Little Women is a daring adaptation of an enduring classic

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic book is inventive, moving and filled with beauty.

In Little Women, there’s an overhead shot of young women in hoop-gowns climbing the stairs. Their dresses, wide and cumbersome, squeeze and bend to accommodate the young debutantes preparing for their coming-out ball. It’s a brief moment in a film of delicate observations and keen sensitivities. With the sound of laughter and chatter on the soundtrack, the moment encapsulates the warmth of women’s spaces with fresh and open energy. Greta Gerwig’s latest film, likely the most daring adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel about the four March sisters, captures the heart of the beloved story beautifully.

This big-screen adaptation mixes both volumes of Little Women, intercutting two timelines onscreen as the harsh reality of one story counterbalances with the rosier memories of the past. In the telling of Jo’s story, in particular, there is a compelling metatextual element on the nature of storytelling itself. The film’s final act, especially, comments cheerfully and cleverly on the importance of marketability in publishing a best-selling book. It’s a testament to the film’s sensitivity and poetry that none of this feels overwrought or silly. Gerwig allows the framing elements of the second book to create this sense of distance that might seem jarring at first but is incredibly effective. The film’s strong sense of subjective memory and emotion allows for radical breaks in traditional storytelling, even with such an iconic and beloved property. 

Central to any adaptation of Little Women is casting. Saoirse Ronan is Jo, Emma Watson is Meg, Florence Pugh is Amy and Eliza Scanlen is Beth. Everyone redefines the role, rising even in the shadow of actors like Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh, all of whom have played one of the “Little Women” before. Pugh as Amy stands out in an already banner year (regardless of your feelings on Midsommar, Pugh is astonishing). The supporting cast includes Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Louis Garrel and Meryl Streep, all of whom shine. The film’s casting has the feel of a classic Hollywood film, a perfect continuation of such a rich legacy where all the major big-screen adaptations are quite good.

For young women, Little Women continues to endure as a popular novel because it captures the voice and tone of growing up. Gerwig, in particular, excels in scenes of chaotic girlhood as young women laugh and play, laughing and falling over each other. There is spontaneity that cannot be written but has to be embodied. In the face of the harsh realities of the world, such as money, war and death, the book and its adaptations similarly portray the difficulties in growing up and facing life. The Little Women are not simultaneously Little Saints bearing the cross of suffering (except maybe Beth) but are flawed, torn and doubtful. Yet, fundamentally, they are also people trying to be good and right by themselves even against the odds of social inequality and the senseless cruelty of life itself. 

The transformative power of the question, “Who am I?” connects all the different storylines and bonds. Even the most minor characters face the existential problem of the self, continually reflecting on shifting priorities and desires. There are moments like Laura Dern, as Marmee March, explaining how she has to fight her impatience. Even though, on the surface, she seems like the perfect matriarchal figure, it is not her nature — it is a choice. What does that mean for the four young women who are so drastically different? Are our lives determined by nature or experience? Are we, on a fundamental level, even capable of change? The film doesn’t offer conclusive answers, and this open-endedness lends the film poetry, narratively and visually.

This more profound sense of uncertainty in the face of life and death, self and other, is where beauty emerges. Scenes aren’t reduced to their narrative or moral worth, but part of a greater tapestry of life experiences against the backdrop of the natural world. Gerwig’s adaptation not only demonstrates an exceptional understanding of the text but a perceptive understanding of its pastoral rather than melodramatic appeal. Yes, the movie remains a powerful tearjerker, but that’s not why it’s great. 

In a cinematic landscape so preoccupied by explosive storytelling, Little Women is an intimate balm. Even for those familiar with the novel, the film is full of surprises. It’s not about hitting specific plot points as much as it is experiencing the inner world of its familiar characters. It is a film about faces, reactions and environments and all the magical little details that make life worth living. ■

Little Women opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Dec. 25. Watch the trailer below.

For our latest film reviews, please visit our Film section.