Whenever there’s a new adaptation of a classic novel, the grumblings are always the same. Do we really need another version of this? Hasn’t the story been told to exhaustion already? But beloved novels like Little Women occupy a special place in the hearts of fans, and each new interpretation of the source material yields multitudes. And with an adaptation like the one Greta Gerwig has carefully rendered, thought has been given to create a version of Little Women that feels comfortingly familiar yet excitingly novel at the same time. Characters that we know and love as dearly as people in our own lives are given new shades and dimensions, especially those who have been ill-served by previous adaptations and even the original text.
The central concept of Little Women remains the same. The Marches are a tight-knit family in Civil War-era Massachusetts, comprised tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), warm and maternal Meg (Emma Watson), cripplingly shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and haughty Amy (Florence Pugh). They’re cared for by their loving and preternaturally patient mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and father (Bob Odenkirk), a largely absent figure who is away in the war. But in terms of the narrative structure, Gerwig takes a few liberties. Rather than telling the story in a strictly chronological order, it jumps back and forth through time, beginning towards the end of the novel and frequently flashing back to earlier events.
The result, although potentially confusing for an audience with little background knowledge of the story, creates a more satisfying balance and allows for more complex emotional beats. By making this choice, it introduces Friedrich Bhaer (a charming Louis Garrel) at the start, preventing him from seeing like a last-minute afterthought. It also establishes a relationship between Jo and Amy in the first act, preventing the Jo and Laurie arc from overpowering the film and paying dividends for the development of young Amy’s character.
And while we’re on the subject, the greatest triumph of this version of Little Women is in its portrayal of Amy, one of the story’s most misunderstood and unfairly maligned characters. Florence Pugh is extraordinary here, bringing so much depth to a role that is often relegated to bratty little sister territory. What’s so striking about this Amy is that no matter how much Jo would hate to admit it, they butt heads because they’re so similar. Both passionate and hot-tempered, they act rashly then repent at leisure. But more than anything, they are connected by their ambition, chafing against the limitations, professionally speaking, of their gender.
Jo spends the majority of her life resenting Amy for being coddled and protected as the baby of the family, while Amy seethed at forever being in her talented older sister’s shadow. But as they mature, it’s impossible to ignore how very much the same they are, and how both are driven by an incessant need to take up more space in the world than women of the time were traditionally allowed. The main difference is just that Amy is pragmatic, wanting to work within the system to achieve her goals, while Jo would see it burnt to the ground.
In general, this is an area where the film excels, in exploring each of the March sisters. We see not just their role within the March family unit, but their larger existence in society. In Gerwig’s Little Women they are not just sisters and daughters and wives, but women. Individuals whose hopes and dreams do not fall easily into one category or another, but are as varied and multi-faceted as any man’s. This is well-established in the script, which is carefully adapted in a way that feels true to the novel yet also surprisingly modern.
But it’s also a testament to the powerful leading performances from each of the actresses playing the March sisters. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen have perhaps less to do than their fiery counterparts, but nonetheless add depth to the proceedings and provide the much-needed emotional heart of the family. Laura Dern presents us with easily the most uncertain and fallible Marmee we’ve ever seen on screen, taking what is often a saint-like character and creating one that feels much more human.
And one more thing: we need to talk about Laurie. The lovable shiftless layabout who lives next door to the Marches, obscenely wealthy yet without any discernible ambition save for desperately wanting to be a part of the March family. Timothee Chalamet owns the role, giving us a Laurie who is deeply flawed but all the more endearing because of that. He’s able to avert the Jo-Laurie problem we’ve seen in other films, where their relationship is built up so much that it doesn’t make sense for them not to be together. Here, he’s utterly charming, but also moody, self-absorbed, lazy, and entirely at home in high society. He and Jo would kill each other if they became romantically involved. Chalamet also brings a marvelous physicality to the role: his Laurie does not sit, he lounges, and he never stands, he poses.
As a film, Little Women should serve as a calling card for Greta Gerwig’s imaginative directing capabilities. The thoughtfulness on display here proves that “Lady Bird” was not a one-hit wonder, and she should be considered among the most promising young directors working in Hollywood today. The stylistic and narrative choices, the dialogue, and the incredible performances all contribute to a “Little Women” that is not just a new retelling of the familiar story, but a creative and ambitious reimagining.
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep