It’s 2020 do we REALLY need another adaptation of “Little Women”? I mean, come on, there are numerous plays, two silent movies, over a dozen TV adaptations, a musical and even a 48 episodes animated story…
DO WE REALLY NEED TO REVISIT THIS STORY?
But it seems that a good story will always be revisited, maybe that’s the reason it’s called a classic.
I don’t think “Little Women” needs any introduction, we’re all familiar with the March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy), it’s been around for so long it is considered a classic only because of the amount of time that has passed since it was written (1868).
That is also the reason of the challenge of adapting “Little Women” to the screen – so much have changed since it was written and especially when it comes to women’s role and position in society.
The book was written in a period when a woman’s place was in the… home (or kitchen, if you want).
Louisa May Alcott was urged to write the book by her publisher as a way to distract her from writing her own novels and poetry.
No one expected it to be as successful as it turned to be. The idea was that it would be a guidebook for young girls on how to be the “perfect woman” and will guide them in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The novel addresses three major themes: domesticity, work, and true love, all of them interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine’s individual identity.
The book is still a beloved one because each generation of women can find themselves in one of the March sisters.
I guess I’m not different than many of us who grew up whereby Jo’s character was the favourite one. I could identify with her being a tomboy, just like me, and having a quick temper and outburst of uncontrolled anger that would lash at people I loved.
My mum always wanted me to be an “Amy”, whom I despised, and probably because my mum wanted me to be more like her. Jo was a role model for me for willing to pay the price of my own individuality and going my own way even if the price would be loneliness.
At the same time I knew the book is not relevant to my time.
Therefore you would understand why I was skeptic and surprised to find another version in 2019. Is it still relevant to this day and age?
I’ve decided to compare between two versions of the film the one of 1994 and the latest one of Greta Gerwig from 2019.
Each filmmaker has chosen to emphasize a different angle of the book and indicate several topics and shifts on topics such as womanhood, social responsibilities and wealth through American history.
It was a fantastic lesson in scriptwriting on how a book can be the canvas of your own painting.
Ironic to think that in 1994 the era of Girl Power “Little Women” was considered a risky film to make.
Denise Di Novi (Producer) said that at that time it was nearly impossible to get a female-driven film made. They called it “a needle in the eye” movies, where a guy would say to his wife “I’d rather have a needle in the eye than go to that movie”.
But Denise di Novi got Winona Ryder, who was obsessed with the book, (just like Greta Gerwig), to get on board, and Columbia was willing considering making the film.
This was the first adaptation of the book into a movie after the Women’s Movement and the mass entrance of women into the workforce, so the director (Gillian Armstrong) and scriptwriter (Robin Swicord), both women, had to find a way to tell the story without it being stale and out of date.
The story still relies on Jo’s arc, however, they did not want to portrait a bright rebellious woman as a tomboy, so instead Jo is a “theatre kid” – she is clever, creative and intellectual restless.
The 1933 & 1949 versions were more about Jo’s challenge of womanhood, marriage and society’s role for her and her own heart’s desire of writing and being creative.
In the 1994 version it’s more about her search for finding employment and following her dreams. We get to see her writing much more than in other earlier versions.
In the earlier versions of the movie Jo refuses Lorrie’s marriage proposal for the reason that they are not fit together as husband and wife and that she will not be able to love him in the way that he loves her. It is still in the name of “love”, which is what women were supposed to stand for.
In the 1994 version her refusal is on the basis of wanting to find her own way in the world and focus on her art and writing. In a way she uses the famous phrase of “It’s not you, it’s me” and “let’s stay good friends instead ruining this friendship by marriage”, which was suitable for the ’90.
In 1994 version Jo’s mind constantly spins and looks for personal growth and fulfilment which were, according to the director, how she saw modern female virtues and the properties of contemporary woman, who can take charge of all aspects of moral and practical life without depending on male support or advice.
Prof. Bear this time is an older man, but contrary to earlier versions, this time we get more screen time to see their relationship develop and we get to see the reason why Jo would choose him over Laurie.
Prof. Bear supports her writing and challenges her to improve it, while Laurie isn’t ambitious as Jo and sees her writing and theatre as a hobby and a pastime and cannot understand her passion for it. Prof. Bear in this version courts her romantically and supports her, best of both worlds for a modern woman.
More than earlier versions the 1994 version highlighted issues that were written in between the lines of the book of the 19th century.
Swicord said that she tried to write this version in the way Louisa May Alcott might have written it without the restrictions women had in the 19th century building a lot on the research she did on Alcott’s private life and memoires. That might be the reason that many would say that it strayed away from the original version.
