George Cukor in 1933. Mervyn LeRoy in 1949. Gillian Armstrong in 1994. Now, Greta Gerwig in 2019. Four Little Women adaptations, close enough in concept but distinct in their own unique ways — almost like they’re each representative of a March sister. (Technically, the novel has been adapted for the big screen eight times, including silent versions in 1917 and 1918 and a 1978 film that features mainly television stars, but the four highlighted above are undoubtedly the most significant.) Mirroring the modest gap between the 1933 and 1949 versions, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) follow-up Little Women arrives close enough on the heels of Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 take that comparisons are going to be inescapable. As it happens, both pairings bridge major cultural shifts. In the ’33 and ’49 versions, the world of pre- and post-World War II America (respectively) is contrasted with fictionalized lives of women in the post-Civil War U.S. In the ’94 and ’19 versions, feminism's third and fourth waves (respectively) find expression through an all-star female cast, portraying characters searching for equal rights during a historical period when the movement was just getting started.
Little Women has always been a story about sisterhood, with the novel detailing the March sisters and their growth as individuals and as a quartet in the years between childhood and womanhood. Each film adaptation has tackled author Louisa May Alcott’s original structure in varying ways. This latest, star-studded iteration is the first that dares to be palpably idiosyncratic. Although Gerwig isn’t taking any creative liberties with the content of Alcott’s timeless story, she has made the executive decision to tell it differently than the Little Women that came before. Her adaptation opens seven years after the beginning of the novel, a choice that leads to major plot points being revealed earlier than one might expect as the narrative hops back and forth across those seven years.
This results in a film that cares less about story and more about tones and themes — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but could be alienating for younger audience members. Still, the bare bones are there: The March sisters, coming of age in 1860s New England, experience the ups and downs of being a young adult (specifically a young woman) during this particular period in American history. To this end, Little Women focuses mainly on the years after Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), and Amy (Florence Pugh) have left the house, tilting this adaptation decidedly toward “women” rather than “little.” To be clear: Gerwig’s Little Women sticks to two specific periods in the lives of the March sisters, toggling between events over a span of nearly a decade at a perplexing and erratic pace. After such a confident and well-received debut as Lady Bird, Gerwig surely hoped this stylistic choice would make a strong impression with a timeless story. It definitely makes one, but perhaps not the one that the filmmaker intended.
The key component of this strong impression is star Saoirse Ronan, which should not be surprising to anyone who has seen any one of the actor’s critically acclaimed films. Three Academy Award nominations by the age of 25 is no easy feat, and Ronan is sure to earn herself another with her performance here. She’s a fully realized Jo, bringing a sense of real-world urgency to the character that harkens back to Winona Ryder’s take on the role in Armstrong’s ’94 version while also adding in a morsel of audacity and courage that casts Jo in an entirely new light. In a roster of talents that feel hand-selected from a slate of actors and actresses with loyal Twitter fan bases, Ronan rises above the likes of Midsommar darling Florence Pugh, Harry Potter alum Emma Watson, and even Internet Boyfriend Timothée Chalamet to be the true standout of Gerwig’s second outing as a writer-director. Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Bob Odenkirk all appearing intermittently as the adults in the room, ensure that no corner of the independent film scene is left out in the decade’s last (and most exhaustive) appeal to the arthouse crowd.
Regardless of the cast’s prowess, the most glaring issue with this latest Little Women is the muddling of its construction. For Gerwig to think that she could possibly retain the impact of the story after rearranging its centuries-old design to fit her aesthetic feels like the appropriate level of blind ambition for a successful director’s sophomore feature. If the fast-paced revamp of the novel wasn’t enough, Gerwig also seems to have opted for an Amy Sherman-Palladino style of dialogue that homes in on the clever back-and-forth between the March sisters and the rest of the residents of their quaint (almost cloyingly twee) Massachusetts town. If the intention here was to focus on feelings instead of plot points, then the film delivers — but only if the desired sensation was that of speed-reading SparkNotes before an exam.
Fortunately for Gerwig, Little Women has stood the test of time since its initial publication in 1868 because of the sheer strength of the text. It’s an unimpeachable story, one that will continue to be appreciated for decades to come. No matter how ineffective the changes made to its structure are, the competence of Alcott’s semi-autobiographical account reigns supreme. On top of this, Little Women looks heavenly — director of photography Yorick Le Saux, a French cinematographer known best for his many collaborations with Oliver Assayas, completely stuns with his gorgeous 35mm camerawork. It also sounds exquisite, thanks to a score from inimitable seven-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat. Greta Gerwig remains one of the most unequivocally talented filmmakers of the 2010s, so this slight hiccup is quite surprising. One has to wonder what drew her to reimagine Little Women in the first place, beyond the unmistakable parallels to the struggles women face in the world of the arts today.