I’ve never read the novel the film is based on, but it must be nothing short of phenomenal based on how many times this film has been made. The film has been adapted an astounding seven times, including two silent films and one modern reimagining (meh), including seven instances television productions and a musical. By all accounts, the story is an indisputable classic. So how does one go about adapting this film to not only do justice to the source material, but also refrains from stepping on the toes of past iterations?
The simple answer? Greta Gerwig.
Greta Gerwig is at the helm of this adaptation, with her style and familiarity with the writing shining through both the script and the direction. Getting her start as an actor and writer in the “mumblecore” sub-genre of films, Gerwig eventually broke into the realm of directing with her sleeper hit Lady Bird. From there, Gerwig found herself getting a shot at adapting Little Women for a new generation, with a sizable budget and a laundry list of talented actors to boot. Not one to crumble under the pressure, Gerwig has produced one of the most heartwarming, smile inducing and tear generating films to come out of 2019. Her passion for the source material is evident in the care of crafting each setting, character and plot point with respect to the novel and respect to dummies (like me) who had no previous interaction with the source material until this point. It’s evident Gerwig did more than just read the book (seemingly the cutoff for a lot of these book-to-film adaptations) but understood it down to its spine.
Little Women follows the story of the March Sisters, four young women who experiences the tribulations of love and loss during Civil War-era America. There’s atypical writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the hopeless romantic Amy (Florence Pugh), the responsible Meg (Emma Watson), and the quiet but caring Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Each sister hopes to go down their own predetermined paths, whether it be success or marriage related, but attempt to remain close to one another despite some hiccups along the way. Despite the whimsicality of the story, the sister’s relationship is as rocky and volatile at times as it is sweet and endearing. Each of the lead actresses bring their A-game, especially Ronan and Pugh. Saoirse Ronan, who previously starred as the lead in Gerwig’s Lady Bird, does a phenomenal job portraying the stubborn and tempered Jo. She sticks out from the rest of her sister, being a bit of a tomboy and an advent rejector of things such as dresses and romance. Despite her hard-headed nature, Jo is fun to follow as she slowly begins to to come out of her shell. Florence Pugh‘s Amy can be both annoying and endearing at times, but she produces much of the comedy that comes from the sisters. Pugh filmed this movie back to back with Midsommar (a film I’ve already reviewed), which had to be a daunting task to go from despair and terror to the slightly lighter Little Women. Regardless, she does a fantastic job and was an obvious standout amongst the sisters. While Watson and Scanlen’s performances are not bad by any means, they are noticeably given less to do and exhibit less emotional depth than the other two aforementioned sisters.
Alongside the impressive main cast is an equally impressive supporting cast, including Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep. Another veteran of Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Chalamet plays Laurie, a young man seemingly obsessed with each of the March sisters, attempting to profess his love to seemingly any sister that gives him 5 seconds of eye contact. I found him more annoying than charming most of the time, but that may be my own personal bias to Chalamet’s past performances. Laura Dern’s warm and charming Marmee March is a delight to see and brings a necessary light to some of the film’s darker moments, exuding love and compassion in the most wholesome way possible. While her role is minor for someone of her caliber, Meryl Streep does a fine job as the cranky and judgemental Aunt March, adding just enough of her presence when needed but never overshadowing the comparatively newer actors.
Where many people found themselves confused, myself included, is with how Gerwig chooses to portray the story in a broken narrative format. We start in the later half of the story before flashing back to the beginning, and the film commits to these frequent time jumps throughout the runtime. While this is a unique way to tell the story to make it stand apart from other adaptations, it’s not always clear exactly when in time some of these scenes take place, especially if you are unfamiliar with the source material as I was. One of the culprits of this confusion is a lack of differentiating thematic elements that can better help the audience determine where in time each scene takes place. Perhaps a slightly more noticeable change in the color pallet could have helped, or an ever so slight tweak to the aspect ratio. We cover several years passing in the film, but our lead actresses who are supposed to make the transition from children to young adults never really look all that different. The most glaringly obvious example is Pugh as Amy. While her performance is great, it’s hard to believe the then 23 year old actress as a 12 year old. Her hairstyle and mannerisms do their best to suspend your disbelief, but it always stuck out to me. By the time she’s an adult, her appearance seems to have barely changed. The confusion in the film’s timespan thankfully isn’t a deal breaker and makes more sense upon second viewing, but initial views may draw some head scratches.
