Arts Comment

Little Women: much more than a feminist screed

A scene from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Greta Gerwig's adaptation is both easily accessible to mainstream cinema-goers and sufficiently nuanced for the learned reader of classics

This latest cinematic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 eponymous Civil War classic asks a fundamental question: can little women produce “something of value”? It isn’t clear who is asking the question: Greta Gerwig, the youngish, artsy director, or Sony Pictures, the sales-driven, diversity-obsessed octopus of a movie studio?

In just two hours, Gerwig does her best to accommodate commercial demands while bringing her sophisticated artistic touch to this reinterpretation of a New England novel cherished by many. Buoyed by star power with the likes of Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Emma Watson and Timothée Chalamet, the film manages to remain lightly choreographed and entertaining thanks to Gerwig’s unquestionable talent.

With echoes of the French New Wave and a postmodern structure, Gerwig blends scenes from the novel out of context to create a new work of art. The first chapter of the novel only comes a quarter into the film, yet it seems completely in sync with the structure on the screen, thanks in part to Alexandre Desplat’s score.

Partly autobiographical, Alcott’s novel tells the story of four sisters in Massachusetts whose futures are torn between marrying up and pursuing artistic aspirations. While their father is fighting on the battlefield, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are fighting another battle: how to build their lives. Only Jo March, the novelist, manages to achieve success both in love and professionally, thanks in large part to the counsel and affection of men in her life.

Gerwig turns what could be a deja vu feminist screed into a subtle, enchanting and at times ironic tale of woman empowerment. It isn’t that Jo March does not want to be loved; she wants to be accepted by society as a full human being regardless of gender norms and expectations.

Birthed by their father’s transcendentalist progressivism and propelled forward by the full force of abolitionism, the March sisters seem to be hindered not so much by their essentialist characteristics as entrapped by their social status. Can they afford to become who they truly are?

If not lower middle class, the Marches are part of the impoverished middle class. They have to work, or sell themselves into marriage. From the first scene however, the novelist pays attention to how much she can earn from her writing, up until the closing scene when she negotiates to retain the copyright of her soon-to-be bestselling novel.

The film takes aims at critics, dismissing them as forgotten men. When Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) criticises Jo’s published short stories, the author starts yelling and ranting. Yet after her publisher suggests she turns the ending into a happier one by letting the protagonist marry the critic instead of dying alone, the viewer is enchanted by a classic scene of the new couple kissing in the rain. The forgotten man is indeed what brings “something of value” to this little woman.

At once easily accessible to mainstream cinema-goers and sufficiently nuanced for the learned reader of classics, the film brings a new perspective on the art of writing, but also on the ethics of building a life as an adult. Gerwig makes you want to re-read the novel and perhaps even read Alcott’s short stories to decide for yourself if you agree with the critic or not.