Gerwig: Little Women (2019)
Electing to adapt Little Women was a big gesture for Greta Gerwig, not simply because of the stature of the original novel, or the number of adaptations that already exist, but because the last few generations have probably grown up with the Gillian Armstrong version before ever reading the book. Armstrong’s adaptation ended with the events of the story being folded back seamlessly into Jo March’s novel, which was in turn folded back seamlessly into Louisa May Alcott’s novel, but Gerwig continually stretches the space between Alcott and Jo, largely through a framing device that immediately signals her departure from Armstrong’s vision. Instead of proceeding chronologically, as Armstrong does, Gerwig starts in the midst of the artistic and financial negotiations between Jo and her literary editors, negotiations that mirror the pressure placed upon Alcott to marry off all her little women: “If the main character is a girl, make sure she is married by the end – or dead.”
More generally, Little Women opens during the second act of Alcott’s novel, on the cusp of Beth’s death, while the other three sisters are at their most removed from the family. During this wandering period, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York, and trying to make it as a writer; Amy (Florence Pugh) is travelling abroad with their Aunt March (Meryl Streep); Meg (Emma Watson) is settling into her marriage with John Brooke (James Norton); and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is sinking into her second bout of scarlet fever, which eventually leads to her death. This period coincides with Jo’s unlikely romance with Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), a German expatriate philosopher living in her boarding house, and Beth’s even more unlikely romance with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalemet), Jo’s old flame, who she meets while travelling in Europe. In the novel, these two marriages feel like a product of editorial intrusion, rather than Alcott’s original vision, and they are even more contrived and glaring in Armstrong’s film, where they barely feel plausible, so dramatically do they seem to contradict what we have learned about the characters up until this period.
In other words, Gerwig is keen to work through the marital contrivances of the novel, and consider how far the novel can be extricated from these contrivances and restored to Alcott’s original vision. Starting the story midway through also dissociates the sisters from the domestic setting that opens Armstrong’s adaptation, where we meet them in the midst of waiting for their father (Bob Odenkirk) to return from the Civil War, in a household that is largely run by their beloved Marmie (Laura Dern). Here, we meet all of them, in some sense, as single, independent, unmarried women, since while Meg is married by this stage, the flashback to her wedding is left until much later in the film, making it feel as if she is as single and as untethered from marital futurity as the rest of the sisters at this early juncture.
For the first part of Little Women, this transformation makes for a film that is structurally ingenious, but in which the vibrancy and vitality of the characters emerges far more gradually than in Armstrong’s version. To some extent, Gerwig assumes, rather than establishes, characters, riffing on Armstrong’s film as much as directly adapting Alcott’s text, which is perhaps why the sisters don’t always seem as articulated as in Armstrong – at least not at first – especially since much of the first two acts here plays as flashbacks, or imaginative recreations on Jo’s part. These flashbacks are initially quite accelerated, as if Gerwig wants to get through all the obligatory scenes that also exist in Armstrong’s version, but which are so integral to the story that they can’t be elided or removed here. To that end, she tends to compress scenes to vignettes, moving through the earlier parts of the story very quickly, in what can sometimes feel like an extended version of the film’s trailer.
Among other things, this gesture involves repudiating the transcendental atmosphere that made Armstrong’s version so striking. There’s no real sense here of Concord, where the girls live, as a hub of transcendental thought, nor of the novel as a part of the transcendental canon. Whereas Armstrong pointedly situated Amy’s skating accident at Walden Pond, here it simply occurs on a nondescript pond next to the Marches’ property, while Jo’s critical rejection of Laurie occurs in the midst of a cultured field, rather than deep in the woods. Armstrong used this transcendental backdrop to explain Laurie’s attraction to Friedrich, the philosopher she meets in her New York boarding house, by emphasizing his background in German transcendentalism, and his continuity with the philosophical traditions being espoused at the time in Concord. By contrast, Friedrich is largely divested of this backdrop here, and positioned in a far less authoritative manner with respect to Jo’s literary mission.
