy’s resolution to marry for money seems entirely justified.
Pugh’s spectacular chemistry with Saoirse Ronan proves to be the heart of the film as they compete as sisters and artists for love and success. Indeed, Ronan successfully manages to fill the shoes of Winona Ryder and Katharine Hepburn to showcase a driven and fiercely independent Jo March. However, what makes Ronan’s take on the character stand out are the many biographical details of Alcott’s life and character that Gerwig’s script seamlessly gives to Ronan. Such as having Jo negotiate the exact same conditions and payment for her work that Alcott painstakingly prised from publishers who gave in, still under the belief that a female-centric book wouldn’t sell.
This adaptation isn’t without its changes, and, unlike the previous versions, begins the story in the middle, when the sisters are grown up and out in the world. Yet often calling back to their childhood. Gerwig even addresses the novel’s controversial ending (which Alcott added at the insistence of publishers against her wishes). Gerwig essentially allows audiences to choose their ending by depositing the more romantic but less believable ending into the novel within the film, thereby treading the line of honouring Alcott’s original intent while still fulfilling the published novel.
Gerwig’s appreciation of Alcott’s novel is apparent throughout, and even devotes an entire scene to the physical process of printing and manufacturing the book down to the last, luscious detail.
I didn’t think it was possible for every thread of a needle and stroke of a brush to prove so satisfying, and it ultimately represents why Gerwig chose this project to cash in the blank cheque she earned with Lady Bird.
It’s a love letter to the very craft of writing and the bonds of sisterhood.