Little Women, based upon the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott and written & directed by Greta Gerwig, is the eighth film adaptation of the popular book.
I wanted to write this review dispassionately, but I cannot. I am 56, and Alcott books have been part of my life since I was about 6 or 7, when I first read Little Women. (I was a very early reader.) My book is the Junior Library publication illustrated perfectly by Louis Jambor, which was originally published in 1947 by Grosset & Dunlap. It was given to me by my Grandmommy Alys (my dad’s mom). Poor lady, she then had to follow up with gifts of Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys (1871), Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to Little Men (1886), as well as Eight Cousins or The Aunt-Hill (1875), Rose in Bloom: A Sequel to Eight Cousins (1876) and A Garland For Girls (1888; a collection of eight short stories).
I inhaled books as a sickly kid; every movie I watched, every book I read, was informed by my rare and incurable lung disease that manifests as repeated pneumonias; I have had literally thousands of pneumonias, and my lungs are thus 75% scarred and calcified — cemented, if you will, with no elasticity or “breathing” capabilities in the scarred and calcified portions. I was diagnosed when I was about 8 years old, after three to four years of suffering repeated pneumonias with no medical explanation found. It took a retired Army doctor who had seen cases of my disease in third-world countries to accurately diagnose me; the years before him were, quite literally, one near-death experience after another, endured by my poor family. He told my mother and me that there was no cure, and that I had three to five years to live.
The day he diagnosed me, I remember sitting at my bedroom window in my rocking chair, waiting for my dad to get home from work because I knew my mom would tell him what the doctor said. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do about any of it. I didn’t know what it meant to die, but I was terrified. I was so sad, so scared; I told myself: You need to be brave, like Beth. Beth was the only death I knew, you see. She faced her frailty bravely, and that made it easier for her family, right? I needed to do that, too, right? (I don’t know how well I succeeded; probably not very well.)
For the 15 years or so after my diagnosis, my parents and I were told by various doctors and clinics — time and again — that I had three to five years to live. Hearing that over and over for years had an impact on all of us — my parents, my siblings, me. It provided me with a unique perspective on life. I admit that, as an invalid housebound child, I didn’t live life much. But I sure as hell read every book I could get my hands on. Books were life to me. I still suffer that disease (and a bunch of other disabilities), but … I am not yet dead! You, as my review reader, need to know all that, OK? I approach this movie review from such a strange personal perspective; nevertheless, I hope some of you find it of value.
Little Women is set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the American Civil War. The story is loosely based on Alcott’s childhood experiences with her three sisters, Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (Amy), Elizabeth Sewall Alcott (Beth) and Anna Alcott Pratt (Meg). The character of is based upon Louisa May Alcott herself. Following the lives of the four March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy — the novel details their passage from childhood to womanhood. The novel was an immediate commercial and critical success — different from contemporary writing primarily intended for children, especially girls. The themes of domesticity, work and true love weren’t all that different, but the manner in which Alcott’s characters navigated them had unique elements.
In Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture (1987), Sarah Elbert says Alcott created a new form of literature, one that took elements from Romantic children’s fiction and combined it with others from sentimental novels, resulting in a totally new format. Elbert argued that within Little Women can be found the first vision of the “all-American girl” and that her various aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters. Little Women tells a story of real lives in real ways, the ups and downs of personalities and childhoods, and coming of age and death and life — all told in a specific time period but in a way that resonates with timelessness.
Personally, even as a young child, I found parts of myself in each of the March sisters. Like Meg, all I wanted was to be happily married and to be a mother — the latter something doctors told me would never happen. Like Jo, I yearned for freedom — something my illness would never allow. Like Beth, I was (supposedly) terminally ill — death a looming certainty and never would I live a full life. Like Amy, I wanted to be an artist — and I knew I never would be (talent or lack thereof aside, again, that damned looming death thing!). They all were me and I was them.
In my humble opinion, the cast in Gerwig’s adaptation is almost perfect. Saoirse Ronan makes a good Jo (although I wish her hair was darker), Emma Watson is perfection as Meg, Eliza Scanlen plays Beth quite well, but she does not physically look the part, and Florence Pugh is an absolute delight as Amy. Timothée Chalamet is a most excellent Laurie (the best one ever in TV or film), Laura Dern plays Marmee in an oddly giddy manner not in keeping with the book’s character, and Meryl Streep is delicious as Aunt March.
I need to emphasize that my issue with Scanlen’s casting is not her portrayal of Beth’s character; that’s pretty much dead-on. It’s that, with her round face and rosy checks (which are fine for pre-Scarlet Fever Beth), she doesn’t ever look ill, let alone deathly so. Keep in mind that, back in the day, Scarlet Fever was often a death sentence, and survival meant chronic immune-deficiency related illnesses, with complications like rheumatic fever (also a death sentence back then) and susceptibility to pneumonia. Now, on my good days, no one can tell how ill I actually am: My disabilities are hidden disabilities. However, when I’m actually ill, with pneumonia, I do indeed look deathly ill. So I think they should’ve cast someone thin and pale, and just used cheek prosthetics and makeup for the pre-Scarlet Fever scenes.
