Little Women … Again??
Do we REALLY need another adaptation of Little Women? I mean, come on, there are numerous plays, two silent movies, over a dozen TV adaptations, a musical and even a 48 episode animated series. But it seems that a good story will always be revisited, maybe that’s the reason it’s called a classic.
Little Women barely needs any introduction. We’re all familiar with the March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy). The book has been around for a long time (1868). This also present a challenge in adapting the story to the screen. So much have changed since it was written and especially when it comes to women’s role and position in society.
The book was written in a period when a woman’s place was in the home (or kitchen, if you want). Louisa May Alcott was urged to write the book by her publisher as a way to distract her from writing her own novels and poetry. No one expected it to be as successful as it turned to be. The idea was that it would be a guidebook for young girls on how to be the “perfect woman” and will guide them in the transition from childhood to adulthood. The novel addresses three major themes: domesticity, work, and true love. All of these are interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine’s individual identity.
The book is beloved because each generation of women can find themselves in one of the March sisters. Most women love Jo the best and I am no different. I could identify with her. Jo is a tomboy, just like me. I also had a quick temper and would lash at people I loved. My own mum always wanted me to be an “Amy”, whom I despised (probably because my mum wanted me to be more like her!). Jo was a role model for me because I admired her individuality, even if the price of that individuality might be loneliness.
At the same time, I knew the book is not relevant to my time. Therefore you would understand why I was skeptical and surprised to find another version in 2019. Is it still relevant in this day and age?
Comparing The Films
I’ve decided to compare two versions of the film: one made in 1994 and and the latest one of Greta Gerwig from 2019. Each filmmaker has chosen to emphasise a different angle of the book. They also illustrate several shifts on the topics of womanhood, social responsibilities and wealth through American history. It was a fantastic lesson in scriptwriting on how a book can be the canvas of your own painting.
Ironic to think that in 1994 the era of Girl Power Little Women was considered a risky film to make. Denise Di Novi (Producer) said that at that time it was nearly impossible to get a female-driven film made. They called them “a needle in the eye” movies, where a guy would say to his wife “I’d rather have a needle in the eye than go to that movie”. But Denise di Novi knew Winona Ryder was obsessed with the book, so persuaded her to get on board. Ryder was at the height of her fame then, so Columbia was willing to green light it.
This was the first adaptation of the book into a movie after the Women’s Movement and the mass entrance of women into the workforce. The director (Gillian Armstrong) and scriptwriter (Robin Swicord) had to find a way to tell the story without it being stale and out of date. The story still relies on Jo’s arc, however, they did not want to portrait a bright rebellious woman as a tomboy, so instead Jo is a “theatre kid” – she is clever, creative and intellectually restless.
In the 1994 version the story concentrates on Jo finding employment and following her dreams. We get to see her writing much more than in other earlier versions. (The 1933 & 1949 versions were more about Jo’s challenge of womanhood, marriage and society’s role for her versus her own heart’s desire of writing and being creative).
In the earlier versions of the story Jo refuses Laurie’s marriage proposal because she thinks they are not a good match and that she will not be able to love him in the way that he loves her. In contrast in the 1994 version Jo refuses because she wants to find her own way in the world and focus on her art and writing. She uses the famous phrase of ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ and ‘let’s be friends’, which was more suitable for the 1990s.
In the 1994 version Jo’s mind constantly spins and looks for personal growth and fulfilment. This is how the director saw modern female virtues and the properties of contemporary woman. She believes women can take charge of all aspects of moral and practical life without depending on male support or advice.
Prof. Bear this time is an older man, but contrary to earlier versions, this time we get more screen-time to see their relationship develop. This means we get to see the reason why Jo would choose him over Laurie. Prof. Bear supports her writing and challenges her to improve it. Laurie isn’t ambitious as Jo and sees her writing and theatre as a hobby and a pastime and cannot understand her passion for it. Prof. Bear in this version courts her romantically and supports her … Best of both worlds for a modern woman!
More than earlier versions the 1994 version highlighted issues that were written in between the lines of the book of the 19th century. Swicord said that she tried to write this version in the way Louisa May Alcott might have written it without the restrictions women had in the 19th century. She did this by researching Alcott’s private life and memoires. That might be the reason that many would say that it strayed away from the original version.
