Little Woman: Ronan Reclines Featured

The latest adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN is the 8th film drawn from the material and the second in two years. The source material is just over 150 years old. Can a so oft adapted book over a century and half old still lead to something exciting and interesting on its 8th trip to the multiplex (not to mention a host of TV, audio drama, stage, and foreign language adaptations)? Let’s head on over to Concord, Massachusetts and find out, shall we?

Little Women: Jo and Laurie
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet encounter heartbreak in a scene from LITTLE WOMEN. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

The Idea Behind LITTLE WOMEN

Like the book, the movie tells the story of the March family, specifically the quarter of sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they grow up during and after the Civil War in Massachusetts. Their kind hearted mother Marmie (Laura Dern) struggles to raise them and continue to charitable as their father (Bob Odenkirk) serves in the Union Army. Dad’s sister, their aunt (Meryl Streep), offers ongoing criticism and demands they adhere to gender roles all while being rich and unmarried herself. Their rich neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), his grandson Theodore, better known as Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), the grandson’s tutor John Brooke (James Norton), and Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) also figure prominently.

As the March sisters grow they struggle with death, heartbreak, feelings of being trapped, not being able to live the lives they imagine due to gender, finances, talent or some combination therein, and the changes time inflicts upon their family cohesion.

Little Women: Beth
Eliza Scanlen arranges flowers during LITTLE WOMEN. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Writing LITTLE WOMEN

Director Greta Gerwig adapts the script herself, delivering a non-linear version of the story. Despite its time jumps back and forward — and only making the viewers aware of it via title card once — following the timeline never proves a struggle. Nonetheless, the approach lends a new energy to the storytelling. By restructuring events via theme instead of chronology, it feels like seeing a new work even if you remember the book or previous adaptations very well.

Gerwig’s strength in adaptation does not stop with the movie structure either. While keeping the dialogue period appropriate, she manages to script it in a way that feels natural and interesting. There is no processing gap as the viewer gets used to the slightly different version of English. To be sure, the actors deserve a huge amount of credit for this and we will get to them. However, their abilities owe much to Gerwig’s warm and human portrait of this family. While not “updated for our time,” it nonetheless feels newer, fresher. Gerwig seems to have viewed the novel not as a classic from another time but as a living thing, a work as in touch with the moment as it was when first written.

Finally, it is a legitimately funny script. Another way Gerwig makes the story come to life is recognizes how much natural humor Alcott created in her novel and not shying away from putting that on the screen. She proves especially adept at finding the bittersweet laugh, the moment that brings laughter amongst the tears.

LITTLE WOMEN: Jo
Saoirse Ronan gets in her cardio during a moment from LITTLE WOMEN. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures(

Casting the March Sisters

As noted above, all four of actors authoring the March sisters do an excellent job making their dialogue and exchanges feel honest and natural. Their words never get the best of them and force a stilted moment. The words might be aged, but the emotions and inflection feel current.

While Jo remains obviously the lead, and Ronan continues to prove she is an excellent collaborator with Gerwig, the three other actors are given enough space to fully form their respective characters. Pugh, especially, does a great job with probably the most difficult sister Amy. Her monologue on love as an economic proposition is noteworthy not just for how she holds the screen but also the range of emotions she subtly flickers between as she pushes back against Laurie’s rather privileged perspective.

Little Women: Marmie
Laura Dern contemplates family during LITTLE WOMEN. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Let’s just start with this. Every actor on set does a great job with the material. Streep probably has not been this fun in a part in…maybe a decade? Garrel might be the first performer in history to make Bhaer seem like a worthy suitor for Jo not just a baffling “any port in the storm” situation. Both Cooper and Dern make their characters too realized to fade into the background like they have a tendency to do in other adaptations.

The even smaller players get great moments. Tracy Letts as the publisher Mr. Dashwood has a relaxed fun energy that makes him a strong foil for the serious and often rigid (at least with him) Jo. His brief exchange with his wife might be the funniest moment in the film, as well. And, to restate, this is a funny movie in general.

Chalamet, alas, never manages to sell Laurie’s love for Amy. In all other ways though, he crushes. In particular, his gift and instinct for humor, something the actor rarely gets to display in non-Gerwig films, is strong. He makes his repeated requests to know who Bhaer is funny every time without shading into overt jealousy or bland repetition. The chemistry between Ronan and him nicely capture how close they are and how easy it would be, if you were Laurie, to convince yourself it was romantic love.

Little Women: Amy
Florence Pugh prepares to tell the truth, the greatest art of all. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Directing LITTLE WOMEN

I truly enjoyed LADY BIRD, Gerwig’s previous directorial effort. I think it was a well-written, well-acted, and, yes, well-directed movie. That said, WOMEN represents a significant jump up in the tools Gerwig has at her command.

For one, the use of color and light to denote not just emotion but time period is smart and subtle. The script’s structured well enough that the non-linear storytelling would be easy to follow regardless. However, by utilizes color and light as she does, she makes doubly sure of it. It is the decision that proves not only smart aesthetically but also ensures the storytelling sings.

Gerwig also employs speed and montage in interesting ways that I cannot recall her bringing to bear previously. She even under and overcranks the camera at times in a way that captures emotion and motion without proving distracting.

I could go on citing more and more examples of how strongly her choice of image matched the moment in the movie but neither you nor I wants that kind of exhaustive list. Instead, I’ll just mention one. While Beth plays the Laurence piano for the first time, the camera slowly moves backward, revealing more and more of the considerably large Laurence manor. It is as though the camera is tracking the music as it fills the otherwise and often very quiet home. Then, Mr. Laurence enters the frame and the camera pushes in on him. The moment draws our focus away from the size of the music to the impact. The music fills the house and the character’s heart at the same time.

Little Women: The Sisters
Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen look out a window in a scene from LITTLE WOMEN. (Courtest of Columbia Pictures)

That’s A Wrap

There have been plenty of excellent adaptations of LITTLE WOMEN. The 1994 film version in particular has a special place in my heart. However, I cannot recall ever seeing an interpretation of it that ended with me as energized as this one.

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