Film & TV

Little Women Can Have It All

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures)
Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of the classic novel is the closest Hollywood has come in a long time to portraying authentic feminism.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been adapted for the screen more times perhaps than any other novel, but the latest version illustrates that there can be ingenuity in the retelling of a good story, even if it’s for the seventh time.

Aided by a well-cast set of actors, writer and director Greta Gerwig brought new life to yet another remake of the classic tale, which centers on the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. For lovers of Alcott’s tale, there is hardly any room to quibble with what Gerwig has done with the story here. There are some differences between the book and the film, but none are subversive, none are unfaithful to the spirit of the novel. Some of the dialogue is more contemporary than in past adaptations, but not in a way that contradicts what faithful fans of Little Women would expect from the beloved characters.

The biggest success of this newest version is how Gerwig chose to structure the screenplay, interweaving episodes from the girls’ adolescence with their experiences as young women — and, for three out of the four, their journeys after leaving the home and family that we come to see was the defining aspect of their lives.

The chief difficulty in adapting a book for the screen is appealing to those who want a film faithful to the story while also intriguing those who haven’t read the source material. This is really where the non-linear storytelling shines, giving familiar viewers a careful portrayal of characters they already know and enabling viewers who haven’t read the book to understand the story more fully than they otherwise would.

This filmmaking tactic of moving forward and back in time easily could be distracting or confusing or give viewers a disjointed experience. Not in this film. The back-and-forth storytelling permits Gerwig to showcase character growth in a more immediate way than a linear plot structure might allow, placing a particular emphasis on the theme of growing in virtue through patient effort, one of the best elements of Alcott’s novel. We see the younger girls struggle with common, relatable weaknesses: anger, impatience, vanity, impulsiveness, painful shyness, selfishness. Unfolding at the same time, we watch them as women, flourishing because they’ve learned to contend with those flaws, becoming better for having done so.

A letter that Mr. March sends home to the family perhaps best encapsulates this theme: “I know they will be loving children to you, do their duty faithfully, fight their enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

Though not explicitly so, Little Women is a deeply Christian film, with themes that were close to the heart of Alcott’s original. In addition to giving us characters who grow in self-awareness and in self-mastery, the movie repeatedly emphasizes that practicing virtues such as selflessness, hard work, and forgiveness — even when it seems beyond an ordinary person’s capability — is the simple secret to a joyful life, yet not a perfect one.

Aided by this theme, the film depicts an authentic feminism that the modern world sorely lacks. Anyone who saw only the trailer might think Gerwig has thrown over Alcott’s little women to craft an ode to the empowered careerist. Hardly.

Though she, like the novel, rightly doesn’t shy away from the challenges of being a woman at the time — for instance, the fact that because of customs and social policy, women were forced to view marriage at least partly as an economic proposition — Gerwig depicts an idea of what it means for women to “have it all” that still applies today. Unlike today’s notion of feminism, the movie leaves room for women who want to balance the tradeoffs that come with living a fulfilled life.

At one point, one of the March sisters chooses to marry a poor man for love, telling her more ambitious sister, “Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” “I want a family and a home,” she adds, “and I’m not scared of working and struggling, but I want to do it with [him].” Her choice is treated as perfectly legitimate; she is no less of an empowered woman for having set aside what today’s feminist might view as loftier dreams.

Meanwhile, the sister who had planned to eschew marriage so as to better pursue her vocation later confides in her mother, “Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty, and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But I am so lonely.”

The trailer for the film includes the first part of this line, uttered dramatically — but it cuts off the last sentence. It is telling that such a poignant depiction of a young woman struggling with the challenge of balancing love and work, rendered beautifully in the film, must be cropped to entice a modern audience.

“Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance,” one sister tells another near the close of the film. “Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them,” the other responds. “Perhaps writing will make them more important.”

That’s what this film has done, giving us four sisters and a mother who brighten stiff and silent rooms or freezing hovels with their presence. It shows the power of women who, even in mundane daily life or moments of grief and suffering, find joy in their love for each other and radiate that joy to others.

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