I’m pretty sure I was 10 when I first read Little Women, which is no cheap shot at praise (I’m almost certain I’ve sat next to English students that at this age were dosing up on Dante’s Divine Comedy with their cereal) however, for some reason it has stuck in my memory as the book in which not much happens. Since the initial read, pop-culture and general literary intrigue has brought me into contact with Alcott’s international treasure on several occasions. There’s that episode of F.r.i.e.n.d.s where Rachel and Joey book swap, and Joey’s submission to an act of ‘feminine’ erudition opens the floodgates of masculine bravado to a Beth-induced emotional breakdown (if you know, you know). More recently I stumbled across an episode of This American Life (680: The Weight of Words) that told the story of Shamyla, a woman held in captivity in Pakistan for years with only Little Women to read. After figuring their displeasure with her adoptive parents, Shamyla’s blood relatives took her to their home country, vague about their intentions to keep her and strict in an education of wifely duty. She was placed in a household where novels were hidden and tucked into mattress corners like shameful propaganda, and just like Jo March, Shamyla’s desire to write was anathema, taboo.
It was then that I heard Greta Gerwig announce her next directorial focus would be an adaptation of the classic, complimented entirely by a cast including Saoirse Ronan (who I’ve loved ever since Lady Bird), and the now generally accepted boyfriend of the Internet, Timothée Chalamet (whom many Gen Zs claim to have loved since the womb). My 10-year-old self was expecting the film to be dated, and undercooked; the subject matter would be irrelevant, the narrative choppy and of a feminist charm that although well-intentioned just didn’t quite hit the mark. Within minutes of watching the film I knew my 10-year-old self had been misguided (admittedly also in sectors of life other than literature, I won’t go into detail but the leggings and shorts combination haunts me to this day).
Gerwig lures you into a provincial New England with seductive camera work that is pacey and yet considered, pausing occasionally in a slow mo snap shot of childhood innocence as if to say, ‘savour this whilst it lasts’. I’m sure sepia tone is not technically accurate, but a warm hue tinges scenes of familial rapport, neatly contrasting with moments of coldness, aiding the transition towards Beth’s illness. Meticulous attention has clearly been paid to detail, perhaps most commendably by costume designer Jacqueline Durran who simultaneously praises personality, symbolism and aesthetics. This film is the product of fantasy and design, tenderly executed.
The choice of narrative structure neatly compliments what I’m hesitantly labelling as a ‘wider didactic purpose’. Framed as a series of flashbacks, the film cuts between scenes of nostalgic reflection and the harsh realities of Jo’s struggle to get published, that when putting two and two together I realise is an allusion to Alcott’s own literary trajectory. In this way Gerwig gives prominence to the female writer, usually supressed in a history of patriarchal selection, dissemination and criticism (the irony of this years’ Academy Award nominations is not lost on me).
The acting is thoughtful, there are some slips in accent that make for occasional discomfort, but more generally performances are dynamic and brought to life with a modern attention to character that discounted any of my initial reservations about ‘relevance’; this is a film about young women, entirely accessible and yes, relevant, in a way that I realise is heart-breaking. Amy’s now click-bait speech about choosing between talents, economic freedom and marriage is shocking not because it harks back to a time when women wore petticoats and simmered in discontent, but because it semantically associates with a discourse that women still live in.
Therefore, despite the sepia tones and awkward boyish charm of Chalamet (I’m not immune), this film made me really, really sad. I watched it with two other people, a female friend that cried exclusively for Beth, and a male friend that rather unironically (and slightly frustratingly) shed a tear along with the only man in the film to cry. It was the discussion surrounding this information after the film that made me realise why I found it so upsetting. The scenes I welled up at were those of Jo, Amy and Meg externalising the buried thoughts of women who were fixed to a rung in a societal ladder that they could not move from of their own independence, and were thus denied the joys of love.
It was also at this moment that I had a revelation about why I remembered the book in the way I did for so many years; I remembered it as the book in which not much happens because things didn’t really happen to women at that time, it’s actually the lack of occurrence that is both Gerwig and Alcott’s damning punch-line.
I revisited the episode of This American Life after watching the film, and latched onto a phrase from the book that Shamyla felt expressed her mental state whilst in Pakistan. As Jo and Laurie run together, juvenile and carefree she cries, ‘I never want to have to stop being spirited and independent.’ And this is how Gerwig’s film made me feel, amongst the pain and pathos, these girls, the women behind the film and Alcott all have spirit, and it shows.
Emmeline Armitage, Senior Culture Editor