By Brishti Basu
It’s been a colourful few months leading up to Hollywood’s most anticipated event of the year. With the release of a number of films that have received nothing but high praise from critics and general audiences alike, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony is sure to be full of close calls and disappointments for many.
But let’s take a moment to focus on one particular nomination, for a movie and cast that has been lauded by nearly every film critic, every journalist, and every reviewer that has taken the time to watch it.
Particularly in an era when the Oscars themselves are under tight scrutiny—and rightfully so—for its ostensible omission of films, directors, and actors who are members of a marginalized group, the cause of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has been taken up with great gusto.
To many who loved the movie, the fact that it was nominated for best picture but Gerwig was left out of the best director nomination category seems an obvious snub—a characterization of how the Academy mistreats female innovators in the film industry compared to their male counterparts. There is no mistaking the fact that the Oscars as an institution has a history of overlooking female directors—just look at their track record with icons like Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow.
But in the opinion of this writer who grew up with the March sisters, revisiting their story at least once a year and identifying with each of them at one point or another, lumping Gerwig into this category of wronged women is a mistake.
Don’t get me wrong: the 2019 adaptation of Little Women is an interpretation like any other books-turned-movies film, and perhaps more than others given the number of times filmmakers have attempted to alter the story to fit the big screen.
In its own right, Gerwig’s version of the characters in Louisa May Alcott’s novel is a portrayal of how she herself sees the characters, for example throwing young Amy March into the limelight in a way that she never has been before. And there are several aspects of the movie that showcase Gerwig’s creativity and attention to detail—like remembering how Jo has a proclivity to setting herself on fire!
However, from the perspective of what some would perhaps call a purist, this modern version of Alcott’s timeless tale falls short on many counts, practically begging for the insertion of a layer of subtlety and nuance that it sorely lacks. Here’s why:
1. The timeline
This is perhaps one of the most contested aspects of the film between critics and regular audiences, with members of both groups taking opposing stances. Gerwig delves into the March family’s tale through a back-and-forth timeline that, while not entirely confusing or difficult to follow, gives the movie a haphazard feel.
Stories told in flashbacks have been a popular device for filmmakers for several decades, yielding classics like Titanic and The Godfather. But for Little Women, one can argue that it leaves the viewer wanting a fuller picture of the sisters’ relationship with one another—an effect that was successfully brought to life in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation.
2. Casting issues
None can argue against the fact that Florence Pugh is one of this century’s most talented artists. The Midsommar star is pretty much the spitting image of what readers imagine an adult Amy March to look like, and her performance brings the youngest sister to the forefront of viewers’ attention.
But no amount of aptitude, insight, or creativity can dispel the unease one feels at being forced to imagine her as a 12-year-old girl. No matter how many pigtails, frocks, or fairy wings she dons, Pugh simply does not pull off the role of a preteen girl. This is most evident in the famous "limes" scene where the actress is surrounded by young schoolgirls, played by actual children.
And on the topic of casting issues, the character of Laurie, or Theodore Laurence, the affable next-door neighbour turned husband/brother-in-law to the March sisters, comes to mind. Actor Timothee Chalamet plays an entirely believable young Laurie, but would it have killed the filmmakers to pick a less gangly teenage-looking actor to play him as an adult?
If you’re still reading this, here’s something we can (probably) all agree on. Laura Dern had the potential to bring the character of Mrs. March, or "Marmee", to life in the most truthful and tasteful manner. Sadly, whether it was due to the influence of the director or the actor's own interpretation, this was not the case.
In Alcott’s story, Marmee is the quintessential voice of reason, the calming presence in her daughters’ lives, ever present, ever protective—the woman can practically work miracles, like healing Beth when she was on her deathbed. But Dern’s characterization of Mrs. March is nearly the opposite of this description—loud, scattered, and much like the movie’s timeline, haphazard in her mannerisms.
It doesn’t help that one of the scenes that best showcases Marmee’s protective nature—in which she writes a firm, yet polite letter to Amy’s teacher—was cut out entirely, replaced by a fictionalized version in which Amy runs to Laurie and his grandfather for help instead of going home to her own family.
4. Aunt March's direction
To the attuned Little Women reader, the character of Amy March is not just that of a spoiled little girl, but of a wilful young woman who takes her childhood experiences and uses them to figure out exactly what she wants out of life.
For a movie that aims to focus on the March sisters’ sense of agency—and turns it into a discourse on women’s ability to make their own choices—it quickly takes that same freedom away from Amy in one fell swoop.
“It’ll be up to you to support them all so you must marry well,” Aunt March tells the youngest March sister in a scene where she’s 13 years old. What Alcott aimed to showcase as Amy’s own conscious decision is turned, in this movie, into a hamfisted, entirely unnecessary dialogue that serves to reduce Amy’s own freedom in making the choice to marry rich.
5. Clash between Amy and Jo
As stated earlier, Gerwig’s movie ostensibly brings Amy March’s story to the forefront of viewers’ minds by putting her on the same pedestal as Jo. However in so doing, Gerwig inserts an element of rivalry that borders on hatred between the two sisters that should not exist.
This rivalry is showcased in the first place when an adult Jo returns home to take care of Beth and, having been told that Amy was not informed of her sister’s sickness, lashes out saying “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life.” Yes, we know Jo March has a temper—but this was absolutely the wrong place to insert this fictionalized dialogue, given the implication that Jo has held onto a grudge against her younger sister for several years.
Meanwhile when Laurie proposes to Amy, she responds by expressing that she has “played second fiddle to Jo” her whole life and has spent her entire life loving Laurie. Some critics argue that these amendments add depth to Amy’s character. I would contend that, while imaginative, they detract from the original story in an unforgivable way.
6. "It's just about our little life."
Perhaps this dialogue was yet another attempt to force Amy onto centre-stage and present her as the wisest member of the family.
Regardless, the story of Little Women has always been about the domestic lives of women and girls. Its success is owed to this simple fact, and it has been favoured by audiences of all ages for decades because of its timelessness.
The fact that Jo’s (or Alcott’s) story as “just about our little life” did not need to be pointed out in what is again a deliberate, hamfisted, “look-I-did-my-research” way. Some things are inherently understood and are better left unsaid.
7. The ending
And here we have the “full circle” narrative, in which the character breaks the fourth wall by telling their own tale.
Most critics applaud Gerwig for having Jo argue with her editor for an ending to the Little Women story that Alcott reportedly wanted. But, after a slight back-and-forth, Jo gives in to her editor with a chuckle and a “fine”. And, in what these same viewers have praised as an Inception-like “alternate ending”, Jo marries Friedrich Bhaer and opens a school with him.
However given that Jo does end up giving in to her editor’s wishes—i.e. “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it”—and given that this movie uses flashbacks to tell the whole story, it follows that both these scenarios most likely did take place, just at different times. So while having Jo write her own tale serves as a laudable nod to Alcott’s own journey, the ending doesn’t hold quite the same astonishment as some have argued.
On its own, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a charming, even entertaining movie. However, it is laughable to contend that any adaptation of Alcott’s timeless tale could ever stand alone, without being compared to the book and previous versions of the movie.
In this case, the director’s creative liberties made the movie highly appealing to modern audiences and the Academy Awards’ voting panels. Does it deserve the coveted title of best picture? And did Greta Gerwig deserve to be nominated in the best director category? This reader and watcher says no.