Time out of mind, baby girls in western cultures are brought up on stories invented by men about men and boys and the things that most interest them. This situation continues to have positive and negative effects. One positive one is that girls in this situation become bi-thinkers. They perceive and communicate in their inborn ways of thinking and speaking, but they can also switch to male-oriented thought and speech on a dime. Sadly, I’ve observed that without similar opportunities to get into the minds of their female counterparts from an early age, boys, by and large, are left with only their original ways to think. This may account for the curious wiggling and twitching of the husky man who sat to my left at the movies last night, and to the exchange I overheard when “Little Women” ended on the screen.
“Didn’t you love it?” bubbled one of his preteen daughters.
“It’s long,” he answered. This was followed by an awkward silence. “But it was a good movie,” he added, hurriedly leading the way to the exit with a neutral expression laminated to his face. He was obviously a man trying to be a good dad to his girls, accompanying them to a movie they wanted to see, but this test of his loving care, sitting through a visual expression of a thought medium different from what he was probably used to had gone on long enough.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of the classic 19th-century story of the March sisters went by for me in exactly the right length of time and with easy satisfaction, probably because it was shot according to my own method of thinking. My only discomfort was recognition of my neighbor’s discomfort, and I brushed past that, noting to myself that I’m certain I will not need to fidget while watching “1917” or the new “Star Wars” movie, both of which I plan to see in future weeks. I will automatically switch gears and enjoy.
Much has been made of Gerwig’s refusal to be cowed by the original story’s conventionally linear narrative form, but no one mentions that while being faithful to the substance of Louisa May Alcott’s book, she simply tells the tale in the logic of female thought that used to prompt my late father, as well as my late husband, into bemused insults about my mother’s and/or my own “incomprehensible lack of logic.” One would have to read later author Virginia Woolf ‘s novels to find written examples in English of Gerwig’s method of storytelling, and remember they were greeted by the predominantly male critics and writers of her day as brave but self-conscious. Because they were considered revolutionary, her works were discussed extensively, and Woolf’s method was lumped under the pretentious, off-putting title of “stream of consciousness.”
Actually, however told, the predicament of the March sisters — bright, ambitious girls without family money or powerful male agents to boost their chances of success in the world while trapped within the laws and mores of the 1800s — is obvious. As practical, mendacious Amy (portrayed by young British actress Florence Pugh) desperately cries out at spoiled, scarcely comprehending Laurie (played by American actor Timothée Chalamet), girls had to marry, and to marry as wealthily as possible, to survive. That being said, not only whatever money they might earn or inherit would become their husbands’ upon marriage, but also their children would “belong” to the men as well, although they were seldom burdened with their care. Whatever their talents — Amy was a painter, Beth a musician, Meg an actress, and Jo (the putative teller of the tale) a writer — they would have to make profoundly difficult choices between personal and domestic fulfillment and any attempts at professionalism.
No wonder the girls’ intelligent, capable mother, Marmee, admits in the book that she is angry every day of her life. Gerwig is among the few adapters to transfer that critical information onto film. In an interview with the New Yorker, Gerwig recently noted that she thinks little has really changed for women in the last century and a half. Yes, the laws are less restrictive and girls are encouraged to follow their dreams almost as much as boys, but no one would seriously posit that there is much societal support for women who want both careers and marriages. In fact, when women attempt both, especially if they have children, they are accused of “wanting to have it all.” No one comments that men who choose to have families as well as meaningful work lives “just want to have it all.”
I have never wished I were a boy, but even as a child reading “Little Women” for the first time, I recognized why Jo said she was bitter about being born a girl. All I had to do was look around me to see that Jo and her sisters (and I) were stuck with nearly impossible rows to hoe. After all, boys and men had so many more opportunities than girls and women. They went to better schools, they might even try different jobs, travel from place to place, and uproot their families without judgment. Children came and went in my classrooms all the time as a result of their fathers’ job decisions. Men like the March sisters’ father, a Transcendentalist and minister, who abandoned his wife and daughters while he volunteered to minister to troops during the American Civil War, might sometimes be missing from home for long periods of time. Many years later, my own father volunteered for World War II, leaving my tearful, bitter mother alone in a strange city with two small children, but at least my father provided a steady income. Men like Father March, who gravitated toward supporting “higher causes,” seemed always to be excused, even admired for their “selfless” tilts at windmills. Father March was a man who never seemed able, or even particularly interested in, supporting his own family, yet in Alcott’s book, everyone treated him with respect and affection.
