Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Little Women Movie Review

Little Women

adapted from the novel by Greta Gerwig 

Louisa May Alcott has been my hero for as long as I can remember. Little Women has been one of my favorite books since I was about 11 and I reread it periodically. I've visited Orchard House numerous times and make an annual or semi-annual pilgrimage to the gift shop. I own a collection of antique, vintage and rare Louisa May Alcott books. So, read this review keeping that in mind.

My LMA rare book collection

This novel is so near and dear to my heart. I have yet to see a GOOD faithful adaptation of the novel and yes this includes the 1994 version. I was nervous when I read about this new movie. Greta Gerwig gives the story a feminist slant, incorporating aspects of the Alcotts lives and Louisa's other works. I wondered why she didn't just make a biopic of the Alcotts. This being said, I was eager to see the new move and have it do well at the box office. 

My dad and I went to see the movie on the 27th. He has never read the book before and claims he's never seen any of the film adaptations. I'm SURE he saw at least some of the 1994 version since I owned it on VHS. 

Greta Gerwig takes a very different approach to the novel. She cherry picked small sections she liked, mixed them up and added a dash of Louisa's life story for good measure to make a very modern feminist film. The movie opens with young adult Jo meeting with a publisher to sell a story and then flashes back in time 7 years earlier. Most of the story concentrates on the second half of the novel or Good Wives with the March sisters as young women coming of age after the Civil War. The flashback sequences give us brief glimpses into the lives of the March sisters as children. I was pleased to see some events included that normally get cut out, like their plays, the Pickwick Club and the post office. Amy's pickled limes were mentioned but for some weird reason, that scene isn't in the movie and instead Amy's "Valley of Humiliation" chapter is something that happens to another girl in the book. These sequences don't last long enough in my opinion and the non-linear storytelling style confused my dad. I felt the confusing timeline lacked the emotional punch needed when Beth dies but my dad claims he "bawled like a baby." 

My rare Louisa May Alcott books

From what I read about this movie it seemed like Greta Gerwig missed the heart of the novel and removed Marmee's wise counsel. This isn't quite the case. The girls do give away their breakfast to the poor family (although not cheerfully as they do in the book), Beth visits the Hummels when they're sick (but the baby doesn't die in her arms). Marmee counsels Jo about her anger. Yes Meg goes to the party ("Meg Goes to Vanity Fair" chapter) and enjoys herself but the scene still includes Laurie showing his disappointment and asking Meg what Jo would say. I was fine with that. It shows how he's drawn to the March sisters because they're unaffected. They're fresh and innocent and he likes that. There's no silly gossip about Mrs. March's "plans" to make Meg uncomfortable though. I didn't miss the spirituality and more moralizing. Greta Gerwig did understand Jo's reluctance to grow up and how the breaking up of her nuclear family affects Jo. I didn't agree with the loneliness and longing Jo feels at the end though. In the book it's Fritz she misses and fears she has lost forever, not Laurie. She knows Laurie and Amy are engaged and a much better couple.

I also disliked how Plumfield is going to be a school for boys and girls. Jo like Louisa always preferred boys. You can't just radically alter the education system as Bronson Alcott found out to his detriment in Boston. You have to change the way society treats girls and thinks of girls first. That wouldn't happen until long after Louisa's death.

My Madame Alexander Little Women dolls (I also have Louisa and an Orchard House somewhere)

The characters in the movie are more modern day versions of the characters in the book. They're feminine yet feisty. Jo is based on Louisa herself. She's full of energy and "boyish" spirits. Jo and Laurie dance wildly to the music at the New Year's dance out of sight of other party guests, she runs through town and is full of high spirits. Saorise Ronan makes a cute Jo, aside from her fair coloring. (Please, can we get a proper chestnut haired Jo? Her hair is dark brown with red not reddish blond. This is important because Louisa was dark like her mother and her father and sisters were fair. Bronson believed dark coloring was responsible for Abigail and Louisa's temperaments). Saorise Ronan is perky and energetic and can pull off deeper emotions credibly, if not all together convincingly. I was impressed with her ability to do an American accent but disappointed no one had a real New England accent, not even Hannah who clearly does in the book. The ending to Jo's "present" day story is slightly different from the book and completely not acceptable for the time but it is such a Jo scene that I enjoyed it even as I missed little Demi's candid conversation about love. 

