Ask any ex-tomboy wannabe writer of a certain vintage about Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and watch her eyes fire up with excitement. The Victorian classic, about a family of spirited sisters growing up during the American Civil War, will be woven into the fabric of her early teens the way Judy Blume is woven into her later ones. Mention the book’s heroine, the impatient, impetuous Jo March, and she will likely regale you with her favourite moments: Jo lashing out at Amy for burning her manuscript perhaps. Or Jo cutting off her lovely, long hair, then sobbing over its loss.
To the bookish, yet rebellious girl, Little Women is a source of comfort, providing a role model who cannot sit still. It is formative, shaping her understanding of womanhood and encouraging her to kick back against social expectations.
And yet, it can also be disheartening. Though Jo turns the boyish Laurie down, and finishes her book, her fate is not the one many readers hope for. Bowing to convention, Alcott denies her heroine the liberated future she secures for herself. And so Jo marries boring old Professor Bhaer and has two sons of her own.
One might have thought five previous Little Women films and a recent TV mini-series would have curbed the public appetite for Greta Gerwig’s adaptation. Yet fans have been turning out in their droves, inspired by an enduring love for Jo and the story’s contemporary relevance. Just as A Christmas Carol resonates with a Britain once again experiencing Dickensian levels of poverty, so Little Women speaks to a generation of female writers still battling for recognition.
Gerwig’s version has much to commend it [spoilers from here on in, folks]. The way she has played with the book’s structure, moving back and forth through time, allows the viewer to witness childhood events with the benefit of hindsight.
Then there are the tableaux as vivid as Old Masters: the sisters draped round each other and Marmee or dressed as boys, with braces and bow ties, and Jo sucking on a pipe. The kite-flying scene on the beach is so achingly beautiful you want to climb out of your seat and into the screen, and never return.
But what makes Gerwig’s film extraordinary is the way she taps into the feminist heart of the novel and reframes it for a modern audience. Look at her portrayal of the girls’ mother Marmee (played by Laura Dern). Marmee can come across as saccharine, saintly, too good to be true. And always with the showy gesture, like trekking through the snow to give the family’s Christmas breakfast to the starving Hummels.
Yet Gerwig shows how much it costs to be that person. After Jo’s tantrum almost leads to Amy drowning, Marmee confesses: “I am angry nearly every day.” The line is in the book. But Gerwig really makes you feel it: the relentless effort it takes to keep her emotions in check.
There is a lot in Little Women about marriage, none of it in soft focus. Marmee is bringing up four girls more or less alone; Meg and John struggle to get by. And as for Amy? Amy has to settle for second dibs on Laurie, even if it all works in the end. In the novel, Amy is the hardest of the sisters to like, but Gerwig throws fresh light on her materialism. When Laurie objects to her plans to wed the wealthy Fred Vaughn, she points out she has no real way of earning money of her own. “So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition,” she says.
Gerwig also plays a blinder over Jo’s much-lamented union with Bhaer. For a start she makes him younger and altogether more desirable than his literary counterpart. But also she blurs fantasy and reality. In her version, the book Jo is writing is Little Women. Though she protests, her publisher is adamant her main character – Jo – must wed. Jo follows her publisher’s advice and writes that ending ; and so – like Schrödinger’s cat – the eventual kiss beneath the umbrella both does and doesn’t exist.
Gerwig frees her heroine from strictures of marriage which no longer apply. When it comes to Jo’s struggle to make it as a writer, however, nothing much has changed. Jo’s publisher likes her schlocky short stories, but fails to see the merit in a book about the lives of girls. Only when his daughters read and love the manuscript does he realise its commercial potential. Plus ça change.
Later, Jo and Amy ask if women’s lives are too unimportant to be the subject of great art or if the failure to make great art about women’s lives is what leads them to be seen as unimportant. It’s a question to which Gerwig already knows the answer.
Gerwig knows the answer because she works in a world where female artists are still belittled. Many men are reluctant to read books written by and/or about women. Books by and/or about women are less likely to be reviewed or to win literary prizes.
The same applies to female directors. It is more difficult for women to break into film directing and when they do they are less likely to direct big budget movies. They are rarely nominated for Best Director Awards (especially when their films are female-centric). The only woman to have won a Best Director Oscar is Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, a low-budget movie about the Iraq War.
Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, received five Oscar nominations (including best director), but won none. She was not nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe.
Little Women has already garnered many outstanding reviews. Since it opened on Christmas Day, it has beaten box office projections and been greeted enthusiastically both by long-term fans and those for whom the story is new.
And yet the awards bodies appear unimpressed. Little Women received no Screen Actors Guild nominations and just two Golden Globe nominations (Saoirse Ronan for Best Actress and Alexandre Desplat for best score). The Best Director category was once again an all-male affair, Nominees included Martin Scorsese for The Irishman, Todd Phillips for Joker and Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. These are all talented men, making wonderful films, but would any of them pass the Bechdel test?
Nor was Gerwig the only female director snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Others who ought to have been in with a chance include Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood), Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers).
The SAG awards are regarded as a bellwether for the Oscars. Yet just maybe, like Jo’s dismissive publisher, the Academy members will have their eyes opened, and the film will come away with a clutch of nominations, including Best Director, when the announcements are made next week.
At the moment, it seems improbable; but it would be narratively satisfying if a film that speaks so eloquently about the female experience should give the men a run for their money.