EVEN before director Greta Gerwig demonstrated her powerful voice with 2017’s Oscar-nominated hit, Lady Bird, she told producer Amy Pascal that she believed she was the right person to adapt Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women.
“I flung myself at it with everything I had,” says Gerwig in production notes of the movie which, now showing globally, recently scooped an Oscar for Jacqueline Durren’s fine costume design. It was also nominated for the Academy Awards for best picture, actress (Saoirse Ronan), supporting actress (Florence Pugh), adapted screenplay (Gerwig) and original score (Alexandre Desplat).
Also featuring Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Emma Watson among a fine cast, the film initially jars with its snaking narrative steeped in constant switches in time. However, once one has settled into the idea, the drama emerges as a constant delight – intelligent, refreshing, beautifully shot and featuring excellent performances and inspired direction.
“I had a very specific idea of what it was about: it’s about women as artists and it’s about women and money. That is all there in the text, but it’s an aspect of the story that hasn’t been delved into before,” says Gerwig in production notes.
“For me, it was something that felt really, really close to the surface and even now, this movie feels more autobiographical than anything I’ve made.”
Across disparate countries and radically different eras, Little Women has come to life in a million different ways. It is a book that is unsparing in its depiction of the way the world is hard on ambitious girls, but also offers a comfort: that ambition – a vibrant inner life that breaks the bonds of the world – is its own reward, says production notes.
It is a book that we first encounter as children, when the world’s possibilities are wide open and there is nothing in the world that can hold us back; we return as young adults, when the constraints of adulthood and society begin to shape who we are; and we return again, as older readers, with the bittersweet nostalgia of what it meant to be young and bold, joined with the exciting joy of seeing a new generation experience that daring for themselves.
The insistent power of the book is its distinctly individual call to grapple with life’s many clashing lures – with family, art, money, love, freedom, and the hope of being 100% who you are, creating your own unique story.
This deeply personal, fiercely alive idea of Little Women is the one Gerwig wanted to transport to the screen.
Production notes for the film point out that Gerwig approached the material with a determination to capture the sweeping, epic nature of the story that captures the enormity of what Alcott created, but also an honest, disarming emotional intimacy that brings the characters to life.
As every reader brings her own personal interpretation and meaning to the story, Gerwig puts her own stamp on the story about the ambitious Jo March reflecting back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women each determined to live life on their own terms.
The novel was originally published in two halves, the first focusing on the March sisters in auspicious girlhood, and the second covering the stark realities of adulthood. Gerwig pulls apart the novel, switchbacking between the two halves, with Jo’s story of determination and spirit providing the natural through-line and reconstruction between its parts.
With its fluid approach to time, the film immerses the audience in the memories, moments, accidents of fate and acts of will that form the March sisters-ink-stained, defiantly independent writer Jo; nurturing, principled, would-be actor Meg; fragile, open-hearted musician Beth; clever, aspirational painter Amy-into their full, complicated adult selves, each so different but united in an unswerving sisterhood.
The picture that emerges is of four women looking back with affection at how they became who they are. It is also one of a world where the dailiness of women’s lives – their discoveries, sacrifices and anger, their financial, artistic and domestic concerns – deeply matters.
What does it mean to take the reins of your life when so much that happens, from a crack in the ice to a mistimed letter, is out of your control? And how does that look to four sisters with four divergent dreams?
These are the questions Gerwig brings to the fore in a visually ravishing film with a look inspired by the bold artists who were changing the way people saw the world in Alcott’s time.
The questions feel modern, yet it was Alcott who latched onto these oppositions that still stop us in our tracks: money versus art, love versus personal satisfaction, ideals versus real life, caring for family versus finding your own voice.
Gerwig says she read Little Women so many times as a child, she doesn’t remember the first time. Like a long list of fellow writers and artists, she felt such an intense identification with Jo March-tomboy, misfit and would-be novelist struggling against the status quo to become the woman she imagines – that Jo felt less like a made-up person and more like a charismatic mentor.
She was the girl who knew what she wanted. To be freer. To create. To transcend all that was not allowed and yet to give of herself fully to her loved ones. That is part of why Gerwig wanted to plunge audiences into the fabric of Jo’s world – its emotional oscillations and personal dynamics-in the most visceral way she could.
While Gerwig stays true to Alcott’s original voice, she reconstructs the novel in an inherently cinematic way, unmooring the story from linear time, transforming the March’s most unforgettable events into the stuff of memories and creative inspiration.
This invites audiences to engage with the March sisters as something new: as adults looking back, and as the living source for Jo’s writing.
Gerwig went deep into research, reading Alcott’s letters and papers, to draw on aspects of Alcott’s real life to give her adaptation a formidable, modern voice. For example, the real Alcott wrote, “I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales”; in the film, matriarch Marmee, Jo’s mother, says, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life”.
Gerwig also wanted to pay homage to Alcott’s unsung story of financial success. She wanted to highlight how Alcott’s times, rife as they were with war and inequality, were also lit up with new ideas, free-thinkers and the energy of change.
In this atmosphere, Alcott crashed through social barriers and carved her own path to thriving self-sufficiency, taking control of her copyrights… like the J K Rowling of her day… and building then largely unheard-of name recognition outside of marriage or inheritance.
“I think the story feels more relevant than ever right now,” says actress Ronan, who starred in Lady Bird and plays Jo. “It explores young women finding the confidence to take their own paths.
“It also is a story that changes depending on where you are in life. You could be an Amy for a few years, then suddenly you’re a Jo, then a Meg, then you’re a Marmee and maybe back to a Beth. You can find yourself in each one.”
“It’s a story about identity and there’s nothing more modern than that,” adds Dern, who plays Marmee.
“We still struggle today with how to ask, ‘who am I, and how, despite everyone else’s opinion, am I going to stand true to that in my life?’ – yet that is what Louisa May Alcott wrote about 150 years ago. Part of the beauty of what Alcott did is that she established strength as independence, as art, as ambition but also as marriage and parenting, and Greta invites the audience to engage with all of that.”
Gerwig shakes up the story, telling it in two separate timelines, with the characters’ lives as adults living alongside the story of their childhoods.
“I structured the film to begin the narrative when they are adults, and to enter into the story of childhood as we all do, which is as memory, as a yearning, as a key to understanding who you are and where you are going,” says Gerwig.
“We are always walking beside our younger selves. I wanted there to be a tension – is that what happened, or is that how you remember it? Is that what happened, or is that how you wrote it?”
Perhaps what most exhilarated the women participating in the film was that this Little Women is unabashedly a story in which boys and men are certainly part of the picture – at times alluring, at times enervating to the sisters, but never at the centre of the world.
“What is so wonderful about what Alcott did is that these girls aren’t there to serve anyone’s stories other than their own and each other’s, and that idea comes through so strongly in Greta’s script,” say producer Amy Pascal.
“It is the perfect time for this movie because women are talking more than ever about choices, about how to be, about money, about what power is and about how we get along with men,” Pascal continues.
“Greta brings all this into the film by staying true to Alcott. She said, ‘I want to make a movie unlike any other. I want to make a movie from the book and if you go back to the book, it’s more controversial, funnier and darker than you think, and I want to make a movie that feels that real’”.
** Thanks to Suncoast Cinecentre for the complimentary tickets to review the film at Durban’s Suncoast Casino**