As with many novels of enduring success, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 collection “Little Women” has been adapted for the stage (including musical theater and opera), for television and, most notably, for the movies.
Indeed, the several movie versions produced over the years have attracted the top actresses of their day. George Cukor’s 1933 film starred the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett, while Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 production featured June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. Meanwhile, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 offering gave us Winona Ryder and Claire Danes.
Each of these adaptations is more or less faithful to what Alcott put on the page a century and a half ago, though each abides, too, by the mores of its own era. And the latest version of “Little Women” – written and directed by Greta Gerwig – shows just how far we’ve progressed in the last eight decades in terms of movie narration, theme and tone.
Alcott’s basic plot involves the March family, mainly the four sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. With their father off fighting the Civil War, the sisters and their mother must make their own way, dependent on what little money Jo can bring in with her writing and on the kindness provided by extended family and their kind-hearted wealthy neighbor. Each sister is of a different temperament, and part of what “Little Women” portrays is how those disparate personalities strive to be independent while attempting – at the same time – to maintain a close, familial intimacy.
In terms of theme and tone, Gerwig, reflecting the quirkily energized characters she herself has portrayed in films such as 2012’s “Frances Ha” and 2015’s “Mistress America,” emphasizes the desire for self-reliance most exhibited by Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan).
At the same time, each of the sisters makes her own individual mark, Meg (Emma Watson) who marries and raises children, Amy (Florence Pugh) who pursues her art even while also marrying, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) whose devotion to those less privileged leads to Alcott’s singular exploration of loss and grief – discounting, of course, the loss and grief felt by “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothy Chalamet) when Jo turns down his offer of marriage.
It’s how she narrates her film that most reveals Gerwig’s fresh take on Alcott’s basic plot. Instead of proceeding chronologically, she begins in the middle – with Jo marching into a publisher’s office, presenting a story she has written and negotiating what she considers to be a fair price – and then moves back and forth in time.
The effect is sometimes confusing, especially over the first half hour of the film’s two-hour-and-15 minute length. But when the movie finds its rhythm, it blossoms into an authentic and moving portrayal of Alcott’s world, smoothly melding traditional themes with contemporary attitudes. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen any of the other adaptations, but I don’t remember Hepburn or Allyson, in particular, raving against the unfairness of women being mere chattel.)
That, though, is the world in which we live as we dive into the third decade of the 21st century. And Gerwig explores it as well as anyone.