If you read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in adolescence, you might recall some particularly frustrating plot lines that left you internally screaming are you fucking kidding me for years to come. But have no fear. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition reimagines the romantic endings that have divided audiences for 151 years, untangling a somewhat messy conclusion and refocusing the story on what’s really important: sisterhood. Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation is by no means for die hard fans of the book or previous movie adaptations alone. The story is centralized around the four March sisters—Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh)—as they grow from children to adults in the midst of the Civil War.
We remember our own pasts in a kaleidoscopic burst of good and bad memories, and the film’s complex timeline is reflective of just that. The story begins by introducing us to Jo in perhaps one of her most fragile moments. She stands quietly outside the door of a New York publisher, gathering herself before confronting her dreams of becoming a writer. The tension breaks the moment she enters the publishing press, and her true colors are slowly realized in her witty banter with a particularly harsh editor.
The story moves seamlessly back and forth between the struggles each girl faces in the newness of adulthood and their happy childhood memories. Just a few scenes later, we find ourselves transported seven years earlier to a chaotic and fun Christmas morning in the March house. Gerwig trusts her audience to invest enough attention to pick up on jumps in time, but further highlights these shifts with lighting that reflects the orange glow of childhood or the blue coolness of adulthood.
Upon Little Women’s original publication, Alcott broke down barriers for women in literature and in life. Though revolutionary for its time, Alcott’s original telling is reluctant to fully embrace outright feminism. Each March sister takes on life with fierce independence, but those qualities are given up when they fall for the right guy. Gerwig recognizes Alcott’s underlying hesitation to confront the struggles women face with unapologetic honesty. Subtle shifts to dialogue and plot bring out a more decisively feminist tone, transporting the story into the 21st century.
Perhaps the most beautiful liberty taken in Gerwig’s rendition is her interpretation of Amy March. In the book, Amy comes off as childish and bratty, burning Jo’s manuscript in a jealous rage and getting what she wants, even into adulthood. Though these qualities are present throughout the film, behind every frivolous desire is a strong woman with a clear sense of self. In one scene, Amy explains with great maturity that for a female, marriage is a business transaction at best. Amy’s goal to marry rich comes off as shallow in the book, but in the movie, that perception is reframed as Amy articulates her frustration in knowing that every penny she earns will belong to either her father or her husband.
Younger siblings might further sympathize with Amy’s struggle to break out from the shadow of her sister, Jo, both in her artistic endeavours and her relationship with Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), the boy next door who grows up playing alongside the March sisters and is madly in love with Jo. Though in the book the relationship between Laurie and Amy catches many by surprise, it feels far more natural in the film. Greta deviates from previous adaptations that romanticize Laurie without fully considering his flaws, and dedicate too much energy to his relationship with Jo and not enough to that with Amy.
Jo’s relationship with Fredrich Bhaer, the professor she meets and falls in love with while pursuing her writing dreams in New York, is also more realistic in Gerwig’s rendition. Fredrich is younger and frankly more handsome, being portrayed by Louis Garrel. Moreover, he has a quiet strength rather than a boring personality, and his critique of Jo’s writing comes across as honest and supportive, rather than blatantly mean. His patience ultimately fits well with Jo’s headstrong personality and redefines a relationship previous audiences struggled to accept.
Ultimately, this is a story of sisterhood. The relationships we share with our siblings are sometimes the hardest. But no one else in life will fully understand our hopes and dreams, our flaws and strengths, our highs and lows, where we came from, what keeps us moving even in the worst of times. And while men are temporary, a sister is forever.