Holiday season is a great time for movie-going, as many of the studio’s best films are held for this period of Oscar contention. This year, my wife and I were delighted to see Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel.
We made up a great test audience for the movie. I had (embarrassingly) never read the book and only seen bits of the previous movie treatments. Lauren had read the book multiple times as an adolescent, read Little Men as well, owned the Madame Alexander dolls, and seen at least two of the film versions. We both loved the masterpiece that Greta Gerwig has created.
The energy of the March sisters propels the movie forward, driven by their mix of creativity and passion. Gerwig chooses to cut back and forth in time, a decision that allows you to experience the youthful dreams of the characters through the constricting pressures of the years. That the acting is so uniformly excellent is a tribute to Gerwig’s direction and an impeccable script.
The story shows its debt to Jane Austen’s influence and American domestic fiction in that the plot is driven by young women of moderate means negotiating a world of very limited options of marriage and employment. In this constrained world, the varieties of creativity exhibited by the March sisters hint at how the world has changed for women in the half century since Austen’s novels. Their talents in writing, painting and music carry a weight they could not have in Austen’s time.
Women’s education is central to the story. Amy (the wonderful Florence Pugh) is beaten in school for drawing a portrait of the teacher, and the family chooses to have her taught by older sister, Jo, rather than return to the inferior girls school, noting how the poor quality of those schools was a crime against girls and women. Beth’s musical education is helped by the kindly neighbor who gives her a piano, while Amy hones her painting skills through a European tour. The elder sisters both marry teachers to their wealthy aunt’s dismay, but she provides the inheritance that allows them to open a school that will, they proudly proclaim, enroll girls and boys.
The central role that educational access would play in reshaping American society after the Civil War is woven into the plot, just as it was part of Louisa May Alcott’s upbringing in a home where her father was an experimental educator and transcendentalist. Little Women imagines an alternative to the Victorian ethos of education as authoritarian and soul-crushing. It asks how the optimism and creativity of childhood can be cultivated rather than quashed. Like its contemporary, Alice in Wonderland (1865), Little Women rejects an educational system based on conformity and celebrates imagination and play. No wonder generations of children have loved both books.
Gerwig makes one brilliant change in adapting the book by underscoring its autobiographical nature and representing the writer, Jo, as the author of Little Women herself. This is a crucial move, as it is really not possible to adapt Little Women into film without an awareness of its 150-year history as a force in the lives of American readers and filmgoers.
The novel was a success when it was written and has never gone out of print. It has been translated into over fifty languages. Little Women formed the basis of two silent films, as well as a George Cukor film in 1933 with Katherine Hepburn; a 1949 film with June Allyson (and Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh); a 1994 movie with Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst; BBC versions from 1950, 1958, 1970, and 2013; several television shows; a 1912 Broadway play; stage musicals in 1955 (London), 1964 (off-Broadway) and 2005 (Broadway); a 1969 ballet; a 1987 Anime series; and a 1998 opera.
The compelling saga of the March sisters is underscored by the story of what an effect a book can have on the world, and that theme is expressed in the film through a loving depiction of the first edition being printed and bound.
The story of Little Women’s success and endurance in the popular imagination is remarkable, but it is not as remarkable as one might think. If you studied American Literature back when I was in college, you might be forgiven for thinking that nineteenth-century American literature was overwhelmingly male (the world of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Thoreau, and Emerson). It wasn’t.
The most popular work of fiction of nineteenth-century America was published seventeen years before Little Women, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Alcott would have grown up reading other commercially successful female authors: Susanna Rowson, Catherine Sedgewick, Maria Cummins, Susan Warner, and E.D.E.N. Southworth. This literature was virtually erased in the early twentieth century, dismissed as “sentimental and domestic”, only to be rediscovered in feminist revisions of literary history. My college American Literature anthology contained only one woman from the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson. That shockingly narrow view of the “great tradition”, has since been broadened.
That myopia reminds us why we need to keep revisiting history and reading, interpreting, and adapting older works–for what endures in them and for understanding our own place in history afresh. Little Women is a powerful case in point. Go see it.