By Bradley Lane
The story of Little Women is over 150 years old at this point, so it might stand to reason the story could be thought of as outdated or inapplicable to today’s more progressive society. Certainly, that thought was in the back of my head walking into the 2019 adaptation directed by the critically acclaimed Greta Gerwig. However, upon leaving the theater I am happy to report that I was completely and totally wrong. Gerwig’s adaptation is brilliant in both its subversion of preconceived ideas about the story and its embrace of the timeless classic appeal of the story at the center of the film. The tale of the March sisters is canonized in classic American literature already, solidifying the narrative as meaningful and resonant. What Gerwig adds to the table is a series of ingenious creative decisions that make Little Women a more well-rounded and intricate viewing experience.
The most notable change to the source material is to the structure of the narrative. The original story is told chronologically, starting with the March sisters as children and then growing up with them until they are adults making very adult decisions for their lives. Gerwig mixes these two flashing back and forth between when they were children and later when they are becoming adults. This changes the flow of the narrative dramatically and serves to give reasoning to the sisters’ decisions later in life by immediately giving childhood context to those decisions.
This deviation also allows for the March sisters to be more well-rounded and individualistic than previous adaptations might have presented them before. Amy is pre-conceived as the annoying bratty sister from the beginning because we are introduced to her as a child without having fully developed yet into maturity. By contextualizing her adult decisions immediately with her childhood misbehavior and naiveté, she becomes much more sympathetic.
Most importantly, what is retained from the novel and emphasized most heavily in the film is the idea of a woman’s agency. Little Women was never a condemnation of the role of the housewife or the endorsement of a life of recluse as a lonely writer; rather, it was a radical denouncement of anyone who thought it was their place to tell a woman how to live her life. Jo may not understand why Meg would choose domestic life over a career in performance, but the film stands in her defense, and every woman’s defense, to their right to choose for themselves.
Gerwig’s Little Women is the best type of adaptation, one that is not afraid to depart from the original, but uses these departures tastefully, to complement the adapted medium and ultimately to strengthen the themes and ideas presented in the original work.
Little Women is available to stream on Spectrum on Demand.