In this op-ed, Natalie de Vera Obedos explores the lost context of Laurie’s character in Little Women and how adding diversity to the latest remake would have benefited the film.
Greta Gerwig’s much-anticipated adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women will mark the eighth time that audiences will follow the March sisters on their journeys from adolescence to adulthood. With that adaptation comes one of the most well-known male characters in literature: Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the isolated, wealthy orphan and neighbor of the March sisters who is played by Timothée Chalamet in the 2019 film.
Greta has explained that part of the decision to cast Timothée was due to his "handsome but beautiful" androgynous look complementing co-star Saoirse Ronan's; the casting has been met with fanfare from both Timothée fans and critics alike. Since his breakout role as Elio in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, Timothée has become a darling of the internet, earning titles like "white boy of the month" and "the internet’s boyfriend". With the dreamlike idealism that Timothée often brings to his characters, the anticipation of his performance is understandable.
While many are excited to see Timothée bring this character to life, his iteration and many of the previous films have failed to properly contextualize Laurie during this time period. In the original novel, Laurie is described as a young man with “Curly black hair, brown skin,” and “big black eyes” (Alcott 42) — he is canonically half-Italian. It is through Laurie that Little Women offered Greta a very unique opportunity that she could have taken: Laurie could have easily been played by someone non-white.
When Alcott first published the book in 1868, the status of Italians in America was vastly different from Italians now. It's hard to exactly pinpoint why Laurie is initially treated differently by the March sisters, but it's possible it's because of the state of politics at the time or simply the fact that he was an other because of who his mother was. In screen adaptations, this largely comes off as the result of Laurie being either a boy, part European, or both. These things can still remain a part of Laurie’s character, but the added diversity of casting the character with someone non-white would have added a richness and context that has been lost on the character by contemporary audiences.
In another interview, Greta describes Laurie as a male that is “completely enamored with the girl world”, but by casting Timothée or even Christian Bale before him as Laurie, the viewer never gets to see why Laurie is so eager to bond with a group of impoverished girls. When implored by Jo about why Laurie is not allowed to play piano, her mother, Marmee, replies, “I am not sure, but I think it was because his son, Laurie’s father, married an Italian lady, a musician, which displeased the old man, who is very proud. The lady was good and lovely and accomplished, but he did not like her, and never saw his son after he married” (Alcott 73).
Laurie’s father was effectively disowned for marrying Laurie’s mother, according to Marmee, because she was a musician. Marmee’s theory is disproven through Mr. Laurence’s expressed fondness of Beth March for her musical inclination, implying Laurie’s father had been disowned for marrying Laurie’s mother not because she was a musician, but perhaps because she was Italian. It is mentioned that Laurie is not often permitted to go outside and rarely makes the acquaintance of others prior to his clandestine meeting with Jo at a New Year’s Eve party. By making Laurie non-white, it would once again become clear that he seeks out the company of the March sisters not because he is “the OG ally”, as Greta calls him, but because he, like them, is an outsider.
Giving the role of Laurie to a man of color would have added a great amount of depth to Little Women in a way that would still manage to be historically plausible, or even accurate. But beyond bringing a layer to Laurie’s character that was originally in the books but lost in translation onto screens, incorporating more non-white actors into this production would have also made Little Women feel more inclusive than ever.
With its emphasis on female ambition and themes grounded in sisterly bonds and individuality, it is no wonder why Alcott’s novel keeps getting repeatedly remade. But as diversity in Hollywood and pop culture continues as an increasingly important conversation, film remakes with such universal messages are still lagging behind.
Furthermore, if Laurie is going to be simplified anyway and not have his character touch on his position in society during the time Alcott wrote her classic novel, a Little Women film that completely suspends disbelief and racebends every character seems entirely possible, and would have been major in terms of on-screen representation. With the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, The Personal History of David Copperfield, BBC’s Les Miserables, or even Refinery29’s Mr. Malcolm’s List, could Little Women not follow suit and cast the entire March family as people of color? Little Women and classics like it have proven to be relatable no matter who is reading or watching. It's time directors took advantage of that fact.
The power of representation has lasting effects, especially on young viewers. People of color are extremely underrepresented on screen, and when they are represented, the portrayals tend to fall into negative stereotypes or the same old tropes. Shows like Hulu’s Harlots or Netflix’s Anne With An E may be adding historically accurate people of color to their cast to reflect the time period, but the characters of color tend to only be portrayed as servants, sex workers, and manual laborers. These period pieces might argue that they’re simply showing what has actually happened. But classic fictional novels have messages that are relevant to everybody regardless of race or time. Why not repackage them for contemporary audiences if more adaptations are to be made?
The March sisters and Laurie have been lauded as influential role models for young readers since the novel’s original release, and their image has been given to white audiences for generations. If the appearances of the characters do not matter, if Jo can be blonde without protest, then why couldn’t she be shown as black, Latinx, Indigenous, or Asian? It is time for young people of color watching or reading Little Women to be shown that they can be as independent as Jo, as ambitious as Amy, as compassionate as Beth, and as loving as Meg.
Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation attempted to keep up with the times, with Marmee’s brazen disapproval of corsets and the attribution of the March family’s misfortune to Mr. March’s attempt to racially integrate his school. Greta’s adaptation seemed likely to be an even fresher and more radical take on Alcott’s classic. But though the film is cast with numerous talented, critically-acclaimed actors, there’s no getting around the fact that once again, Laurie, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, their parents, their great aunt, and their friends are all played by white people. Though the film provides a nuanced take on womanhood, Greta’s adaptation doesn’t go far enough.
Little Women’s longevity in pop culture has proven that it is a relatable story that transcends not only generation, but also race. So why not trust that its universal themes can carry the piece? Instead of making yet another all-white adaption of Little Women and classics like it, Great could have enriched the film by adding some much-needed diversity to a very white genre in a way that many other period pieces have not even attempted.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue