As a child, my hero was Jo March. But as an adult, it’s Louisa May Alcott.
— Greta Gerwig
When adapting the screenplay for her new film, Little Women, Greta Gerwig didn’t just spend time with the primary text; she dug up every novel, journal, and letter that Louisa May Alcott ever wrote. “What I was trying to reverse-engineer was this moment that Jo getting her book would make the audience feel — like you usually feel when the heroine is chosen by the hero,” Gerwig explained to The New York Times. “I wanted to see if I could create that feeling, but with a girl and her book.” Little Women opens upon a scene of Jo March stepping into the offices of The Weekly Volcano to sell her stories to its publisher. Life imitates art; in a similar meeting, Greta Gerwig asserted that she was the only person fit to write and direct the remake, because Little Women is much more than just a novel to Gerwig — it’s the inspiration that helped propel her own ideas and ambitions that now glow on screen.
When Alcott’s novel was initially released, it was an immediate success. What’s even more surprising though, is that it continues to be — it has sold over ten million copies in the last century. The story, set during the American Civil War, takes place during an era when women couldn’t vote, were required to look to marriage for income, and had no custody rights over their own children. It’s told from the point of view of a woman, and centers around the lives of four sisters with intellectual ambitions: Jo, the assertive tomboy writer, Beth, the quiet pianist, Meg, the gentle, moral sister who loves luxury, and Amy, the visual artist who’s out to prove herself.
The movie has been converted to film before, most notably in 1994 with Winona Ryder starring as Jo, but Gerwig’s remake of Little Women feels lived in. Her version includes bright, flowing costumes, long loose curls, and is shot through with gorgeous golden light. These visual cues mirror the ambition and optimism Gerwig imbues these timeless characters with. Lightly waltzing along with rhythmic editing, the story flows steadily ahead as the camera dances with the actors, and the dialogue speeds on, carefully choreographed to overlap at many different moments, reminiscent of the sound and physicality of Robert Altman films.
Gerwig cleverly weaves childhood flashbacks into the current lives of the adult protagonists, deftly managing to tell two sides of the story at once. Adulthood is differentiated from childhood through cinematography, with darker tones and blue-ish tints that feel heavy and stark. In contrast, the memories from childhood are bright and colorful with fluid, playful camera movements that mimic the girls. “I wanted to reflect this feeling that we’re always walking with our younger selves and who we are is not just who we are in that moment, but the accumulation of time and memories and hopes and disappointments,” Gerwig said in an interview, when asked why she decided to frame the story this way. “To tell the story of who these women were, I thought it would be useful to have it be grounded in adulthood and have childhood be this thing that is both past and present, which is how I think I experience my own life,” she concluded.
The power of money, or lack thereof, and the relationship women have to economic resources resonates strongly — even the sound of it is heightened throughout the film and first heard in the opening scene when the publisher pays Jo twenty dollars for a story. It’s further reiterated in the speech Amy gives to Laurie:
“As a woman there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married and if we had children they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it certainly is for me.”
Amy’s speech was written into the script incredibly last minute by Gerwig after she was inspired by a conversation with Meryl Streep, and Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf rather infamously wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Economic independence is a running theme throughout the films Gerwig has written: Frances Ha, Mistress America, and Lady Bird all approach the task of earning an income, and surviving financially as a woman, in different ways, and it’s a topic that is still underexplored in cinema, especially when it comes to female characters.
In Frances Ha, a film co-written with Gerwig’s partner, Noah Baumbach, that stars Greta herself, Frances struggles to stay afloat money-wise, but still maintains a resilient optimism towards her ambition to become a dancer. Frances and Jo are both creatively ambitious women living in New York, who, in Alcott’s words, “can’t afford to starve on praise.” There’s even an introductory shot of Jo running through the streets of New York that mirrors a scene from Frances Ha, when she sprints through Chinatown to David Bowie.
Just one short sprint down the street can sometimes make it feel like the world is melting away, and remind us of how incredibly human and free we are. That freedom pulsates through the rapid movement of the camera running alongside these mirrored characters, who both urgently crave a sense of economic stability and creative freedom — a balance Brooke in Mistress America and Christine in Lady Bird also desire.
But Gerwig’s ambition for telling the stories of other women intertwined with the fates of the March sisters during a time when Hollywood is still very much a man’s world. According to the 2018 Celluloid Ceiling Report, women comprised only 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 American films. The last and only woman to have won Best Director was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009; and it wasn’t until 2017 that another woman was even nominated for Best Director. That woman was Greta, herself.
However, even with a film that felt more expansive than her 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird, her version of Little Women didn’t earn Gerwig an Oscar nomination for Best Director this year. “Does the academy think Little Women directed itself?” asked some critics, in exasperation. It wasn’t a total snub though, the film did receive nominations for Best Actress, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Original Music Score, Best Costume Design, and Best Picture.
This latest remake of Little Women made an estimated $16.5 million during its opening weekend, and at the date of publishing this piece, it has made close to $150 million worldwide, echoing the success and resonance of the story in novel form. These numbers are proof that women still want to see more complex female characters who aren’t overly sexualized, who embody dimensional experiences and whose perspective are ideated and communicated — from screenplay, to direction, to production — from the viewpoint of a woman.
In a press statement responding to the film’s six other nominations Gerwig wrote: “I hope our Little Women does for another generation of girls and women what it did for me: lights a fire to write your book, make your movie, sing your verse.”