*Note: this post contains spoilers about the film Little Women.
“I am working on a novel, and it’s about my life, and my sisters’.”
Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film version of this frequently adapted classic Little Women begins by allowing a burgeoning writer to voice her modest ambition: writing a book about herself and her family. In the movie, the girl who makes that claim dashes through a crowd in a dark grey outfit after her manuscript gets accepted by a publisher. The camera follows her as she hurls her way through the passersby, her locks of loose hair dancing, eyes firmly set on her way.
That girl is, of course, Jo March, the much-loved, often-cited heroine who has inspired enduring analysis and discussion within cultural, academic and popular discourses ever since her entrance into the literary scene. As the most forceful and passionate character in Little Women, Jo’s voice dominates the movie. In fact, in this new rendering of Alcott’s classic, Jo is made into the de facto writer of the book Little Women. The story, then, explains how the novel comes to be, how Jo the successful writer comes to be, and how she straddles the triple roles of author, woman and daughter. Unlike previous adaptations, this movie starts with Jo pursuing her writing career in New York, already a mature writer with published stories under her belt. The part about her childhood and teenage years with her sisters comes in later in the form of alternate flashbacks and reminiscences, all of which are beautifully woven into the fabric of the main narrative.
As a long-term fan of Little Women, I inevitably sunk into the nostalgic mood while watching the film on New Year’s Day, getting all sentimental and teary when the familiar scenes set in. The cast is delightful—Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March. Each actor brings something new to the characters I knew and loved—Ronan adds a touch of spontaneity and lightness to Jo’s disposition; Chalamet’s Laurie appears less bright-spirited than I’d remembered, but seems to me both pensive and petulant in a boyish way; Watson turns out to be more suitable for the role of Meg than I previously thought it would be; Pugh doesn’t present enough of the coy innocence, or the decorous behaviour that Amy is known for, but towards the latter half of the movie, the actress demonstrates a mature, stately manner that highlights Amy’s entrance into womanhood; Meryl Streep, brilliant as always, has revealed a tender side to fussy Aunt March.
But besides the cast, who mostly delivered their score, I was more intrigued by the adapted screenplay itself, most of all the changes made to Jo as a tomboy-made-woman and a sensational story writer-turned-children’s author. In Anne Boyd Rioux’s study of Little Women’s adaptations, she argues that previous film renderings of Jo March had over-emphasised her masculine traits or downplayed her awkward tomboyishness by casting a character with stunning physical appearance. The 2019 adaptation interests me because it doesn’t seem to underline Jo’s struggles with her gender nonconformity—compared with its predecessors, at least. On the contrary, I felt, as I was watching the film, that Jo’s tomboyishness has been captured in fluid, aesthetically-pleasing camera moves, which define her boyish nature not necessarily as a conflict that she faces but as her innate spirit, and a part of who she is. For some reason, I was secretly glad that Greta Gerwig, writer and director of this film, allows Jo to live in harmony with her unlady-like ways. In so doing, Jo’s gender subversiveness may have been toned down, but it stays in line with contemporary expectations of femininity while also retaining a flavour of the past.
Gerwig’s portrait of Jo as a writer—more specifically, the writer of Little Women, also proves different from what I’d originally expected. It seems to me that Gerwig has taken the parallels between Jo and Alcott onto a new level, blurring the boundaries between story and memory, narrative and autobiography, the fictional writer and the actual writer. When I watched the film I could almost sense that Gerwig had a double narrative threading throughout—the narrative of the writer Alcott who wrote Little Women, and the narrative of Jo March, the fictional writer whose life closely resembles her creator.
The double narrative—or, more precisely, the way the two narratives bleed into each other—creates opportunities for multiple readings. For example, in the final scenes of the novel, Jo, in her dejection and loneliness after Beth’s death, starts writing a book about her sisters and then sent it off to a publisher. Soon after, Professor Bhaer visits her at her home and Jo realise that she had loved this man all along. Her sisters shepherded her to a carriage so that she could catch up with the Professor and tell him how she truly feels before he leaves the country. The girls find the Professor at the rainy railway station. Then, just before the romantic reunion takes place, the camera turns unexpectedly and takes us to the scene where the young writer is having a meeting with the publisher, who asks her to marry off the heroine so that sales could be guaranteed. The writer agrees. And as soon as she does, we are transported back to the raining day at the railway station, with teary Jo jumping off the carriage and reuniting with her loved one under the umbrella. Though unconventional, Gerwig’s cinematic approach provides spaces for an open ending: one could see the young writer as Alcott herself, who did not marry but gave her heroine a happy marriage. Or one might go with the romantic trajectory and imagine the writer as the fictional Jo who both marries Professor Bhaer and sees her book published.
