Director and writer Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women comes from a line that begins in 1932, and it seems that the movies are getting better with youth. Louisa May Alcott’s novel tells a story of four sisters growing up that is so specific and clear in character, emotion and event that it can thrive in any time period. It doesn’t date because aspiration, the conflicts between love and social obligation, and women’s need for independence still matter.
As always, this new movie takes place in Massachusetts during the Civil War, in a family with those lively sisters and their mother. The father is in the Union Army which brings the tension of the war and the constant presence of loss into the story, and also gets the man out of the way so that the daughters and their mother can blossom as characters.
But the Civil War setting is mostly a pretext because the story is about young women finding their way in the world, and each of the Little Women movies – made in 1932, 1949, 1994 and now – reflects how women are thinking about themselves in the time of the film rather than the time of the novel.
The central figure is Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), and she’s rarely morose. Mostly, she takes on the world any way she can. The new movie opens on her in the office of a grumpy publisher in roughly 1864, where Jo claims that the story she’s offering is the work of a shy friend, a deception that the editor ignores.
Jo’s the writer, of course, and at this point she’s doing 1860s-style pulp fictions – although she will eventually learn to write things that matter to her – in fact the book Little Women, because the novel is largely autobiographical.
Alcott’s book does not begin in the publisher’s office, and neither do any of the earlier movies. Greta Gerwig, who also wrote her film, figures that enough people know the story by now that she can do some unpacking and rearranging. The move is not what’s called a “faithful” rendition of the book – but it gets the meat of it, and the guts.
Gerwig’s picture abandons Alcott’s chronological telling for an emotional structure that jumps back and forth in time to give events immediate context and makes visceral connections between the past and the present. Her young women are modern in their thoughts and in the angry fights between Jo and Amy about family, career and marriage. But Gerwig anchors the modern sensibility in her precise picture of mid-19th century Massachusetts, down to the clothes, the pottery on the table, the lamps, the architecture and mullioned windows of the March home, and the imposing figure of the Congregational Church at night.
Compared to earlier incarnations of Jo, Saoirse Ronan has far more powerful, more fierce physical presence than Wynona Ryder, from the 1994 movie or Katharine Hepburn with her (now) loony dramatics in 1932, or hapless June Allyson in 1949. And for Laurie, the almost-marriageable rich boy next door, compared to Christian Bale in 1994, Timothée Chalamet, looks like he needs a month of good meals. He’s here a frail little boy – he could never marry Jo because Saoirse Ronan would just blow the little fella out of the water. Even more than the earlier versions, this Little Women is about the fundamental power and intelligence of Jo. It’s a joy to watch.