'Little Women' is a masterpiece, plain and simple

Photograph by Wilson Webb

There’s this debate going on about whether men will go see Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women. I think it’s so myopic. If men appreciate brilliant movies and want to see a really good example of one, they’ll carve out a couple hours for this fresh revamp of the 151-year-old tale. But if they don’t, I couldn’t care less. It’s honestly their loss.

Don’t get me wrong — I hope the people who financed Little Women make lots of money. I hope the Academy is smart enough to recognize Gerwig for her inventive, insightful directing. (Unlike the Golden Globes, which snubbed every single woman who made a film this year.)

Gerwig’s film is a gift. It’s both a faithful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel and a modern spin on the 19th century story. It was shot in Concord, Massachusetts, near the house where the author grew up. And Gerwig reportedly toured Orchard House three times with her cast.

Most notably, Gerwig remixed the linear narrative of Alcott’s novel. Though her version of Little Women imbues all the sisters with substance, it’s the tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan) who anchors the movie — as a foil for both Alcott, the rebellious author, and Gerwig, the filmmaker.

Gerwig’s version of Little Women begins with an Alcott quote: “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” We open on Jo in her early twenties, psyching herself up to pitch one of her stories to an editor (Tracy Letts) in New York. He tells her outright what he normally pays for such a piece, then lowballs her anyway, presumably because she’s a girl. It’s a small insult, but one Jo has gotten used to bearing as a woman writer. It doesn’t matter, really, in the grand scheme of things. Being published is the part that counts.

We meet Friedrich Bhaer, the professor Jo marries towards the end of Alcott’s book, in the second scene. They both have a penchant for standing too close to fireplaces while reading and lighting themselves on fire. Gerwig then cuts to Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris, where she runs into Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) after he’s already been rejected by Jo and gone on a bender.

Starting the story in the middle like this is a little disorienting if you’re not already familiar with Little Women. Alternatively, it’s a book that’s been etched into the minds of generations of readers, which would explain Gerwig's comfort in taking liberties with the timeline of her film.

After those initial scenes set in the late 1860s, we flashback seven years earlier, to a Christmas morning at the start of the Civil War. Most of the beloved moments from the book show up in these sepia-toned vignettes. Gerwig used a special lens to film these scenes to give them a nostalgic, snowglobe-esque shimmer. She did a fantastic job jigsawing together Alcott’s narrative, using the first half of Little Women to enrich specific character arcs, which is why all the time hopping ultimately works. By the time we get to the movie’s climactic moment, Beth’s death, the inevitability of which Gerwig introduced way back at the beginning of the film, it’s devastating. But the director doesn’t let us linger in sadness for more than a moment, quickly splicing to Meg’s wedding celebration.

Sensitivity and balance suffuses the whole film. The Jo-Laurie-Amy love triangle, for example, which has always left me tearing my hair out, is handled really deftly. We see Laurie and Amy interact first, in Paris, and her crush on him is palpable. When Jo and Laurie meet, later in the movie but years earlier in the timeline, it’s just as magical but more platonic. One of the first things Jo says to him is, “I can’t get over my disappointment at being a girl.” She’s establishing the parameters of their relationship from the get-go, even if Laurie doesn’t realize it yet. Then, the two misfits have a dance party on the porch outside the ball they’re attending. (It’s my favorite scene in the entire film, which makes sense, because it was choreographed by one of my favorite dancers in the world, Monica Bill Barnes.)

In the story, Laurie falls in love with the March sisters just as we, the audience, does: as an outsider invited into the fold and captivated by them. Gerwig does a great job playing with his gaze the first time Laurie meets the extended March clan. As the women dart about the house, he stands entranced. This busy, warm energy feels like comfort, love and home. Laurie slinks away alone across a snowy field that night, but he never really leaves after that. He inserts himself into the family, first as a friend and then as a husband.

In a final, masterful twist, Gerwig shifts the focus from romantic and familial love to vocational love in the last chapter of her film. After Beth’s death, Jo finally commits her sisters’ stories to paper and gets the first part of Little Women published. To Jo and her editor’s surprise, it’s a hit.

This is where Gerwig took inspiration from Alcott’s own biography: Jo’s editor and readers urge her to end the story with her protagonist getting married. It’s a notion Alcott resisted but ultimately gave into; in the novel, Jo marries Professor Bhaer, they have two boys, and she gives up writing to run a school.

In Gerwig’s version, Jo still ends her novel with a marriage. But she rejects Bhaer’s proposal, choosing literary spinsterhood over matrimony. The movie is bookended with another scene in Jo’s editor’s office. They’re haggling over the rights to her book. He lowballs her, again, but she negotiates a slightly higher percentage of revenue and copyright ownership. “If I'm going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it,” Jo declares.

The important thing is that her novel gets made, though. And the last image Gerwig leaves us with is Jo clutching a leather bound book. It's the first copy of Little Women, with the author name: J.L. March.