‘Little Women’: A modern take on the March sisters

Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures/AP
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet star in “Little Women.” The film, like its source, offers women more than marriage.

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First published more than 150 years ago, “Little Women” has been a surprisingly limber tale – adapted into everything from a comic strip to an opera. Each generation gets its own version, and each version stretches to fit the time in which it’s received. In every iteration, one question remains relevant: What sells nowadays? 

In 2019, the answer is empowerment. Writer-director Greta Gerwig retells the story for an age that imagines a future for women outside marriage. Bookended by business discussions between heroine Jo March and her glib editor, the film is itself a negotiation: between fact and fiction, author and audience, and the Americas of 1868 and 2019. Now on its sixth trip to movie theaters, “Little Women” is back perhaps for the first time on Louisa May Alcott’s original terms. 

Ms. Gerwig’s vision was informed by her understanding of the book, and of Jo. “She was able to sort of go underneath the story without changing the story,” says Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. “Underneath you see and feel emotion and ambition that isn’t necessarily stated outright in the story, but it’s there.”

Why We Wrote This

How can a new interpretation of a classic novel bring more of the story to light? Some 150 years after the publication of “Little Women,” the latest film version offers more about how young women go after their dreams.

Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of “Little Women” begins with Jo March, the heroine, squirming as an editor cuts full pages from her story – skimming and slamming them on his desk like a judge with his gavel. Then the editor accepts it (for less money than usual) and offers Jo some advice: “People want to be amused, not preached at. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” 

His comment is a bit of fun for Ms. Gerwig, the writer-director, as it applies as much to today as to Jo’s world in the 1860s. First published more than 150 years ago, “Little Women” has been a surprisingly limber tale – adapted into everything from a comic strip to an opera. Each generation gets its own version, and each version stretches to fit the time in which it’s received. In every iteration, the editor’s unspoken question remains relevant: What sells nowadays? 

For Ms. Gerwig, the answer is empowerment. Bookended by business discussions between Jo and her glib editor, the film is itself a negotiation: between fact and fiction, author and audience, and the Americas of 1868 and 2019. Now on its sixth trip to movie theaters, “Little Women” is back perhaps for the first time on Louisa May Alcott’s original terms. 

Why We Wrote This

How can a new interpretation of a classic novel bring more of the story to light? Some 150 years after the publication of “Little Women,” the latest film version offers more about how young women go after their dreams.

“[Ms. Gerwig’s] knowledge of the book and then her interest in the real woman behind Jo March ... really informs the way she made the film, because she was able to sort of go underneath the story without changing the story,” says Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, who worked as a consultant for the film. “Underneath you see and feel emotion and ambition that isn’t necessarily stated outright in the story, but it’s there.”

A wider view of women

Published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, “Little Women” immediately stood out in an America unaccustomed to realistic books about women, says Anne Phillips, an English professor and Alcott expert at Kansas State University. The March sisters, says Professor Phillips, “play and they savor life and they have intellectual and artistic ambitions. It’s just a world of difference from what else was out there for young women in the time it was produced.”

At a time when 9 out of 10 women got married, says Professor Phillips, “Little Women” actually explores female goals outside domestic life. More than just wives-to-be, the March sisters pursue their dreams, what they call “castles in the air.” Jo longs for literary fame, Meg wants “heaps of money,” Amy’s “modest desire” is to be the world’s greatest painter, and Beth – the golden child (there’s always one) – just wants to stay home and play piano.

The novel’s progressive style and plot reflect its author – herself unconventional and forward-thinking. Alcott came from an abolitionist family and was the first woman in her town to vote. She was bold when girls were expected to be modest, an athlete who enjoyed playing alongside, and often outracing, boys, says Orchard House’s Ms. Turnquist. 

Ms. Gerwig’s film emphasizes these same traits in Alcott’s characters. Rarely “little,” the March sisters are spunky and assertive as they test the boundaries of what’s permissible for young women in their day. Unlike previous movie versions, such as Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, the March sisters by and large worry less about acting proper.

Meanwhile, the relatively few men remain meek and mild – particularly Timothée Chalamet who as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the main male lead, looks fragile next to pugilistic Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and charmingly petulant Amy (Florence Pugh). 

Casting outspoken feminist Emma Watson as Meg, the most domestic of the sisters, also challenges common perceptions of female empowerment. When on Meg’s marriage day, Jo asks her older sister to call it off, Meg responds, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” 

Even gentle, content Beth becomes Jo’s muse later in the film, spurring her sister’s writing as male criticism never could. It’s this relationship that helps set Ms. Gerwig’s adaptation apart, along with the made-over Friedrich Bhaer, who hardly resembles Jo’s poor and plain professor husband in the book.

For an adaptation so loyal to its source material, the change is deliberate. At the film’s end, an ambiguous twist makes it clear that the new (and improved) Bhaer is a sign of empowerment for the heroine.

Alcott compromises, Gerwig doesn’t

When the second part of “Little Women” was published 150 years ago, Alcott’s editor and audience pressured her to marry off her highly autobiographical heroine. Coupling her with Bhaer, rather than rich and handsome Laurie, was the author’s act of rebellion, challenging reader expectations of the day. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” Alcott wrote in her journal. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

In 1869, Alcott compromised her novel to partially meet the demands of her audience. In 2019, Ms. Gerwig retells the story for an age that imagines more futures for women than as brides. The perseverance required to achieve that ending, though, communicates in some ways how little things have changed – and thus why the story is still relevant, says Greg Eiselein, an English professor who researches Alcott with Dr. Phillips at Kansas State.

“Women still struggle with confinement, with expectations, which hold them back in various ways,” he says. “And that can be frustrating, but also encouragement to keep on – to keep on trying, even when the publisher says, ‘I don’t like your novel.’”

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