Concord Public Library's rare Louisa May Alcott books

Emma Watson was great as Hermione but I haven't been impressed with her adult roles. Meg doesn't give her a lot to do. Meg is supposed to be soft and feminine, longing for the finer things in life but accepting love where it comes unexpectedly. This Meg is a little more human. She's like a Meg/Jo cross. She gets snippy at times and frustrated at their lack of money. She doesn't complain about working as a governess though. Meg gives a speech to Jo about her choices being just as valid as Jo's even if Jo can't understand them. I feel this is anachronistic. Women in the 1860s didn't really have choices. Jo is the exception rather than the norm. It felt like a conversation modern day sisters would have if one chooses to be a wife and stay-at-home mom while the other chooses to be a child-free by choice career woman. 

Amy is the real star of this novel. Florence Pugh is way too old to play 13-year-old Amy. She sounded immature for her looks. I would have preferred a child actor. I missed Amy's malapropisms and her ladylike manners. The one scene I liked in flashback was where she got her foot stuck in the plaster. THAT comes from the book and from life. Adult Amy is a whole different woman from the Amy in the novel. We see more of Amy in Europe as she works hard to become an accomplished artist. Florence Pugh's Amy knows what she wants and isn't willing to settle. She works hard and knows her limitations. I especially liked her impassioned speech to Laurie about marriage being an economic proposition. Greta Gerwig took inspiration from other Louisa May Alcott works to give Amy an impassioned, feminist bent. Amy explores the difference between talent vs. genius in women and the double standard that allows talented men to dabble whereas women must exhibit genius to be taken seriously. That's actually my favorite scene in the movie.

I don't think Amy would actually give this speech. She only says talent isn't genius and she can't make a living painting so she'll polish up her manners and become an ornament to society. I always found Amy annoying because of this. Amy becomes more self-aware in this movie. Great Gerwig also made the love story between Laurie and Amy believable. There's an attraction on both parts and the actors have good chemistry. I always believed Laurie married Amy because he wanted to be part of the family and she married him because she loved him and wanted material comfort. The romance develops in the novel when Beth is sick and Laurie visits Amy at Aunt March's and takes Amy out but I never fully believed Amy and Laurie were ever really in love the way I do in the movie even though the driving scenes are not there. 

Concord Public Library's rare Louisa May Alcott books

Beth is a bit odd in this adaptation. She comes across as slightly creepy. Beth is afraid of everything, not just people. I didn't get shy so much as unusual. There's not enough time spent on her story. I also didn't understand why she was the youngest and not Amy. Timothée Chalamet is OK as Laurie. He didn't wow me. His performance was understated. I was not convinced that adult Laurie was a drunken lout making scenes in public. This young actor is a little too young looking to convincingly play adult Laurie. I liked him better as teenage Laurie, brother to the March sisters. Laura Dern lacks Marmee's cozy, comforting presence. I didn't really buy her as the wise, loving matron who counsels her girls. It didn't help that the scene where the girls use their money to buy Marmee Christmas gifts was cut. This Marmee is more brisk and take charge. She's effective working with the soldiers' aid society and when confronted with a sick or poor person to care for. What I especially liked about the recent PBS adaptation is that Marmee lost control when she realized Beth was going to die and how Jo had to comfort her. Laura Dern's Marmee can face down anything. She also doesn't look like she's angry all the time. Papa March is hardly in the story. I missed him. Jo becomes close to her father at the end of the novel after she returns home when Beth dies. This movie has a silly Papa March who apparently can't hold on to his money. He lacks sense. Papa March in the book is poor because he tried to help a friend in need. I suppose this is where the morality of the story is needed.

Madame Alexander Marmee doll on display at the Concord Public Library

Meryl Streep's Aunt March is a little less caustic and cranky than in the novel. She's a spinster and NOT a wealthy widowed great-aunt. That makes her character's actions and words completely different. Movie Aunt March feels a strong sense of family loyalty. She's tough on the girls, enforcing gender norms because they don't have any money. Only wealthy people can afford to be eccentric. Aunt March wants her nieces to marry well to save the family and keeps trying to impress their duty on them. I think she's softer and kinder than in the novel, more fit for a Jane Austen novel than an LMA story. I missed her parrot and I missed "Aunt March Settles the Question" the final chapter in the first edition of Little Women. 

