I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
A Packed Theater
When I walked into the movie theater on a Saturday afternoon to see Little Women 10 days after its initial release, I was floored to see the room packed as if it were opening night. With The Rise of Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level playing right next door, I had no idea that I was the one holding a hot ticket. The room reserved for this first showing of the day was the largest theater in the multiplex, and couples coming in right after me were forced to sit in separate rows due to the fact that there were no two free seats together.
It’s encouraging to see that female stories are in high demand. Even a story told countless times on screen has merit in this modern movie-going world. Little Women is filling seats in a NetFlix-dominated culture.
So, despite the issues I had with it, I’m relieved to know that it has left the door open for similar tales to be told on the big screen. Here is my review of director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019).
Little Women Plot Summary
The March sisters are four girls growing up in New England in the mid 1800s. While their father is away at war, their mother leads by example in showing her girls how to be of service to others while maintaining their own individual identities.
Meg is a great actress. Jo is a gifted writer. Beth is a skilled pianist. And Amy is a talented artist. But each girl realizes that these passions are of little use to a woman in earning a living in their society. Marriage is the more certain means of survival, not only for themselves but for their family’s well-being.
However, Jo, the most headstrong March sister, refuses to bend to these low odds and manages to support her family through her writing. She travels to New York City after rejecting the proposal of her wealthy next-door neighbor and childhood best friend, Laurie.
While there, she faces the challenges of the publishing industry who mean to dictate the type of content that she writes. But she is not willing to go down without a fight. Her only greater devotion is to her family who reunites as adults under tragic circumstances.
Remaking a Classic for a Modern Audience
As with any remake of a classic tale, I frequently heard the word “again?” when this film was first announced. And my initial reaction was, why not? Why not give a new generation of actresses the chance to play these iconic parts, and why not update it for a younger generation of moviegoers to call it their own?
Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Jo in the 1933 adaptation varies wildly from Winona Ryder’s in the 1994 version. But both are valid and of their time.
The 1994 film was, and remains, my favorite adaptation of the book. It’s gentle and faithful but still holds a powerful message to young fans to pursue their dreams against all odds. That’s a timeless message that can be updated for any era. This is why I won’t be mad if, in 20 years, another version is released with a new set of actors and a new spin on the story's iconic moments.
Acting and Chemistry
The main ingredient in any Little Women adaptation is chemistry among its actors, particularly the "little women" themselves. This film’s greatest strength is in the performances. There’s a high-energy, modern delivery from each girl that works in a family painted as outcasts who retreat into the safety of their home where they are allowed, and encouraged, to be themselves.
No single performer carries the movie, though the film can’t work without Saoirse Ronan nailing the role of Jo, which she unmistakably does. Everything from matching her posture to the book editor’s as he reads over her submission to the conviction of her frustrations expressed to her Marmee in the attic come across as genuine, she is in complete understanding of her character.
Likewise, the other girls each stand out in their own way, from Emma Watson’s conflicted housewife struggles as Meg to Amy’s (Florence Pugh) arc from the immature baby of the family to driven artist who sets aside her work to fulfill her destiny as the family’s savior via marriage. Even the unrewarding part of Beth is broadened by Eliza Scanlen’s embodiment of the sickly yet cherished March sister. But it’s when they all come together in their excitement, bickering, and realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be part of a close collection of sisters that all of the actresses truly shine.
Timothee Chalamet as Laurie fits in as the brotherly piece of the puzzle. He’s just as playful and worthy of the audience’s admiration as the rest of the girls, even if his character is a tad underdeveloped. His back story is glossed over, and his motivations are unclear, aside from his love of Jo, and later, Amy. But he plays the drunken, bitter Laurie perfectly, without going too far as to lose the audience’s sympathy. Instead, he strengthens it.
As for the adult characters, Laura Dern is the perfect Marmee who feels like an older March sister rather than a commanding matriarch. Meryl Streep dials it back, doing just enough to earn her the role as the rich but crotchety Aunt March without chewing up the scenery. And Chris Cooper plays such a likable Mr. Laurence that it’s hard to believe his character ever had the reputation of being stern and unapproachable.
I was less taken with Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk) whose portrayal of the elderly father seemed unsure and unmemorable. This version’s Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell) too seemed unsupportive and underused.
And finally, James Norton as John Brooke comes across as less uptight until his ability to provide for his family is called into question by his exhausted wife. His reaction to his hurt feelings scares us into questioning whether Meg’s trapped in a controlling relationship until an unexpected apology barely redeems him.
