‘Little Women’ is a new classic

Lindsey Bahr & Jake Coyle

LOS ANGELES (AP) — There is a wild urgency to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women that hardly seems possible for a film based on a 150-year-old book. But such is the magic of combining Louisa May Alcott’s enduring story of those four sisters with Gerwig’s deliciously feisty, evocative and clear-eyed storytelling that makes this Little Women a new classic.

While no shortage of Little Women adaptations exist, Gerwig makes hers modern and sharp, while still adhering to its traditional roots. And in playing a bit with the chronology and instilling depth and nuance where many films have instead chosen shortcuts, Gerwig has made the most full-realised interpretation of this well-worn material for one simple reason: She lets Amy, Beth, Jo and Meg grow up.

Of course others have too, but it usually comes at the end of the film as more of a coda which can’t help but feel somewhat melancholy: It’s the death of childhood, after all, when dreams are dashed, reality steps in, practicality trumps romantic fantasies and, most crushingly for many a Little Women fan, Amy ends up with Laurie.

Gerwig flips Alcott’s narrative to allow her characters to be women first, instead of children. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is introduced when she is already on her own trying to be a writer and making compromises all over the place (with her rate, her name, which she declines to use on her stories, and what her characters do). Meg (Emma Watson) is living her life with two kids, a husband and a yearning for finer things. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is still at home. And Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) studying to paint and strategically plotting out a future that involves a wealthy husband.

In their adult present, Gerwig finds thematically similar chapters in their past to flash back to. Don’t worry, all the classics are there (Christmas morning, the dance, the ice skating and the hair dramas among them). These are always in warmer tones, while the present has a bluish starkness. This structure is a bold choice and one that those only passively or not at all familiar with Little Women may find disorienting at first. But using the past to reveal and illuminate things about the present makes for a richer experience overall.

For one, it untethers Jo from Laurie (Timothee Chalamet, so excellent in subtly yearning for an unrequited love). That perplexing love triangle suddenly makes more sense. In fact, the characters all get a little freedom from romance. Love is part of the story, and thank goodness Gerwig has cast actors like James Norton as John Brooke and Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer who make the case that Laurie isn’t the only appealing choice in this world, but the quest for freedom (which only comes with money) is the real driving motivation for the March girls, who have never felt quite so alive as in these actors’ hands.

Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in ‘Little Women’. PHOTOS: AP
Laura Dern in a scene from the movie
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in a scene from ‘Little Women’

Ronan plays Jo as feral and difficult: She’s not only crawling out of her own female skin, but the time she has had the misfortune of being alive in. The affection that you feel for her relationship with her sisters comes not from rose-coloured mushiness but from the fact that this film authentically captures how siblings, even female siblings, actually are.

These March girls are wild: They fight and hit and laugh at one another’s misfortunes with devilish delight and you love them more for it. Amy, too, gets some much-deserved respect. The long-misunderstood March brat is allowed to grow up and mature, and Pugh is just the actor to bridge the gap between naive child and woman making her own decisions. And it’s not just Amy. This film also lifts up and makes whole truly supporting characters. Marmee (Laura Dern) gets to be the nurturing and wise mother who also admits her own shortcomings. Aunt March is elevated from stodgy caricature to a stately matriarch who may be tough but is never not astute.

Even Mr March (Bob Odenkirk) gets a personality and some humour to boot. Perhaps the most surprising, however, is Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper) who may leave you wiping your eyes more than once.

It’s an astonishing accomplishment for what is only Gerwig’s second feature as a director. Lady Bird may have been autobiographical, but Little Women is an artiste’s statement.

GRETA GERWIG ON MAKING

‘LITTLE WOMEN’ ‘AT THE SPEED OF LIFE’

The first movie Greta Gerwig saw in a theatre was Muppets Take Manhattan. When it was over, her parents momentarily couldn’t find her. She had run to the front of the theater to put her hands on the screen.

“I thought I could get into it,” Gerwig said. As a filmmaker, Gerwig has often been in the frame or just outside it. In 2012’s Frances Ha, which she co-wrote, she starred as a 27-year-old dancer from Sacramento gaining a foothold in New York — an origin story not so unlike Gerwig’s own.

