Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved book Little Women deserves the accolades and overwhelmingly positive reviews it has received. There is probably no greater challenge in filmmaking than adapting beloved literary works. Typically there have already been film adaptations as well as the original book against which the film will be measured on both artistic and emotional levels.
For devotees of the original work, there is typically a love-hate relationship to filmed adaptations; they appreciate the validation that their beloved book merited a film version but they hate the surgery to the story that film length and budget usually require. More subtly, adapting from one medium to another, literature to stage, film, or visa-versa, necessitates a degree of translation as each medium is experienced and processed by the audience in different ways.
When done well, adaptations of classic stories present the essence of the original story’s themes, which typically reflect the author’s world view and life experiences, seasoned by the modern artist’s life experience and worldview. Gerwig’s adaptation of the Alcott novel falls into the well-done category. The affinity Greta feels toward Alcott is obvious no doubt because she also faced and overcome the challenges of being a female attempting to break into a male-dominated industry.
Set during the American Civil War, Little Women is a story of family love, hope in the face of challenges, and the power of community to support, nurture and overcome life’s trials. Led by the untiring matriarch Marmee, the March family endures anxiety of the absence of the father who went to war as well as the day to day financial challenges of a family now without a primary source of income. In the midst of these and other challenges, the sisters maintain their close bonds. In addition to their commitment to each other, the family learns through their mother to respond to the call to serve others who are less fortunate and equipped to endure hardship and want. Marmee models that serving does not begin until the service and giving are sacrificial. Even when such service calls to them to make greater than anticipated sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice, they retain their spirit and refrain from sliding into bitterness and anger that accompanies loss and grief.
In the March family, particularly the 4 sisters, there is a spirit of living life to the fullest. Individual differences of personality, as well as strengths and weaknesses, are seen as more complementary and necessary to the family than clashing and distinguished for the individuals. While competition and conflict that bends some of the relationships are unavoidable between four sisters, the March sisters do not allow such to break the family bond of love and devotion.
In addition to serving others as an act of discipleship, the film effectively presents Alcott’s overriding theme that individuals are to live their lives rather than live out the roles and expectations others place upon them. Though not stated, the film presents the Biblical understanding that individuals have their specific talents and interests and each person should live into the passion and calling given to them by God.
Saoirse Ronan makes the perfect Jo as she commands full attention whenever she is on screen, and even sometimes when she is not. Saoirse does not take all the oxygen in her scenes, she is the oxygen. Florence Pugh also offers a strong performance as Amy, the artist sister and, as Aunt March (Meryl Streep) christens her, the family’s “only hope” to marry well and assure the family’s financial and social status. Eliza Scanlen depicts the fragile Beth with the right amount of delicacy and vulnerable innocence. Emma Watson is functional if a bit young as older sister Meg. Laura Dern shows appropriate strength and miracle worker talents as Marmee, the mother and chief cat-herder of the rambunctious four sisters. The supporting cast, led by Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Bob Odenkirk are, unsurprisingly, strong and greatly add to the nuance and depth of the story.
The cinematography is exquisite as is the costuming. Gerwig was committed to recreating the look and feel of the time period in the film and spent time researching in the Metropolitan Museum where she received ideas from portraits and paintings from the time period.
One criticism of the film is that it is can be difficult to distinguish the different times when the film flashes backward and forward in time. While the use of this technique adds texture to the telling of the story, it can also be a source of confusion, particularly for those unfamiliar with the story and characters. Casting others to portray the sisters in their younger years or some other visual clue would have helped avoid confusion, especially toward the beginning of the film.
Little Women is on many best films of 2019 lists and has received many nominations including Golden Globe nominations for Saoirse Ronan for Best Actress in a Drama. The film is rated PG and is appropriate for older elementary-aged children an older.
Relative Scripture for discussion:
Matthew 25:34-40 Serving the least of God’s children.
I Corinthians 12:4-26 One Body with many members and talents.