The worst casting is Louis Garrel as Professor Bhaer. Professor Bhaer is German; Jo describes him thusly, in a letter to Marmee:
A regular German — rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one’s ears good, after our sharp or slipshod American gabble. His clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth, yet I liked him, for he had a fine head, his linen was very nice, and he looked like a gentleman, though two buttons were off his coat and there was a patch on one shoe. He looked sober in spite of his humming, till he went to the window to turn the hyacinth bulbs toward the sun, and stroke the cat, who received him like an old friend. Then he smiled, and when a tap came at the door, called out in a loud, brisk tone, “Herein!”
I don’t know what the casting director was thinking. Garrel doesn’t match the physical description of the character, and his accent — well, it is not like any German accent I’ve ever heard.
The film itself is beautifully shot, with amazing sets and costumes, and I think it is the best visual representation of the book that I’ve ever seen. I like the bouncing back and forth in time, and I like the bouncing back and forth between “the story” (i.e., the novel) and Alcott’s real life. I especially like the scenes where she (you may decide if “she” is Alcott or Jo) talks with her publisher about “having to” (i.e., a requirement of the times in which Alcott lived and wrote) marry off the character of Jo … because that is exactly why Alcott had Jo marry Professor Bhaer. The “Under the Umbrella” chapter of the book always seemed a little off to me, like a quick wrap-up scene — so unlike the rest of Alcott’s thoughtful, careful writing. The chapter is adapted to the screen horribly; Gerwig makes a bad chapter even worse by changing the dialogue and events in totally unnecessary ways. She does not improve their romance and she does not improve the storytelling.
This leads me to my one and only real criticism of the film: At almost every seriously emotional point in the story, Gerwig poorly rewrites dialogue and Alcott’s storytelling in ways that take away from the book’s timeless and real moments. I’ve reread my worn-out, broken-spine copy of Little Women more times than I can count. There was a time (pre-stroke, of course!) when, like with my beloved Gone with the Wind, I could quote Little Women almost chapter and verse, as they say. So I appreciate the faithfulness of much of the film’s adaptation, but I really hated the changes Gerwig made to several key scenes.
There was no need to change Beth’s experience contracting Scarlet Fever: The Hummel baby dies in her arms. Beth is about 14 years old at the time; can you imagine that experience? Read the chapter in the book (chapter 17, “Little Faithful”; it is perfect. When they find Beth ill and crying, and she tells them about the baby dying in her arms, my god, I challenge you to keep a dry eye.
There was no need to change the two most significant illness scenes. When Beth is fighting Scarlet Fever, Jo awakes to find Beth’s bed is empty and races downstairs, thinking her sister is dead, only to find her sitting at the table with Marmee. The fever broke and Beth is eating (FYI, she will live to young adulthood, at least). The film adaptation of that scene is a device to connect to the film’s version of Beth’s death. Again Jo awakes to see Beth’s bed is empty, and this time we know Beth is dead. Both scenes in the book are so much better written — more real, more poignant, more perfect. Jo and Meg don’t leave Beth’s side when she is fighting off Scarlet Fever as a child. When Beth dies as a young adult, it is in her mother’s arms, Jo is there. Chapter 40 (“The Valley of the Shadow”) is so beautifully, honestly and rawly written that I will never understand why Gerwig rewrote those two scenes — not even if she tells me herself.
On the positive side (I need to be positive!), Gerwig’s overall adaptation is fairly faithful to the rest of the book, especially many previously overlooked scenes, especially those that involve Amy and her relationship with Laurie, and Meg and her relationship with her husband, John. I like that Gerwig gives us fullness straight from the book regarding these characters. I’m not thrilled with some of Gerwig’s choices about changing or adding dialogue within those scenes and plotlines, but overall the movie flows well for the characters of Amy and Meg. Pugh and Watson give stellar performances. It is always disconcerting when actors of a certain age portray characters decades or years younger than themselves, but Pugh and Watson pull it off better than most.
Overall, this movie will go down in history as my favorite film adaptation of Little Women. For the record, everything that was a “never” for me has come true: Like Meg, I have a beloved husband and my own Daisy and Demi (mine are not twins, though); like Jo, I found my own freedoms (one of which is writing); and like Amy, my dreams of being an artist (talent or lack thereof aside) came true. Happily for me, unlike Beth, I am alive.
The film opens on Christmas Day, as a family-friendly film. If you own the book, reread it and go see the movie on its opening day as a Christmas present for yourself. If you haven’t read the book, go see the film on its opening day as a Christmas present for yourself … but I hope you find the book under your Christmas tree.