Into every generation, a version of Little Women is born. Since Louisa May Alcott first released the two-part book, in 1868 and 1869 respectively, there have been numerous feature film adaptations. Two silent movie versions were made before George Cukor’s 1933 interpretation starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo. The favorite of millennials is certainly Gillian Armstrong’s beautifully built 1994 version, with Winona Ryder as Jo. This week brings Greta Gerwig’s much anticipated, visually stunning interpretation to the silver screen, which sees the effervescent Saoirse Ronan embodying contemporary ideals through her performance in the lead role.
Adaptations are moored, for better or worse, to their cultural moment. And with Cukor, Armstrong, and Gerwig, the opening scene varies, as do portrayals of Jo March, the independent, strong-willed protagonist. One novel can inspire dozens of interpretations, and in the case of this most American of novels, its adaptation often reflects our current concerns. Cukor’s film, for example, released after the Great Depression, starts with the girls’ mother giving a coat to an impoverished man who has lost sons in the Civil War. Armstrong’s version opens on the sisters on Christmas Eve, with the return of Marmee from her charity work, centering on hearth and home, and the development of characters—which Armstrong does with the most skill. Gerwig’s film starts, as it will finish, with Jo/Alcott in a publisher’s office. Ironically, both Cukor and Gerwig’s, the first and last interpretations, focus on reversals of stereotype to accomplish a radical portrayal of gender. Hepburn’s Jo is the most androgynous of any version. She is masculinized as much as the neighbor boy, Laurie, is feminized. Even their names reflect this scheme. In Gerwig’s film, when the girls vote Laurie into their ranks, actors Ronan and Timothee Chalamet wear the exact same clothes: highly feminine shirts, pants, and suspenders, thereby creating a sense of equality.
Cukor, who was gay, is often referred to in Hollywood, as the master of the “women’s film”. He dotes on Hepburn’s androgynous beauty, while Gerwig makes her Laurie more feminine and pretty than any of the March sisters; he poses and preens, and the camera lingers on his face, while Jo wears practical clothes, and is usually in motion. Gerwig’s camera often tells us more than her characters do. It reveals secrets: the ink on a writer’s hands betray her, sand blowing toward the camera signifies a slipping away, as two sisters discuss eternity, the sudden sensuality of the unbuttoning and untying of an apron, and the placement and replacement of pages to complete a manuscript. Gerwig’s adaptation is certainly the most visually gorgeous of this year’s, and most any year’s, films.
Gerwig begins her film at a dizzying pace which never stops. Her Little Women moves back and forth, unstitching Alcott’s linear narrative. A whirligig of a movie, it is forever turning, moving through time and shifting plot lines to the director’s advantage. It’s tricky to build characters this way, but Gerwig starts with two parallel love affairs in order to make us understand these character’s relationships later on. She matches disparate scenes with visual clues, such as color or architecture. And while her character building isn’t as sure footed and successful as Armstrong’s, her cinematography and juxtaposition of scenes renews Alcott’s story. Since the viewer is time travelling, certain characters can be lost, while others are returned almost simultaneously. Her mise-en-scene, costumes, lighting, and settings create a glorious ambience and color scheme. And Ronan’s refusal of Laurie is the most powerful, emotional and, therefore, the most heartbreaking of any adaptation. Gerwig draws her actors to incredible performances.
Armstrong’s characters, on the other hand, are built to perfection. We understand every motivation, relationship, and motive. Susan Sarandon as Marmee is the feminist voice of this film, and she conveys Alcott’s ideals. Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer is nicely paced and introduces the ideals of the Transcendentalist movement that Alcott and her parents adhered to. Armstrong’s characters quote Whitman; Marmee talks about treating young women equally to men, and she expounds the fleeting nature of physical beauty. Gerwig choses to sacrifice this content in her adaptation. Yet, Ronan offers the best portrayal of Jo March to date, and with her androgynous features and dress, her certainty and her passion, she embodies the very essence of Alcott’s heroine.
Cukor’s version of Little Women is a coming of age tale, and his Jo is eventually feminized. She learns to love Professor Bhear, an undeniable father figure, and the care of her sister Beth, makes her more feminine, faithful, and patient. Both Armstrong’s and Gerwig’s films are resoundingly feminist, while portrying class struggles, hard times, and an America at war with itself. Cukor’s reinforces American values during a time of national uncertainty. All three films recreate Alcott’s novel: a juxtaposition of domestic dramas set against historical ones. In Gerwig’s luminous adaptation, however, by merging Alcott with Jo, viewers may choose their ending: a portrait of domestic bliss, or of a woman who pledged to never marry, to let no man be her master. In this generation, hopefully young women will be able to choose their own narrative as well.