Greta Gerwig’s version changes the whole structure of the book and is very different from all the other versions. True to the 21st century new direction in scriptwriting, she has chosen non-linear storytelling. The timeline runs back and forth between childhood and adulthood.
To begin, Gerwig’s version starts with the 2nd half of Little Women: the March sisters have grown up and found their way and place in the world. Where other versions treat the sisters peripherally, largely leading them to their marriage and then dropping them as if their life is over, Gerwig version finds parallel moments in their lives which makes them feel like real people who grow into and exist in adulthood.
For example, adult Meg counts pennies to afford a dress before we see her as a young girl eager to join society. Amy receives much more attention than in other versions. Her relationship with Laurie is predicted earlier and shows up more often, making their marriage acceptable and believable.
Interesting to point is that just like in the 1933 version, Gerwig’s version sets marriage as a threatening presence, even though it is also a necessity. Marriage had its practical purpose as an economical agreement. In Gerwig’s version, Amy gives a monologue how, as a woman, she is unable to earn her own income therefore must rely on her husband to sustain her. She feels robbed of her ability to work, so why wouldn’t she marry for money?
This is where Gerwig introduces another major difference and new aspect to this adaptation of the book. By giving Amy’s logic context, Gerwig indicates that individual choices are a consequence of systemic cause and effect. Amy must act in the world she was given until a broader, structural change can take place and offer her freedom.
More than any other versions of this movie, all the four sisters get to have their power. Though Jo is still the protagonist, the other March sisters are all strong and powerful in their own way. I find it a refreshing way of representing the book
This version of Little Women reminds us feminine power is in all of us, just in different shades and ways. In today’s world there is place for all types of women’s power and we should not diminish it when it shows up in a different voice and way than we expect it to be, we just need to look closer.
Another refreshing change in the 2019 version is the way Marmee is being represented. Already in the 1994 version, Marmee is shown as a strong individual woman, some might even call her ‘woke’. Susan Sarandon, who plays Marmee, isn’t the gentle tender character from the book. Instead she is an attractive, feisty heroic mum who isn’t hesitant to deliver short messages about raising her daughters according to unconventional way of life and how society treats women. She is shown as powerful and wise by actions not just words – for example it’s her homeopathic treatments that bring Beth from deathbed, not the traditional doctors.
In Gerwig’s version Marmee brings up a topic that has been a taboo for so long, which is women’s anger. Except for the TV mini-series with Emily Watson the sentence, which appears in the book, all other versions never gave it a place. Marmee confides with Jo by saying ‘I’m angry nearly every day of my life”. We finally get to hear Marmee’s frustrations of the confinements and limitations that were put on women at that time. We get to see the real feelings of that woman who was left to raise four girls on her own without support from her husband or society. Gerwig expresses what isn’t working in how women are treated or measured. This allows us to see the complicated Marmee character. On the surface she seems to be this sweet, loving, encouraging, kind woman. But when she lets the mask slip, you realise that she is fiercely angry with the fact that the world doesn’t repay that kindness. That’s a fantastic change and addition to the book.
The 2019 version fills in the gaps between Louisa May Alcott and Jo and uses biographical elements of Alcott’s life into Jo’s character. Jo negotiates the exact same deal for her book as Alcott did for her Little Women with the same rights and percentage of profits.
This version isn’t just about women’s employment (like the 1994 version) but also taking women seriously and giving them the same rights as men. It’s about respecting women’s ambitions and compensating them accordingly. It’s infuriating to see that though many have recognised this theme, still Gerwig was not rewarded for her work accordingly! This version is another example that the fight is STILL on for proper representation of women and recognition of their talents.
It’s true the 1994 version made the biggest change to the representation of the March sisters. However, Gerwig’s version is the one I’ve learned the most from. It deals with changes in structure, adding new layers to the characterisation.
From all the different movie versions Gerwig’s version is the one that, for me, is the most educational and empowering. So … it’s the 2019 movie for me all the way!
What About You?
BIO: Vered Neta is a proof that you’re never too old to start something new. She says she already had three past lives in this lifetime. After 28 years of being a trainer and working with over 150,000 people all over the world, she started a new career as a screenwriter, author and script reader. She wrote 2 screenplays and a musical. These days she is working on a documentary and a novel based on one of her screenplays and have started a YouTube TV program called #GoodLifeRedefined. You can find more on website www.veredneta.com.