Her semi-autobiographical 2017 solo-directing debut, Lady Bird, was like a Frances Ha prequel, set in high school in Sacramento about a young woman with artistic ambitions. In her latest, Little Women, Gerwig has adapted Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about the March sisters, but Gerwig has also added meta dimensions outside of the book.

In Gerwig’s version, the seventh big-screen Little Women, Jo becomes a synthesis of the character, of Alcott and of Gerwig, herself, stretching the struggle of what it is to be a female writer from 19th Century New England to present day. On a blustery autumn day last month, Gerwig met for an interview over tea in Tribeca to discuss the many layers of her Little Women.

AP: Every frame is so full of life in Little Women. How did you give it such vitality?

Gerwig: I didn’t want it to be beautiful at the expense of being real. But I did want it to feel like you wish you can jump inside and live in there or eat it.

I remember trying to explain that to the gaffer who was like, “You want what?” I was like, “I want them to want to eat it.” A lot of that was in prep. We spent a lot of time building shot diagrams and, with the production designer, the costume designer and my (director of photography), plotting out exactly how we were going to see everything and make it bursting with life.

And then, with the actors, I had two weeks of rehearsal, so I was able to spend a lot of time getting their overlapped dialogue to be specifically correct. I wanted it to sound cacophonous but I very much wanted it to be controlled.

When I was rehearsing with the girls, sometimes it was four people talking all at once, but sometimes it was eight people at once. It was almost like an a cappella group. I could kind of start them all at once.

It was this combination of wanting it to feel rich like a painting but not nailed to the floor the way a lot of period pieces can feel heavy, almost like you can tell how expensive the lighting package was. I wanted it to feel like it was flying through at the speed of life.

AP: Instead of following the book’s narrative straight, you crosscut between the March sisters’ adulthood and childhood, lending the film the glow of memory.

Gerwig: When I was reading the book, there was a kind of doubling of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the book, and Jo March, who is the writer in the book.

But Louisa’s life was different than Jo’s life. And there’s this quality of: Is that what happened or is that how you wrote it?

I think that tension is best expressed through childhood being something that’s in a snow globe, that you can’t quite get back to. That it’s heightened in memory and maybe also slightly distorted.

I like playing with time in that way. Maybe this is an odd reference, but in Hemingway’s A Movable Feast he’s writing it from the perspective that it’s all gone, that that marriage didn’t work. What happens later colors everything about that. I wanted to give some ache to this story.

AP: In Lady Bird, Christine wants to move to New York or, she said, at least Connecticut or New Hampshire “where writers live in the woods”. Now you’ve made a movie about a writer who lives in the woods.

Gerwig: (Laughs) That’s right. That’s Louisa. It’s Massachusetts but it’s close.

AP: You might have been thinking of, like, Philip Roth in northeastern Connecticut.

Gerwig: Some combination of Philip Roth or JD Salinger, just guys in the woods with their novels. It’s a thing. But you also have ladies in the woods with their work, Emily Dickinson and Louisa.

My problem is I’m too social. To be in splendid isolation, I don’t think it would work with my personality.

AP: There’s also a nice connection between Frances Ha, which memorably had a scene of you running through New York. Little Women opens with Jo sprinting through the city.

Gerwig: I had come across in my research on Louisa May Alcott this stuff that talked about her as a runner.

She would run every day through the woods of Concord. I actually shot a bunch of footage of Saoirse running through the woods but it didn’t end up fitting in the movie, which I’m so sad about. Kill your darlings, as they say. But I thought: how perfect. Louisa May Alcott loved running and I can do this and it’s completely footnote-able and it’s also exactly what I’ve always been interested in.

It felt like the most modern thing to capture a woman faster than we think they’re allowed to move.

AP: How would explain the relationship you felt between yourself and Jo?

Gerwig: I was interested in making something cubist and that honored this kaleidoscope of authorship. Part of what I wanted to do with the construction was to find the author everywhere — to find the author as Jo, to find the author as me, to find the author as Saoirse.

