All of us who grew up wishing they were the fifth March sister tentatively take our seats at the cinema, hoping for our imagination to be translated onto the screen with the same vibrancy, faces and decor. Greta Gerwig knows this, and essentially her message is, well, this is what Little Women looked like inside my head when I was reading it. Hope you like it, xo. And thank God, it’s energetic, delicate, and clever.
Updated and topical, yet simultaneously contained within the original story, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation finds a lovely balance between Louisa May Alcott’s original material and her own fresh interpretation. Gerwig’s is a dissection of what’s already hiding between the story’s lines; it is an exploration of the hows and whys of Alcott’s story. Details and additions inside the movie could easily have come from annotations on the margins of Gerwig’s copy of Little Women. Ultimately, it’s her love for the source material that creates the depth she breathes into each character.
While nostalgia is difficult to convey in film, Gerwig chooses to split the narrative into two timelines with a seven year difference that weave scenes together to embue this sentiment. Through such parallels she effectively paints the sisters’ nostalgia for their youth as they navigate a difficult period for women in history.
That Little Women is a feminist novel, we all knew — but over awareness of this would be anachronistic. The de-emphasis of Meg’s romance, Amy’s practical approach to marriage, Jo’s own struggle and Laurie’s signs of weakness are all the factors Gerwig has chosen to prioritise.
The film focuses more on the experience of existing as a woman than adapting to common characteristics of modern feminism. By doing so, it comes full circle — diving into the fundaments of what is is to be a feminist and the places women can find strength. Sisterhood stands out as a reflection of a safe space, both physical and mental: a dynamic in which roles cease to exist.
Indeed, it shows ambition as feminist in its origins and not ends, because neither Meg nor Amy are less worthy than Jo after their marriages — nor is “settling” an acceptable way of referring to the lives they’ve chosen.
Gerwig’s reconfiguration of the dialogue is done so with a strong, intelligent feminist focus, centred rather on the idea of rightful rebellion than the “correct” way of being a woman. It’s subtle but consistent, seeping into every point of the narrative in which the sisters have to make a decision, and thus framing the story as a tale of daily choice, challenge, and empowerment.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women isn’t about Jo or Meg’s life or even Amy’s, Beth’s, or Louisa May Alcott’s. It’s a movie about love, made with a lot of it. It radiates it while keeping a safe distance, these relationships too delicate to be closely watched — but for a bit, it gracefully lets us. Note: bring tissues if you’re an easy weeper.
Illustration: Hazel Laing