Concord Public Library's rare Louisa May Alcott books

Mr. Laurence has a larger role here in this film. He plays a kindly, surrogate grandpa to the March girls, even being on hand when Beth becomes ill. In the book he is kindly towards them but more behind-the-scenes, knowing the family is proud and how they want to make it for themselves. Mr. Laurence's feelings about Laurie and his music are non-existent. While there are jokes about Laurie's Italian mother, there's nothing about CLASS. Class was important in the 19th-century. Mr. Laurence felt his son married beneath him. The performing arts were valued for entertainment but not considered a valuable profession and actors, singers and musicians were socially beneath the wealthy who employed them. I feel this is necessary to the story, to show why Laurie is so lonely. His grandfather doesn't understand him and pressures the lad to take over the family business. Laurie is badly in need of unconditional love and kindness and that's where the March women come in. 

Concord Public Library's rare Louisa May Alcott books

Professor Beher is basically a non-entity. He's there, he gives Jo advice about her writing, she gets mad and goes home. He returns and rush to the end. This adaptation lacks scenes with Fritz giving bear rides to the children, his nephews he's devoted to and the poor child and her mother he helps. He's such a good man and it's all gone from this adaptation. I really did not like that decision to remove all his good scenes. 

Rare Louisa May Alcott books at the Concord Public Library

Everyone is making a big deal about the changed ending but if anyone BOTHERED to read the rest of the series (they never do), they'd know Jo did not give up her writing career. She did write a bestselling novel and fans come flocking to her house to see her, which she hates. (Jo's Boys). I didn't like this blurring the lines between the novel and Louisa's life and I would have shown Jo later writing about her experiences growing up instead of the very end of the novel when she's still young.

I loved the scenery, the movie is filmed in Massachusetts, including Concord. I loved seeing Orchard House without the modern road, parking lot and throngs of tourists. It looked so cute! (It's actually a recreation).
The real Orchard House dressed up for Christmas

I LOVED that Jo and Beth share Louisa's room. I picked up on the owls and the painted walls. If you haven't been to Orchard House, you got a pretty good look at it through the movie. The locations used for Europe are stunning and the wealthy houses too. I need to do a staycation soon and visit some of these places. I also loved the quick glimpse at the engraving of Jane Austen on the wall of Plumfield school. That engraving would have been brand new at the time so I don't know if Jo would have known Jane Austen but it was there and I loved it.

Jane Austen, From a watercolour by James Andrews of Maidenhead based on an unfinished work by Cassandra Austen. Engraving by William Home Lizars, 1870.

The costumes were dreadful! I did like the heartwarmers (shawls) and the underwear. I understood Jo's mannish style of dressing but those waistcoats and pointed collars are not the styles of the 1860s. Meg's party dresses looked like mid-20th century prom dresses. I was not impressed and don't have a lot to say on the subject.

Overall, I did enjoy the movie in spite of my criticisms. I'll likely go see it again with my mom and possibly my nieces. 

Jane Austen fans will be excited to see the trailer for the new adaptation of Emma too!


  1. This was an excellent review. I haven´t seen the film yet (where I am from, the premiere was yesterday). I did read Gerwig´s final script and an older version of the script which actually was much closer to the book (For example Fritz was German and the ending followed the book more). I will give this one ago and I am sure there are things that I like, because there are good things in all adaptations. It seems to be a trend to erase male characters, uncle March has already passed away in the book, but here it´s almost hammered down how aunt march being a spinster is admirable, and by minimizing Fritz, that also reduces Jo´s character arc. I always wish there would be more focus on the themes that LMA was interested and that exists in Little Women, like these YOu also might enjoy my big Laurie meta

  2. Hello, you said above that Greta Gerwig drew on "other Louisa May Alcott works" to give Amy her feminist bent. I was wondering if you could suggest some for me? I have read all of Little Women (through Jo's Boys) but little else by Louisa. I'd love to read some of her feminist works if you could suggest some. Thank you! <3

    1. I heard they took elements from the "real-life Amy" May Alcott-Nieriker and infused more of that into Amy´s character. There is a book called "the other Alcott". It´s historical-fiction and May´s point of view.

    2. I didn't really note too many similarities to May's life story. Amy is based on May but unlike Amy, May was a talented artist who also wanted marriage and family. She unfortunately died after giving birth to her daughter Lulu so we won't ever know how great May could have become.

  3. from Rose in Bloom. That's actually Jo's speech "neither should it be for a woman, for we've got minds and souls as well as hearts; ambition and talents as well as beauty and accomplishments; and we want to live and learn as well as love and be loved. I'm sick of being told that is all a woman is fit for!"

    Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Old-Fashioned Girl all feature some modern attitudes about women.


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