In both the book and Armstrong’s film, Friedrich’s advice to Jo that she discard genre writing and embrace autofiction is the critical moment in her evolution to a fully-fledged writer. In both texts, too, this advice is a moment of profound pathos for Jo, who has to find the courage to discard her juvenilia and mine the most difficult parts of her own life for inspiration. Yet Gerwig is sceptical of Friedrich’s role in both texts, playing the critical scene between him and Jo in a more comic vein that cuts across the pathos of his advice, giving the impression that he is simply confirming what she knew about her work already. When he suggests Jo embrace autofiction, he is sitting down, shot from above, and almost incidental to the scene, leaving space for Jo to riff, comically, about the absurdities of being a female writer in New York at this time. The comedy of this scene then continues into a flashback to an earlier Christmas in Concord, while any residual pathos that Friedrich’s advice generates is immediately deflected into a telegram announcing the return of Beth’s illness, thereby displacing him from the role of transcendental muse, and divesting him of the erotic regard of a father-figure-turned-lover, that he exuded in Armstrong’s adaptation.
In many ways, these changes to Friedrich’s character, and the way he is positioned, makes his presence more plausible than in Armstrong’s film, especially because he is much younger, and more handsome, than occurs in either Armstrong or Alcott. Yet the way in which this romance – which was a contrivance to begin with – is naturalized by Gerwig also reflects some of the strengths of Armstrong’s version as well. Where Armstrong beautifully evokes and animates the fissures and longings in Alcott’s text, Gerwig often seems to be trying to remedy or erase them, meaning that while she may be more directly focused on Alcott’s frustrations as an author, she doesn’t always capture the melancholy of these frustrations quite so vividly as Armstrong, who lets the contradictions of the book resonate rather than trying to resolve them for a contemporary audience. Once again, this tends to displace the sense of transcendental duration that was so critical to Armstrong’s version, in which Jo seems to be waiting for a new conception of time as a much as a new time – a temporarity in which women’s labour isnt’t economized and domesticated so thoroughly. To that end, Armstrong overlaid every scene with a trembling transcendental apprehension – the sense that a new season is imminent – and dovetailed it with the end of the Civil War, which is also almost entirely absent here as a real point of historical reference or meaning.
Instead, for the most part, Gerwig’s revised timeline precludes this sense of duration, and the melancholy that goes along with it. Rather than evoking Alcott’s yearning for a world beyond her own, Gerwig often seems to be trying to present our world as Alcott’s world, fusing past and present in ways that work against the novel’s yearning for a feminine future that can’t be fully articulated within its own time. As a result, Little Women plays as more of a comedy than any previous version, exuding a jauntiness and jolliness that can sometimes feel a bit inane compared to the novel, especially when compared to Armstrong’s film, at least during its middle stretches. The characters use period language, but their diction seems very contemporary in its limberness, while the awkward comments on the Civil War, and the legacy of slavery, feel like virtue-signalling – ways of distracting us from, or apologizing for, a story set against the end of slavery but only really interested in whiteness.
Nevertheless, the rapid pace of the film, which can occasionally make the more familiar scenes seem a little rote, is also often powerful in its own way, especially as the third act starts to draw near. On the one hand, it captures the serialized quality of the original novel, and the mindset of a writer who has to think economically – in vignettes – fusing the domestic economy of the March sisters and the domestic economy expected of Alcott as a female writer in quite ingenious ways. At the same time, the rapid rotations of scenes, and constant shifts in time, mirrors the restless energy of the sisters, and ensures that they are never positioned or defined against men in a stable or static way. As the pace accelerates, Gerwig seems to discover a mobile, provisional futurity in the space between scenes, and the space between serial instalments, in which women don’t necessary have to be defined against a marital future. Since the expectations of mainstream cinema are not that different from those of Alcott’s editors, this mobile space feels like a line of flight from Hollywood, as if Gerwig were trying to reimagine the shifting zone between Alcott’s serial instalments in terms of her own existence between big-budget releases, and partner Noah Baumbach’s releases.
