The latest version of Little Women hit the big screen on Christmas Day 2019. I’d read the book most recently over a decade ago, and watched several other film versions. How does this one rate?
This edition is not only based on the Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the March family, but also on Alcott’s journals; therefore there are a few interesting additions.
Stylistically, the movie has lush deep tones in indoor frames much like the period paintings Gurwig studied. The outdoor scenes are satisfying with period details as well as fresh and delightfully lingering which accounts for the length at 2 hours 15 minutes.
The movie is set in Orchard House and surrounding area, the actual Alcott home (now museum) in Concord, Massachusetts, across the lane from Laurie’s grand mansion, presided over by his grandfather, (Chris Cooper). Father is off to the Civil War, and Marmie (played by Laura Dern) sympathizes with the poor of the town and leads her girls to give away their sparse foodstuffs and care for the sick. Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), is wilder in this version than the others, least likely to succumb to matrimony; her sisters not so much. There are subtle religious overtones as the family prays true to the original book, but more stark are the overt feminist comments not present in the original novel or the previous films, apparently borrowed from a speech in Alcott’s novel Rose in Bloom and elsewhere in Alcott’s later writings, perhaps indicative of Alcott’s growing outspokenness. While women’s social standing is a predicament of the time, the “little women” being so self-aware is doubtful. It smacks of didacticism, aimed at educating the young who may know nothing of women’s former plight and the true work of feminism to win suffrage, property, and parentage rights. Again, not true to the novel, but in retrospect it is a truthful addition in light of Alcott’s values.
The character of Laurie (Chalamet) is rendered in a believable light, immature and a brother-match to Jo, while more suitable as husband for the younger more adoring Amy. His growing love for Jo and her refusal is put forth as the main story-line, but kudos to the director, Gurwig, for also giving us glimpses of Meg’s (Watson) romance with Laurie’s tutor John Brooke (Norton), poignant scenes during Beth’s (Scanlen) illness, and more of Amy (Pugh) in Paris with Aunt March played spectacularly by none other than Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, the role of Marmie March (Dern) was underwhelming, as was that of Father (Odenkirk). However, the comic banter and rich poetic dialogue provides hints of Thoreau’s Walden and other transcendental writers and thinkers of the time. In fact, I quite expected actual appearances by the Alcott’s neighbours, but they appeared only in the script.
Jo’s friendship and ensuing romance with Friedrich (Louis Garrel) is a good fit as he is closer in age to Jo than the version with Wynona Rider, therefore more believable, somewhat reminiscent of the updating of Pride and Prejudice with younger protagonists. More of their relationship would have been interesting. However, the final scene, as sweet as it is, does not at all seem true to the story as it doesn’t lead well into the following novel Jo’s Boys where Friedrich and Jo have a school for boys. Instead, it adhere’s to the comedic form for a gathering of community.
Another stylistic update was the switching back and forth repeatedly in time between the girls’ childhood and their adult lives, unlike the chronological treatment in the Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version with Wynona Rider and Susan Sarandon. I personally loved this treatment, but my movie-friend who hadn’t read the book or viewed previous versions was confused.
I recommend reading Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women first then watching the 1994 Armstrong version before seeing this one in order to truly appreciate the vision which Gurwig brought to screen.
Recommended for all ages.