Students of the actual history of Louisa May Alcott know that the Alcotts’ real father was the model for Father March. Other New England Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson, who opened his extensive library to the family and quietly provided instruction and money, and Thoreau, who taught natural history to the sisters and lent Louisa his writing retreat when she needed a place to work, were critical to the survival of the real-life Marmee and her girls. Interestingly, the only guffaws in the theater the night I saw “Little Women” burst out when the girls’ father, recently returned from his dangerous, unpaid foray into war, expressed an offhand desire to adventure off to California, and Marmee made a quiet but pointed remark that since he was not a discriminated-against immigrant like Jo’s friend from Germany via New York, Professor Friedrich Bhaer, such a trip would not be necessary.
The current film is more visually beautiful and sociologically accurate than earlier adaptations. For example, the wealthy Lawrence family’s mansion is not placed quite so close to the March’s cottage as it is in other movies. But I found the costumes too lovely and varied for the hand-me-down and homemade clothes the girls would have had to wear. All in all, the March family’s poverty is not shown realistically enough. A touch more shabby-genteel would be more illustrative.
The acting, however, is so consistently excellent that it overcomes technical limitations. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, who first came to us in “Brooklyn,” is coltish, determined and impressively able to act the process of thinking while playing Jo. And the scene where she tells her mother how very lonely she is after she has turned down Laurie’s marriage proposal reveals a side of her personality sorely missing in earlier movies and TV productions, in which Jo is played only as a headstrong tomboy with an obsession to scribble in an attic. Laurie, as portrayed by Chalamet, is charming and shallow. Although generations of readers and viewers longed to have his character marry Jo, he was not right for her on any mature level, and Gerwig clearly emphasizes how and why. To be clear, running more frequently than walking and making snow angels in winter aren’t high on the resume list for adult success. There is also something satisfying about realizing that Amy, who expends a great deal of energy sabotaging the others, particularly Jo (whose manuscript she actually burns), and who eventually does marry Laurie, will be stuck for the rest of her life with who and what she has longed and schemed for. Eliza Scanlen, a new actress from Australia, plays the character of Beth as so principled and stubborn before her illness and death that, for once, the family’s grief over losing her seems more a reality than a tear-wringing plot device.
Mercifully, Jo and Friedrich Bhaer’s romance comes across as one of physical and psychological need rather than as an idea tacked on to satisfy a publisher. Gerwig doesn’t deprive us of the book’s memorable “umbrella scene,” but projects it with over-the-top effects while making it explicit that its invention by Alcott was pushed by publisher Dashwood, who thought that it would sell more books. Gerwig spares the audience gag-inducing references to Jo and Friedrich’s marriage. (By the time of Friedrich’s arrival at the March home, we have had enough of weddings.) In fact, in Gerwig’s version, one may choose to think that Jo March remained unmarried and in control of her own life and money while retaining the comforting companionship and literary honesty of Friedrich, serving as the music master at her school.
As a sure-footed director, Gerwig almost completely sidesteps sentimentality. She enlists Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts, who wrote tough-minded “August: Osage County,” to act the small but pivotal role of hard-nosed, literarily clueless businessman Dashwood. With her guidance, Laura Dern becomes a revelation as Marmee; Emma Watson fleshes out dutiful Meg as I had not been able to imagine her myself; and Meryl Streep avoids over-playing Aunt March’s meanness to leave us with a subtle understanding that she has developed grudging respect for Jo’s ability to manage on her own in the world, and to use well what she eventually leaves her.
Like her memorable character Jo, Alcott wrote in order to earn money to support her family, and she worked so hard and so effectively that she made more money in her lifetime than any of her male American competitors. In the process, she may have worked herself into an early grave. (She was only 55 when she died.) Another of my favorite books, “Anna Karenina,” was written somewhat later by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, who read extensively in English and was a surprising admirer of the work of Dickens (a writer, like Alcott, who lived by his pen and intended his stories for the pleasure of all, not just hyper-educated elites), wrote the original Russian of the following opening lines: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Marches are a happy family, constantly having to beat back inevitable attacks of human unhappiness — or they are an unhappy family, trying mightily to become happy. We can’t be certain which, but ambiguity being the root of curiosity and art, we keep trying to figure them out, century after century, by whatever available thought processes we can. Since watching this movie, I’ve imagined myself, more than once, wearing a cumbersome Victorian dress and enthusiastically wrestling on the cold floor with my siblings while Alexandre Desplat’s passionate music eggs us on. But daydreaming isn’t necessary. Gerwig has made a beautiful onscreen world for us to step into. I’ll just call a friend and go to be immersed in her version of “Little Women” one more time. Then I think I’ll reread Alcott’s amazingly rich book, which, like other excellent “children’s” books, is far too rich for children only.
“Little Women” the film is playing in many movie theaters in Berkshire County, New York and Connecticut, as well as on premium internet sites. “Little Women” the book, is in every library and bookstore, online, or on your own bookshelf.