There’s all this doubling of selves. It’s Louisa writing Jo. It’s me writing Louisa writing Jo. It’s Saoirse playing Jo playing Louisa playing my lines. There’s some communication between the four of us.

The transcendentalists — and not to draw too many connections that are only, really, for me – were thinking that way. Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.”

AP: If there was a distance between Alcott and Jo, your characters seem closer to you. You’re living the life that they aspire to.

Gerwig: Yes, maybe that’s true! Even though I’m getting to make films, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do, the deepest connection to myself will always be with the person who wanted to do that, not the person who’s doing it.

And showpeople in general, you have to build the castle again every time. There’s that feeling that there’s no guarantee that anyone will come. You’re a dream machine, a smoke machine, so there’s a feeling of: I don’t know if any of this is real.

I guess that’s just to say I identify more with the striver, still. And I still can’t believe that I get to do this at all. I feel like I’m getting to steal these movies, that somebody’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, ma’am, can you please come with us? You’re not a director.”

AP: You’re so obviously meant for it.

Gerwig: I love it. I love it so much. I love it more than any other thing I’ve gotten to do, every step of the way. I still feel like a young filmmaker even though I’m 36, even though I’ve been making films in some way or another for 15 years. It still feels like I’m at the beginning of whatever, hopefully, body of work I get to do.

AP: I read that you turned in a rough cut of Little Women 24 hours before going into labour with your first child.

Gerwig: It was insane but I think as soon as I showed the movie it was like, “OK, we’re ready to go.”

It was a long edit because it’s such a delicate film. If you change one thing it really does have ripple effects. And I kept editing after that. But that baby came right after showing (Sony Pictures chairman) Tom Rothman the movie. (laughs) I was so pregnant getting notes.

AP: It’s hard to think of a filmmaking couple like you and Noah Baumbach, whose Marriage Story is also one of the year’s most celebrated movies. You guys are like Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy.

Gerwig: That’s the most lovely thing anyone’s said to me. Isn’t his movie beautiful?

He showed me a cut of his film when I was home for Thanksgiving from shooting Little Women. I just sobbed for two and a half hours. He was like, “What did you think?” and I said it’s a masterpiece. He was like, “I was thinking of cutting.” And I said, “Shut up. We’re not getting into the details. It’s amazing.” It’s just a wonderful time. It just so happened that they all went together.

AP: When you were getting Lady Bird made, you said one male executive asked if mothers and daughters really talked that way. That executive sounds a lot like.

Gerwig: Dashwood (the gruff publisher Jo visits, played by Tracy Letts). She said, “I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.”

He said, “People want to be amused, not preached at. Morals don’t sell nowadays.”

I could have been having that discussion with an executive today. I went through my own version of a male executive saying “Do mothers and daughters really talk like this?”

And Lady Bird not ending up with one guy, that was another thing.

They were like, “I don’t understand. There are two boyfriends and she doesn’t end up with either of them.”

I was like, “Right. Because did you marry the person you dated in high school?” I will say with my screenplay for Little Women, and how I wanted to deal with the ending that Louisa gave Jo, it was not a given that this would be an OK way to tell this story.

Then I said, and luckily everyone agreed with me: If I can’t do an ending she would have liked 150 years later, then we’ve made no progress.

We’re having the same discussion. If I can’t make it be that the thing you need to see at the end is that woman holding her book, then I don’t want to make the film. We’re in a better place. But we’re not in “the” place.

AP: In Little Women, you seem to playing with those expectations, not getting rid of them entirely.

Gerwig: I understand you want the kiss in the rain. I get it. I do too. But why do I need it? Why does that make me feel better? And what’s that about?

I’m not outside the thing that I’m pointing out. I’m very much in it. Even in Lady Bird, I was like: I have to have them go to the prom. I’ve seen high school movies. You go to the prom. That’s not really what I’m doing, but you have to have it.

The nice thing about movies is there are tropes and there are genres and with Little Women there’s so much shared iconography of this material, it allows you to play with it. To explode it and then put it back together somehow.