Changes to the Story
Overall, the changes made between this version, the book, and previous adaptations sat well with me. The decision to blend Amy getting into trouble at school with the family’s introduction to the Laurence household made for a really great comedic sequence and a strong introduction between the two families. And while Little Women always came across as more of a winter story, this version focuses more on springtime settings which adds a lot of color and energy to the film as a whole.
The film also doesn’t forget to insert fan-favorite moments. This includes Jo burning a ringlet of Meg’s hair off with a hot iron right before the dance, the family taking breakfast to the poor Hummel family on Christmas morning, Jo selling her hair to pay for Marmee’s train ticket, and Amy falling through thin ice. However, each scene includes its own changes to fit in with this new adaptation.
Out of Order Storytelling
Despite hitting its marks in the above-mentioned areas, it wasn’t without its issues. My biggest problem with this film is the way in which the story is organized. It’s told entirely out of order, which led me to question if a viewer brand new to this story could keep up with what’s going on.
The film opens with Jo already in New York trying to get her stories published to keep her family afloat before being called home as Beth’s health nosedives. The opening sequence intercuts between all four girls in their present situation, separated by adulthood and struggling with its challenges.
This opening would have been fine had we not revisited this era until we could get caught up on the events leading up to it. But the film continues this whiplash of intercutting the past with the present, skipping over sections only to refer to them later in the film and spoiling plot details before we have a chance to see them play out. Worst of all, some of the saddest moments are pressed back-to-back against some of the happiest moments, throwing off the tone and leaving the audience without the chance to process one feeling before another is thrust upon them.
This film also fails to establish some key details of the plot. Details such as the family’s transcendentalist views which inspire their charity work and have led to the loss of their wealth, failing to show their money troubles and the effect it has on their day-to-day lives, and the importance of the girls’ play-acting is radically glossed over.
The pacing rarely slows down enough to really take a moment to paint a broader picture of the story’s themes of loneliness, duty, and individuality. It maintains its constant, dizzyingly high energy throughout the film as if fearful that modern audiences might grow bored if a character isn’t screaming their head off or bouncing around the set.
A weak love story
Most confusing is the relationship between Jo and Friedrich Bhaer (played by Louis Garrel) who even looks like he can’t understand what he’s doing in the film as he doesn’t fit in with the updated message that this film is trying to convey. His lack of chemistry with Jo feels intentional to this point, yet the film also seems to suggest that his role is purely to fulfill Jo’s cultural obligations in her novel.
He also disappears for so much of the film that his return is far from welcome, as by this point all we know of this character is that he hates Jo’s stories and made a point to tell her so bluntly, with no constructive explanation. His entire presence misses the mark in a story that tries so hard to correct what may be the biggest criticism about the book.
All in all, I think Little Women gets a lot right in terms of acting, humor, and reimagining some iconic moments. However, I think it leaves out a lot of necessary information. It also unnecessarily mixes the plot into a confusing mess that rarely takes the time to let the audience catch their breath and process the story. Character-wise, it’s brilliant, but overall, it failed to hit some important marks.
This is a movie that I would watch again at home. But despite my excitement of its ability to fill a theater, I’m a little too disappointed to say that it blew all of the other versions out of the water or that it’s a film that I would pay to see in a theater again.
That's not to say that I believe that mediocre films should be made just because they fill a particular politically correct quota, but they also shouldn't have to reach impossibly high standards in order to be made worthy of a release date. This movie will pave the way for more female-driven stories to be told, and hopefully, those will improve upon their predecessors and bring back a more inclusive collection of viewing options.
Literarycreature from Argentina on August 09, 2020:
I did not like this new version very much. I must admit that I am usually dissatisfied with movie adaptations of novels I love because I have an extremely personal idea of how the story, the characters, the dialogues, and absolutely everything must work.
I agree with you that the time jumps were confusing, and I also wondered, the first time I watched it if people who had not read the book could understand what was happening on screen.
I was also expecting to be more captivated by the actors' performances. If I have to choose, I also prefer the 1994 version.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 12, 2020:
Not proud to say I haven't read the book or seen the movie. Thanks for this review which is causing me to put it on my "to do" list.
Winnie on January 07, 2020:
The 1994 version will always be my favorite too, but I think this new version had a lot more humor. And I agree with you how some of the iconic moments or tones of the story often got glossed over with a different mood. But overall, I thought it was a great version for a new generation. Loved this article!
MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 06, 2020:
This is one of my favorite books and i first read it when I was in the 5th class. Even now when I read it, it inspires me a lot. Yours was an excellent article about a book that is a classic. The only ache I have is that Louisa was perhaps in love with Laurie and she translated her love into the book