No matter which version the audience choose to walk out with, it is hard not to be moved by the poignant scene where Jo stands outside the printing room, seeing her labor of love published. The printing and bounding process is presented in minutiae detail, and the girl writer herself witnesses the manual production of her work, as her eyes trace the book maker’s every move, her smile conveying a mixture of relief, contentment and pride.
After a film screening in New York, Gerwig explained what she hoped that critical scene might convey:“What I was trying to reverse-engineer was this moment that Jo getting her book would make the audience feel like you usually feel when the heroine is chosen by the hero. I wanted to see if I could create that feeling, but with a girl and her book.” During my first-time viewing, this scene did create the effect anticipated by Gerwig. I was in tears when I saw how one’s life, one’s words and one’s creative labour are finally laid down, printed, bounded and presented into the world—the birth of a book, the genesis of a classic. The materiality of the novel—each page, each cover, each compressed layer—is also emphasised through discreet use of light and cinematography, showing the prized importance of a self-authored book to a girls’ life, heightening the sense of achievement that she feels as a result of her authorship. The very last scene also ends with Jo coming to her garden with her family (and her frolicking pupils, of course), in time to see a heap of her newly published books laid out on the table. Such a way of wrapping up Little Women celebrates Jo’s authorship as much as Alcott’s. It is a celebration of women’s authorship and creativity which continues to thrive despite the structural limitations that sought to silence them.
Besides her successful portrayal of the writer Jo/Alcott, Gerwig also tries tackling some of the most prominent issues women face in their lives, most notably the difficulty for her to make a way for herself and gain financial independence without the help of marriage. Alcott addresses such a ‘female quandary’ in Little Women, but Gerwig makes Alcott’s subversive undertones more explicit, having both Jo and Amy declare the dilemma they face as ambitious women artists. The girls’ direct outbursts and ‘complaints’ are not merely empowering discourses pandering to the interests of contemporary viewers, however. When I watched the film I was always aware of the the tone of ambivalence threading throughout Gerwig’s discussion of women’s condition. An ambivalent attitude towards women’s place in the world has always been, in my opinion, the very core of Alcott’s book, and one of the key reasons that contributes to its enduring popularity. To my delight, Gerwig does not pare the ambivalence away in her adaptation. In so doing she creates a subtle tension that gently tugs at the audience, setting them thinking about what that ambivalence means. One intense moment of ambivalence is when Jo, having finished her book draft after Beth’s death and experiencing bouts of emotional stress, confides to her mother about her frustration. Teary and yet defiant, Jo blurts out:
“Women have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But—I am so lonely.”
This moment has been regarded by reviewers as “pivotal”—a word John Matteson uses at the very beginning of his article on Gerwig’s excellent adaptation. I would argue that the moment is pivotal precisely because it demonstrates a woman’s ambivalence: she is either to follow, willingly or otherwise, the heteronormative script and subject herself to the pleasures and costs of love, marriage and family life; or she could accept her singlehood and the inevitable loneliness, insecurity and social pressure that comes with it. What Jo’s ambivalence really reveals is the nature of love: ‘it aches, it sacrifices, it disappoints’ (Matteson, 2020), for women all the more so. Their struggles of navigating between the paradoxical parameters of love are a perennial and ever-relevant aspect of female experience, which may be why Jo’ words still touch millions of audiences today. (The writer of this blogpost would like to add that Jo’s remark hit her hard as she watched the film—it was as if a warm comet had flashed through that expanding patch of darkness within her soul and revealed the cracks and dentures of her spinsterly existence)
There are other ambivalent moments, of course, such as when Amy tries to paint her way into greatness while she was in Europe but finds herself considering the prospect to marry Fred, who, according to her, holds an even larger fortune than Laurie. There are also moments of growing up and lessons learned, of acceptance and denial and gain. Through trials and errors, joys and sorrows, ups and downs, the March girls march into womanhood, their steps hesitant but hopeful. With toils and tensions, revises and rewrites, candles burnt and lit and burnt again, pages of scattered scribblings make their way into bookshelves and remain there for more than a hundred and fifty years. As a film that honours Alcott’s own life as well as her work, Gerwig’s whole new screenplay will continue to charm viewers for many more years to come.
Matteson, John. (2020, January 1). One Way the New Little Women Film Is Radical. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2020/01/where-greta-gerwigs-little-women-and-louisa-may-alcott-meet/604294/
Rioux, B. A. (2018). Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy : The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company
Zoe Du is a first-year PhD student researching representations of girl writers and girlhood authorship in modern and contemporary children’s and young adult literature. She read Little Women when she was 13, and has loved it ever since.