Gerwig thus tends to fragment the timeline of the film around feminine ceremonies, and rituals that confer socially acceptable femininity. Whenever these rituals come too close to shaping the film, we return to the framing device, and to each sister’s individual pursuits, whether artistic, vocational or financial. Interestingly, this fragmentation of the family also gives Marmie more scope to be a character than in Armstrong’s version, where she is presented as a provider and teacher more than a character in her own right. Here, however, she confesses to Jo at one point that “I’m angry almost every day of my life,” and concedes that it has taken her forty years to deal with her impatience. Like the sisters, her story has also been contoured by the inability of women to make their own money, and the economic necessity of marriage, both in women’s lives, and in women’s fiction: “Don’t sit there and tell me marriage is not an economic proposition, because it is – it may not be for you, but it certainly is for me.” In combination with the restructured timeline, this foregrounding of marital economics as the theme of the novel also tends to displace the marital teleology forced on the novel, continually and creatively reconfiguring the sisters around their supposed romantic destinies, and the marital futurity that is supposedly laid out for them.
In its own way, then, Little Women is as much of a meditation on marriage as Marriage Story, especially in the third act, which focuses on Beth’s illness in a far more protracted – but also distended – way than Armstrong’s version. Here, Beth’s sickbed, and then her deathbed, is where the film’s kaleidoscopic structure revolves and shifts, effectively turning Beth into the protagonist for much of the third act. In fact, Gerwig seems more fascinated by Beth than any other character, presumably because she was the only sister whose story could end as Alcott wanted – in a fictional world where women had to die or get married, Beth was the only character who was permitted to remain unmarried. No surprise, then, that Beth’s death forms a site of marital divergence, ushering in a conclusion in which every marital gesture, and every attempt to incorporate marriage into the March family structure, feels both belated and precipitative, too soon and too late, displaced from the comfortable and naturalistic marital teleology that Alcott’s editors presumably wanted to see articulated.
Gerwig also seems to be examining Beth’s character in close detail so that she can prepare herself for the biggest question of the film – whether to have Jo marry Friedrich, as Alcott’s editors insisted should occur, or to keep Jo unmarried, as Alcott had originally intended. Both of these options are somewhat fraught, since a marriage between Jo and Friedrich would seem to go against Gerwig’s revisionist approach, but keeping Jo single might appear presumptious in its claim to be correcting Alcott’s vision, as occurs sometimes in the earlier stages of this film. To that end, Gerwig comes up with an ingenious solution that neither affirms Jo’s marriage to Friedrich, nor depicts Alcott as a victim of editorial intrusion, but instead celebrates Alcott’s capacity to use the marital economy of her time to her own advantage, as Amy does in her marriage to Laurie. For while Gerwig may present Jo’s reunion with Fredrich in a heightened, Hollywood way – the last scene of Armstrong’s version – she immediately reveals that this scene has been the final chapter that Jo’s publisher has requested, leaving the scene hanging, free-floating, between Alcott’s intentions and editorial intervention, impossible to categorically ascribe to either situation.
Just as critically, Gerwig presents this as a gesture of comic resilience on Jo’s part, rather than tragic deferral, or smug self-awareness on her own part. When Jo accepts the marriage plot, she does so comically, almost bathetically, as an economic necessity, while the publisher’s decision to go ahead with the book arises just as bathetically, in the midst of a domestic argument in which his wife’s frustration with his selfishness segues into his daughters’ insistence that he put the draft of the novel into print. Rather than focus on the tragedy of Alcott’s characters marrying, Gerwig ends by focusing on how Alcott, in her own way, uses marriage to broker a literary future for her characters, and for herself, as she reflects that “marriage has always been a mercenary prospect, even in fiction,” before laying down clear terms for what this particular marriage will cost: “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I want some part of it.” In doing so, Gerwig suggests that the marital economies that still drive Hollywood depictions of women can also be creatively reconfigured, and that her own film is indeed an example of just this. As Jo’s sensuous rapport with Friedrich is deflected into her sensuous rapport with her book, which we see lovingly bound and gilded in the final scenes of the film, Gerwig seems to be caressing her own film too, using it as a source of sustenance and offering it up as a source of sustenance to others, precious precisely because it can’t quite escape the social constrictions that is it critiquing.
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