This is at least the seventh film presentation of a novel that was released 150 years ago and has been in continuous publication ever since.
Little Women is the story of four sisters coming of age in Concord, Mass., during and shortly after the Civil War. The author was Louisa May Alcott, who was raised in a very similar family.
The film is beautifully made and is the third from Greta Gerwig, whose previous works (Frances Ha and Lady Bird) were much admired. The acting is also very good, particularly by Soairse Ronan, who plays Jo March, the second sister and a writer whom the film and the book treat as a stand-in for Alcott herself.
The other sisters are Meg (Emma Watson,) an aspiring actress, musician Beth (Eliza Scanlen,) and budding artist Amy (Florence Pugh.) Their father is off fighting for the Union forces, and the mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) is generous and kind.
The next-door neighbor is Theodore/Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) a wealthy young man who from the look of him couldn’t beat any of the Marches in an arm wrestling match. He is very fond of Jo.
Alcott was a writer whose work helped support her family when she was urged by her publisher to write a story about her youth. She turned out Little Women in a matter of months. It was published initially in two volumes — one about the girls’ teen years and the other about their early adult lives.
For some reason this film tells the story in back-and-forth scenes instead of sequentially. Since most growing-up narratives and the source material show how young characters grow into their adult selves, it’s a little hard to understand why this production jumps around so much.
Second, and more worrisome, is that the film seems at odds with its subject – Jo March/Louisa May Alcott.
Everything we know about Alcott suggests she would be very comfortable in the current milieu of third-wave feminism, and this seems clear in the movie as well. Part of that, for her, meant that she preferred not to marry. She also did not want Jo March to marry, but she was warned by her editor that stories about women needed to end in marriage or death. In the movie, the girls’ Aunt March (Meryl Streep) strongly urges them to take a transactional approach to marriage, seeking husbands who will provide financial security.
If there is a problem with this movie, it is that it tries to have it both ways.
(Spoiler alert: If you do not know the story and plan to see the movie, please stop reading now.)
Jo’s older sister falls in love with and marries a low-earning tutor, and financial tensions arise. Younger sister Amy, who resented Jo when they were children, accepts a proposal from Laurie after Jo spurns him. (Jo’s refusal of Laurie has puzzled Alcott fans for, well, forever.)
Jo herself, per the book, enters into a companionate marriage with a middle-aged schlubby fellow named Friedrich Bhaer, apparently in a grudging concession to her publisher’s exhortation.
In the movie, however, Bhaer is played by Louis Garrel, a handsome 35-year-old French filmmaker. Jo plays coy when he visits the family, but her sisters understand immediately that she is in love with the man. A joyous ending ensues.
Alcott herself never wanted to marry and never did. Given that, it seems odd that a movie that depicts its star almost as Alcott herself would settle for such an ending.
But women like romance, and this is a movie made for women. At least 90 percent of the audience in the very full theater where I saw it were female – teenagers to senior citizens.
Louisa May Alcott would not have been pleased.