Little Women is a successful film adaptation but haste and gloss obscure many of the central and distinctive elements of Alcott’s original story
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women opens with an interesting problem: the independent, aspiring woman writer is instructed by the publisher to ensure her heroine is married by the end of the story. Even if individual women successfully challenge sexist restrictions in their own lives, they nevertheless find themselves under pressure to reinforce them publicly.
The young writer is in part Jo March, the headstrong heroine of Little Women, and in part her creator, the author Louise May Alcott. The heavily autobiographical nature of Alcott’s novel lends itself to such an interpretation although – as we’ll see later – the film trips itself up on this device.
This is an explicitly feminist film; whereas previous adaptations have focussed mostly on the central and most compelling character, Jo, this one endeavours to follow the stories of all four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. As a result, it is not only the rebellious Jo who espouses feminist ideas, but even the more apparently conformist sisters are seen struggling to determine their own futures in the face of the obstacles imposed because of their sex and lack of economic security.
Gerwig’s approach illuminates an important theme of the book, informed by Alcott’s politics. Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832 to radical parents continually plagued by shortage of money. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was influenced by attempts at utopian living and even founded a (grimly austere and short-lived) ‘utopian’ community; her mother Abigail Alcott was one of Massachusetts’ first social workers. They were friends with leading progressive intellectuals including William Lloyd Garrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Like her parents, Louisa May Alcott was inspired by radical ideas, she was a supporter of women’s rights and ardent opponent of slavery: the family home was a station on the underground railroad, which helped people who had been enslaved to escape to freedom.
This aspect of Alcott’s politics is also featured in the film which emphasises its Civil War setting, with the struggle over slavery at its heart, and depicts Jo opening a school that educates black and white children together. In this version, the sisters’ idealism and struggle to control their own destinies unfolds in the context of a nationwide struggle over the control of the future and the meaning of emancipation.
In these ways, the film is a creative adaptation of the novel which pays tribute to the ideals of its author.
In other ways, however, the Jo/Louisa device works less effectively. Beginning with Jo/Louisa’s visit to the publisher, the film highlights the contrast between the literary conventions female authors were often compelled to observe and the lives many of them lived – Alcott remained unmarried (she also expressed her attraction to women, although this is not discussed in the film).
The film’s solution is rather crass, imposing a schmaltzy conclusion which Alcott did not write – but excusing it as the result of sexist impositions upon Louisa (whose sexist impositions, we might ask).
Gerwig’s Little Women also relies heavily on flashbacks to events that Jo/Louisa will reimagine in her writing. This could be effective if the viewer were afforded time to absorb the scenes which juxtapose sharply contrasting emotions – the heartbroken are once again joyous, characters that were dying are suddenly restored to health, etc. But this is a film in a hurry. The camera whirls around like it’s been hitting the Christmas sherry hard and the lines are delivered so rapidly that no character appears to listen to a single thing anyone else says. There is no time to meet any of the men (except for the comically obnoxious Laurie), which rather jars with the film’s emphasis on the importance of love in marriage. Perhaps it was to overcome the problems of the film’s poor pacing, that a heavy-handed soundtrack was introduced.
This is more than a stylistic problem: one of the innovations of Alcott and other women writers of this period was to powerfully convey subjects with which the pre-established literary canon was uninterested, such as the tedious frustrations of women’s lives. The frenetic pace of the film fails to capture that and therefore also the sense of liberation that Jo seeks in going to live independently in New York. She does so ‘to be seeing, doing, and learning more than I am’ – and to escape falling into a marriage that everyone expects but that she does not want.
It is only when she has begun to seize control of her own destiny that Alcott’s Jo can fall in love. And that is the riposte, I think, to the contradiction with which the film opens. The film makers ought to have trusted Louisa May Alcott a little more – she knew what she was doing.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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