In her richly textured, deeply felt adaptation of “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig doesn’t so much reimagine the beloved novel as revitalize it, giving it a distinctly modern edge. The movie retains Louisa May Alcott’s story outline, telling a tale of sisterly rapport and the doomed optimism of youth. But Gerwig boldly brings in another dimension: the ways in which women struggled to own their own creative ambition and voices in a world that wanted to muffle them. It may be set in the past, but Gerwig’s “Little Women” belongs to the now, too — and Gerwig’s directorial voice rings through it powerfully.
While Alcott’s “Little Women” unfolds in a linear fashion, Gerwig intercuts her adaptation between two distinct timelines: the first with the girls as teenagers living with their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), and the second unfolding seven years later as the sisters, now young women, go about their separate lives — Jo as a writer in New York, Amy (Florence Pugh) as a painting student in Paris, Meg (Emma Watson) married and raising a family, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) in declining health at home. Saturated in bright, warm, yellow hues, the scenes from their younger years paint a picture of starry-eyed hope and optimism. Each one artistic by nature, the sisters write and enact plays for neighborhood children, constructing ornate costumes and sets that mirror their elaborate wishes for the future. But once they’re older, Gerwig dulls the color palette as the girls are jolted into young adulthood, which arrives complete with societal responsibilities and pressures designed to deaden desires and dash dreams. The girls may have once wished for stardom and adventure, but now all they want is relief from oppressive 19th-century mores.
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Jo — and by extension Alcott, who famously based the character on herself — particularly felt the weight of these stresses and was determined to push against them. While Jo is pitching her short story to a puffed-up magazine editor in the opening scene, the editor tells her that stories centered on women should end in one of two ways: marriage or death. It’s a bleak diagnosis, and one that Alcott’s “Little Women” follows to a T. In Gerwig’s version, however, Jo veers from those ends to find satisfaction not in love but in work, by ultimately publishing a novel about her and her sisters aptly called “Little Women.” In this way, Jo grows into a meta-version of Alcott, who herself never married and had wished for Jo to reach the same fate. (Instead, Alcott bowed to the pressures of her era and wrote in a husband for Jo.)
This change is a vital one, and perfectly in line with Gerwig’s past work: You could draw a direct parallel between Jo’s meeting with the editor and the scene in “Lady Bird” in which the title character — based on Gerwig herself — is laughed at by a doubting college counselor when she says she’d like to attend a school “like Yale.” Crucially, both Lady Bird and Jo ultimately prove themselves to their naysayers, upsetting expectations by carving out and achieving versions of the lives they always wanted: Lady Bird as an east-coast college student and Jo as a literary spinster.
Jo’s sisters, on the other hand, feel less willing or able to challenge the futures the world has offered them. As young adults, the once-wild Meg, Amy, and Beth are forced to grapple with how patriarchal society can evoke a sense of inadequacy (Amy as a painter in a male-dominated realm), disappointment (Meg as a poor wife and mother), and unjust ends (Beth in terrible illness). “We can leave right now,” Jo declares to Meg on her wedding day — a last-ditch effort to save her sister from a traditional fate and preserve the magic of their liberated youth. The moment harks back to the central relationship in “Frances Ha,” which Gerwig wrote with Noah Baumbach, where Gerwig plays a young woman who feels snubbed after her best friend becomes preoccupied with a romance.
But Jo doesn’t wallow in resentment for long. The finale of “Little Women,” a triumph of imagination and intuition, arrives as a parallel action sequence, intercutting between reality and make-believe. In the real part, Jo stands alone in a factory, excitedly watching as her first novel is printed and bound. The intercut shots depict Jo’s alternative fate as a married teacher, happily surrounded by family in a snapshot of domestic bliss. This latter image was the end that Alcott wrote for Jo, but Gerwig wisely inverts it to become not reality but a constructed fiction — the path not taken. It’s a serene scene, but Gerwig knew it wasn’t the end that Jo wanted or deserved.
By merging Jo with Alcott to portray her as a liberated, unmarried writer, Gerwig is also flouting tradition, breaking with decades of “Little Women” adaptations and renderings. The result is a boldly modern retelling of the classic story, proving Gerwig’s talent as an auteur while paying triumphant tribute to another ambitious female author in the process.