Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Little Women
I’m sure when most of you learned of Little Women about to be released, I bet most of you thought ‘not another Little Women adaptation.’ I admit I had those feelings at the start. However I was surprised to see how well it turned out.
In 1868, Jo March is a teacher in New York City. She has writing ambitions and takes her writing frequently to Mr. Dashwood who will publish her writing… under considerable editing. Her younger sister Amy is in Paris under the guidance of her elder Aunt March who never married and despises the idea of marriage. She meets her love from back home, Laurie and invites her to a party, in which he gets drunk to her dismay. Jo’s writing ambitions are kept alive by a professor named Friedrich Bhaer who supports her work but is constructive but blunt in his critiquing of her works. However Jo has to put everything on hold when she receives a letter that her younger sister Beth is sick. She has to return back home.
The film flashes back to the winter of 1861 in Massachusetts, just after the March’s father goes off to the Civil War, and the March sisters all dress up and prepare for a party where Jo meets Laurie, the grandson of their neighbor Mr. Laurence, for the first time. Just before Christmas dinner, the mother Marmee encourages the girls to give their food to their Mrs. Hummer and her group of hungry children. The girls return with a plentiful Christmas dinner thanks to Mr. Laurence and a letter from their father who just started fighting. During the trip, Jo is invited by her single elder Aunt March to come to Paris with her. Also during that winter, Amy is strapped by a teacher for her drawing in class and Laurie takes her in to his Latin lesson before her family arrives.
It’s obvious as Amy has artistic ambitions and Jo has writing ambitions, their ambitions clash, often violently. One night as Jo is out with the family for an occasion, Amy burns the notes to her novel. Jo discovers upon returning, and a violent fight ensued. However all animosity ends when on an occasion while skating, the ice breaks under Amy and is in danger of drowning. Jo saves her. Also during that winter, Mr. Laurence invites Beth to play on his piano as she reminds him of his late daughter.
Returning to 1868, Laurie apologizes to Amy for his drunken behavior the night before. He also begs Amy not to marry Fred Vaughn but marry him instead. That only makes Amy unhappy as she feels she’s ‘second to Jo’ at everything, including Laurie. Amy later rejects Fred’s proposal after she learns Laurie returned to London. Returning back to the past, there was a period of time when Marmee left to visit their father who was wounded during the War. During that time, Beth received a gift from Mr. Laurence: his piano! However she becomes ill with scarlet fever. With a weak heart, it means she might die. Her mother rushes home with their father, already recovered. All come home in time for Christmas and Amy is all better. However returning back to 1868, Amy dies shortly after Jo arrives from her train trip.
The film flashes back to the past on the day Meg is about to be married. Jo doesn’t want her to marry, feeling Meg doesn’t want to marry, but Meg reminds her Jo’s ambitions may be different from Meg’s ambitions, but they’re still her ambitions. It’s on the day of the wedding Aunt March announces she will take Amy to Paris instead of Jo. Laurie admits his feelings for Jo after the wedding, but Jo insists she doesn’t have the same feelings.
Returning back to 1868, a devastated Amy returns home with a dying Aunt March. Jo starts to wonder if she has second thoughts of her love to Laurie. She writes a letter confessing her feelings, but she soon learns Amy accepted Laurie’s proposal and rejected Fred Vaughn’s proposal. Jo later agrees with Laurie to just be friends. After she throws her letter of love to Laurie in the river, she’s inspired to write her novel about her and her sisters.
She takes the novel to Mr. Dashwood who dismisses it because he believes a lead protagonist female who marries is what sells novels. Mr. Dashwood is given a change of heart when he learns his own young daughters love the story. However he’s still skeptical and wants Jo to make the lead protagonist marry. Jo is at first against it as it is sacrilegious to her work. However she compromises, but on one condition. She gets a $500 up-front publishing payment and more than the original 5% profits promised. She starts at 10% but compromises at 6.6%. The novel Little Women is set to be published and the school Jo and her sisters wanted to open is opened in what was Aunt March’s house with Bhaer teaching children at the school.
This may be a film adapted from a novel written in 1868, but as one watches, one would be surprised to see its relevance for today. This may be a story set around the time of the US Civil War and in New England, but there are a lot of similarities to the present. One common theme is the competitiveness of sisters. We still have that. Ask any woman who comes from a family with a lot of girls! There’s also the story of women with desires and ambitions. Today’s young women have possibly the biggest ever ambitions for their future. Women may have had it rougher a century and a half ago, but it makes clear the ambitions the women shared, whether it be career ambitions, romance ambitions or artistic ambitions. We should remember from history that women had to work during the war while the men were fighting and that started suffrage groups and the first feminist groups. There’s dealing with dashing but stupid men, as seen in Laurie. There’s support and encouragement from others. There’s also the bond of the family. First of the March girls all live with their mother Marmee as they’re waiting for their father to come home from the war. Even dealing with the heartbreak of a sister that died too soon.
For those that read the novel Little Women, I feel the reason why it became so popular is that women could see mirror images of themselves in the March sisters. They shared similar goals, similar trials, similar ambitions and similar dreams. Here in the film, I felt the characters of the March girls were made to look very relatable to most young females of today.
Now Little Women has already been adapted into a film many times before. In fact this is the seventh film adaptation of the novel if you even include adaptations as far back as the silent era. To make people welcome a film adaptation of this in the present, there would have to be a freshness or a twist that works. Having it a case where Beth is one with no intentions to marry is a risky thing. I feel it did the smart thing by having it a case where Jo is the author of Little Women and trying to market it, and using the money to build the school, is a brave decision. I don’t think it does anything too sacrilegious to the book. In fact the character of Jo is to mirror that of Louisa. What the film does is actually give two alternatives of Jo: the Jo that’s common in the novel and the Jo who’s more of a reflection of Louisa’s own life and strong will when she deals with Mr. Dashwood. It’s a unique twist for Greta to make it happen. Plus instead of it defying the story, it actually adds a unique twist to it that works.
Top accolades of the film should go to director Greta Gerwig. This could have been another rehash of a commonly-adapted novel. Instead Greta adapts the story to make it very relatable to young women in today’s world and even adding a twist to the story without ruining the dignity of the original story. Gerwig bends instead of breaks. Even the constant flashes between the past and present work well. The best acting comes from Saoirse Ronan. Again she does an excellent acting performance that adds dimension and charm and speaks to the audience. Florence Pugh is also great as Amy: Jo’s most rivalrous sister and very good at stealing the show from Jo at times. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are also very good as sisters Meg and Beth. Laura Dern is also good as Marmee, but her role is limited in dimension. Meryl Streep is also given a brief role as Miss March, but she delivers a character that commands your attention each time. Timothee Chalamet was good as the idiotic Laurie, but I feel he didn’t act 1860’s-ish enough.
The film also has a lot of great standout technical efforts too. There’s the costuming of Jacqueline Durran, there’s the score composition from Alexandre Desplat, the set design from Jess Gonchor and Claire Kaufman and there’s the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux.
The most recent adaptation of Little Women does the book justice, but it adds a twist at the end. I’m sure even the biggest fans of the novel will be happy how the film turns out.