It requires an inordinate amount of gumption to turn a beloved book like “Little Women” into a film. Even a rote remake would be scrutinized and picked apart by lifelong fans of Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, but Greta Gerwig’s daring adaptation goes above and beyond by remixing the story of the March sisters and adding her own editorial flourish at the end.
I reread “Little Women” before I saw Gerwig’s film last month, and the wonderful novel I loved as a child came across as sanctimonious and flat. Like many other unruly young writers, I adored Jo when I first read it; I even read “Jo’s Boys.” This time around, even the wildest March sister came across as milquetoast by the end. Does adulthood wring the joy out of everything?
But it’s not just me: Alcott herself dubbed the genre “moral pap for the young,” that she ground out to pay the bills for her family. (Her secret side hustle of writing pulp fiction under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard wasn’t discovered until 1942.) Buried in “Little Women” is a little Louisa May Alcott in Jo March, a vivacious writer whose wonderfully pulpy stories are a source of delight, freedom and shame in equal measures.
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What especially saddened me as I read the book recently was that Jo gives up writing her scandalous tales after being reprimanded by Friedrich Bhaer, a humble German professor she later ends up marrying. It’s an ending that’s so disappointing and out-of-tune for Jo’s character that Bhaer was softened in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film so he came across as less of a sanctimonious schlub; he is even further defanged in Gerwig’s adaptation. (It doesn’t hurt that Gabriel Byrne and Louis Garrel play Bhaer in the films, respectively.)
While I loved Armstrong’s vision, Gerwig’s feels like that first deep breath after loosening a corset’s strings. Her commitment to investigating and portraying the interior lives and loves of girls and women in her scripts — the complicated and often painful mother love in “Lady Bird,” the heartbreaking best friend love in “Frances Ha,” the tumultuous sisterhood love in “Mistress America” — make her perfectly suited to the task of making the March family come alive. That this is only her second solo directorial effort (she co-directed and co-wrote 2008’s “Nights and Weekends” with Joe Swanberg) is shocking. Studios pour vast sums of money into far less assured hands every day.
Gerwig’s eye is flawless, and the tonied cast of actors features “Lady Bird” stars Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet alongside Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Bob Odenkirk and Meryl Streep.
But “Little Women” is a story about a writer, and Gerwig’s writing is what makes “Little Women” more than your typical Oscar season adaptation of a classic book. One of the radical changes Gerwig makes in her script is that it starts more or less at part two of “Little Women,” with Jo living in New York City trying to sell her pulp stories to a jaded male editor, then flashes back to the events of part one.
As the events of part one “Little Women” unfold in the movie, we also see the current Jo hard at work on writing her wild stories. After Beth’s death, she turns her attention to the much more wholesome story of the March sisters, but her gruff New York City editor isn’t interested — until his daughters discover Jo’s story and become enthralled with it. He relents … sort of.
Jo’s final meeting with the editor, which takes place at the very end of the movie, reveals a neat narrative trick. The book he’s holding is “Little Women,” the version that Alcott wrote, but the movie we’ve been watching is comprised of scenes both from Jo’s book and Jo’s “real” life.
“The right ending is the one that sells,” he says. “If you decide to end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.” So the “happy ending” with Bhaer and a house of students? It’s from Jo’s book — not her life.
Gerwig told The New York Times that that scene “could have been written yesterday, sitting with an executive at a studio.” It’s not hard to imagine her fighting studio bigwigs to give Jo March her freedom or Frances Ha her flakiness or Lady Bird her self-centered flair for the dramatic.
“Women, they have minds, and they have souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely,” Jo tells Marmee near the end of the movie, her voice breaking.
It’s not totally clear if it is a scene from Jo’s “life” or from her “book,” but it doesn’t really matter. Jo is speaking for Gerwig, and for so many of us watching and reading and (hopefully) creating.