Every generation gets its own adaptation of Little Women, and here is ours, with its first trailer released today. But just how well has Greta Gerwig cast her adaptation compared to past efforts?
Into each generation a Jo is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. No grown woman who has ever read Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel or watched any of the regular stream of film or TV adaptations of it can have failed to assign herself a character. Before there were Hufflepuffs there was loyal Beth; Slytherins could learn a thing or two from Amy. But everyone knows that classic Gryffindor Jo was the best one, and every girl who ever dreamed of stringing two words together for a living surely yearned to be the wild, ink-stained girl.
Well, no. I’ve managed to be a writer and a Meg (and a Ravenclaw). But from Orchard House to Hogwarts—or Carrie Bradshaw’s New York—identifying with a particular type continues to have strong psychological appeal. And who better to understand the need to find a place in the world than Greta Gerwig? Long before Lady Bird rattled the Academy enough to prompt a Best Director nomination for (gasp!) a woman, Gerwig specialised in unpicking relationship dynamics— particularly, though not exclusively, female ones.
As both writer and performer she has forensically turned over the tropes and hopes at their heart. Frances Ha’s examination of uneven friendships (one party more needy than the other) is in some ways the perfect forerunner to Jo and Laurie; Mistress America showcases the fractiousness of siblings who approach the world from opposite directions, as Jo and Amy do.
Gerwig’s work also grounds itself in pragmatism in a way that particularly suits Alcott. Alcott was a progressive feminist and abolitionist, and dismissive readings of her novels about the March sisters as fluff miss much. The archetypes the girls represent claim and carve a distinct identity amid the demands of domesticity and decreasing wealth.
Meg might crave a quiet life with her tutor husband, but they have to work through their issues when their children upset the emotional apple cart. Amy refuses to settle for less than she feels she’s worth. Beth so wholeheartedly adopts the nurturing demands of young womanhood she ends up sacrificing herself to them. And although Jo, unlike her creator, ultimately marries, it is to a man who doesn’t fit the mould of adolescent matinee idol and who encourages, supports and constructively challenges Jo’s ambition.
Of all the most well-known Josephines, only June Allyson has had a stolidly sensible streak; like Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, Gerwig’s choice of Saoirse Ronan mixes a physical delicacy with a decidedly powerful presence. On screen as on paper, successive Jos push at the edges of proscribed femininity; she mourns her impulsively cut hair, but she’d do it again in a heartbeat to help a loved one.
Pairing Ronan with her Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet for more delicious chemistry is a stroke of genius. Another is recognising the common ground between Emma Watson’s most famous role and the eldest March’s four parts practicality to one part vanity (Hermione at the Yule Ball surely owes just a little to Meg dressed up in borrowed silks). Florence Pugh seems born to play Amy. Beth has, in many ways, been the trickiest and most changeable, from Margaret O’Brien’s wide eyed little girl to Claire Danes waterlogged performance. In choosing less of a name — best known for Sharp Objects, Little Women will be Eliza Scanlen’s film debut — Gerwig cannily gives the quietest member of the family a new opening to establish herself without too many preconceptions.
Then of course there’s the March matriarch; the emotional centre of the family and its staunch moral guide. It’s hard to remember Marmee really being given her due on screen before Susan Sarandon’s gleefully arch and energetic performance in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation. Gerwig’s Marmee does not threaten to be sidelined back to a vague mumsiness; she’s cast Laura Dern, while the cantankerous, meddling, rich Aunt March is none other than Meryl Streep. Let’s hope they don’t get into another altercation over a coffee.
With such rich parts for women of all ages, it’s no wonder that there is no shortage of seasoned talent lining up to take on the story over and over again. There is also audience appetite for a refreshed take every few years, for each generation to see their Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy and fall in love with their Laurie (or Friedrich).
They also fight their own gendered battles and sense of feminine constraint in a world that still hasn’t levelled the playing field. We can be confident Gerwig’s Little Women will be passionate and beautiful and sharply observed in the way that her work always is. It won’t, nor can it be, definitive; for as long as women and girls feel they need to create space for themselves in a male-dominated world, they’ll want to try their hand at being homely Meg, shy Beth, self-contained Amy and imaginative Jo until they find their own perfect blend to take out into the world.