At a time when feminism, girl’s power or feminine power have become more a marketing tool than ideology rebooting a ’90 movie, that has already altered the concept of the book and gave a more powerful meaning to the characters, seems like a repetition, so what else could Gerwig add that hasn’t been done before?
Greta Gerwig’s version changes the whole structure of the book and is different from all other versions.
True to the 21st century new direction in scriptwriting, she has chosen to take a non-linear storytelling. Gerwig’s version starts with the 2nd book of “Little Women” when the March sisters are already grown up and found their way and place in the world.
The timeline runs back and forth between childhood and adulthood. Where other versions treat the sisters peripherally, largely leading them to their marriage and then dropping them as if their life is over, Gerwig version finds parallel moments in their lives which makes them feel like real people who grow into and exist in adulthood rather than archetypes.
For example adult Meg counts pennies to afford a dress before we see her as a young girl eager to join society.
Amy receives much more attention than in other versions. Her relationship with Laurie is predicted earlier and shows up more often, making their marriage acceptable and believable.
This is where Gerwig introduces another major difference and new aspect to this adaptation of the book.
Gerwig isn’t trying to justify Amy, but by giving Amy’s logic context, she indicates that individual choices are a consequence of systemic cause and effect, therefore she must act in the world she was given until a broader, somewhat say, a structural change would take place and offer her freedom.
Interesting to point is that just like in the 1933 version, Gerwig’s version sets marriage as a threatening presence, which is a necessity and is being acknowledged as a practical purpose and as an economical agreement.
In Gerwig’s version, Amy gives a monologue how, as a woman, she is unable to earn her own income therefore must rely on her husband to sustain her, robbed from her ability to work, because of her gender, why wouldn’t she marry for money.
More than any other versions of this movie, all the four sisters get to have their power. Though Jo is still the Protagonist, the other March sisters are all strong and powerful in their own way. I find it a refreshing way of representing the book.
The 21st century doesn’t need anymore feminine power which is only “kick-ass-hottie” or a ‘tomboy” or a “brilliant scientist” it’s in all of us in different shades and ways.
Amy is just as ambitious as Jo, only using different strategy. Meg is just as powerful as Jo only it shows up in a different way than in Jo. Even Beth gets her moment where we see her strength and power.
In today’s world there is place for all types of women’s power and we should not diminish it when it shows up in a different voice and way than we expect it to be, we just need to look closer.
Another refreshing change in the 2019 version is the way Marmee is being represented.
Already in the 1994 version, Marmee is shown as a strong individual woman, some might even call her woke.
Susan Sarandon, who plays Marmee, isn’t anymore this gentle tender character from the book, but an attractive, feisty heroic mum who isn’t hesitant to deliver short messages about raising her daughters according to unconventional way of life and how society treats women (she also delivers messages about other social issues, which could be called woke).
She is shown as powerful and wise by actions not just words – for example it’s her homeopathic treatments that bring Beth from deathbed, not the traditional doctors.
In Gerwig’s version Marmee brings up a topic that has been a taboo for so long, which is women’s anger.
Except for the TV mini-series with Emily Watson the sentence, which appears in the book, all other versions never gave it a place.
Marmee confides with Jo by saying ‘I’m angry nearly every day of my life”. We finally get to hear Marmee’s frustrations of the confinements and limitations that were put on women at that time. We get to see the real feelings of that woman who was left to raise four girls on her own without support from her husband or society.
Gerwig expresses what isn’t working in how women are treated or measured. This allows us to see the complicated Marmee character.
On the surface she seems to be this sweet, loving, encouraging, kind woman. But when she lets the mask slip, you realize that she is fiercely angry with the fact that the world doesn’t repay that kindness. That’s a fantastic change and addition to the book.
The 2019 version fills in the gaps between Louisa May Alcott and Jo and uses biographical elements of Alcott’s life into Jo’s character.
Jo negotiates the exact same deal for her book as Alcott did for her “Little Women” with the same rights and percentage of profits.
This version isn’t just about women’s employment (like the 1994 version) but also taking women seriously and giving them the same rights as men. It’s about respecting women’s ambitions and compensating them accordingly.
It’s infuriating to see that though many have recognized this theme, still Gerwig was not rewarded for her work accordingly. This version is another example that the fight is still on for proper representation of women and recognition of their talents.
This one is easy. The book is definitely not as powerful today as it was when I read it as a child (and teenager), I couldn’t relate to it even when looking at it through nostalgic eyes.
From all the different movie versions Gerwig’s version is the one that, for me, is the most educational and empowering. It’s true that the 1994 version made the biggest change in how to represent the March sisters in an updated format that would fit the change of human consciousness and the role of women in society.
However, Gerwig’s version is the one that I could learn the most from as it deals with changes in structure and adding new voices to the character and not being afraid of bringing outside sources into the adaptation.