Since I am unaware of the source material and cannot say how accurately in compares to the book, I would like to draw comparisons to a previous adaption to see how they differ in positive and negative ways. Before writing this review I watched the 1994 adaptation due to it’s positive public perception. While I concluded that I enjoyed the 2019 take a bit more, there are some elements that I thought were better executed in the 1994 version. For start, the film is told in a completely linear way. While this isn’t as engaging or unique as the 2019 version, it does make it a bit easier to follow. Additionally, Amy is portrayed by two separate actresses from childhood to adulthood. Although it makes perfect sense in the realm of the story, it does backfire a tad when you realize the youngest sister now looks oldest, due to the other sisters retaining the same actor throughout their aging.
The following critique goes into spoiler territory, so if you aren’t familiar with the story I would skip ahead.
The portrayal of Beth’s death in the 2019 film is undeniably a gut punch. It plays out almost like a horror movie, with Jo somberly walking through the cold, empty house. You know something bad has happened, but the movie doesn’t tell you yet. When you finally see Laura Dern, the usually composed and cheery mother crying at the kitchen table, that’s all you need to see. It’s heartbreaking and it hurts, but then it seems to be quickly moved past as we go into another flashback. The lasting effects of Beth’s death remains in the film, but after seeing the 1994 adaptation, I think I prefer how it was handled there. Beth’s death is an undeniably pivotal part of the story, and I felt it carried a lot more weight in the 1994 film. While it is more dramatic and theatrical in a way, the cloud of grief seems to hang over the family continually throughout the remainder of the film while it felt more like a footnote in the 2019 film.
Where the 2019 version stands out from this previous version is the adaptation of the book’s dialogue and prose. Gerwig’s wit mixed so well with the story and characters to the point where I was thoroughly entertained whenever they would speak. It really seems as if the director took all the right liberties with adapting the story while letting her own voice play an apparent role. So, sorry for you fans of the 1994 film, but I think 2019 just might be the superior version.
As for the other four films made from the 1910s to the 1940s, that’s a task for another day. And judging by the look of the contemporary adaptation from 2018, that’s a task for probably never.
March Family Mulled Wine
Mulled wine is a traditional fall/winter drink that dates all the way back to the 2nd century. The drink was utilized in the 19th century as a popular remedy drink for treating various colds, and probably wouldn’t be out of place in the setting of Little Women.
Swapping our shaker for a saucepan, this delicious combination of red wine, fruit, spices and a little extra bourbon is sure to treat what ails you in the forthcoming winter months.
Be sure to pour one out for Beth.
- 1 cup red wine
- 2 oz bourbon
- 2 oz apple cider
- Cinnamon sticks
- Star of anise or anise seeds
- 2 tablespoon honey
- Orange bitters
- In a medium-sized sauce pan, add your wine, bourbon, apple cider, honey, 3-4 rounds of orange, 2-3 rounds of lemon, 3 cinnamon sticks, a handful of cloves, 3 star of anise or a sprinkling of anise seeds and 3-4 dashes of orange bitters. Stir to combine
- Bring the sauce pan to a simmer over medium-high heat. Refrain from letting it boil as to not lose the alcohol through bubbling.
- Once barely simmering, drop heat to low and cover for anywhere between 15 minutes and 3 hours.
- Serve hot and strain into a heat resistant glass or mug.
- Garnish with leftover orange rounds and cinnamon sticks.