Little Women (2019) (Review)

Quite simply, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is one of the all time great literary adaptations. This is not only because it’s a spectacular film in its own right but because of how well it transfers source material from page to screen. Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel has had an impact far larger than the book itself and Gerwig’s film manages to masterfully capture not only the book but this impact as well. It’s a film that feels contemporary and important, while still feeling faithful; it’s an adaptation of the literal text but it’s also an adaptation of its heart and soul, of its seminal impact – turning a key text of its time into a key film of our time.

Don’t let the effortless brilliance of Little Women fool you, it is a daring adaptation. Its key strength is in its structure – in how it has translated a slavishly linear novel into something wonderfully dynamic and non-linear. To get book nerdy for a bit (forgive me), Little Women has its origins in the (American) Romantic movement, serving as an evocative exploration of everyday people that presents the poetry of real life. Part of this is its, arguably, episodic nature, in which it feels like a linear sequence of moments of often singular importance, rather than feeling like separate parts of one overall narrative. Little Women, the novel, does tie up its loose ends, but its real impact derives from distinct points – taking the supposedly banal and presenting it, deservingly, as literature. To simplify: in the book, character comes before plot. The point is an evocation of reality rather than transforming reality into something conventionally novelistic.

By putting these lives on screen, and by casting each character perfectly – and through stunning cinematography – this film inherently presents the beauty, profundity and importance of everyday life. What Gerwig does do, however, is provide an almost modernist twist to the novel – experimenting with form and structure so as to emphasise character, narrative and thematics (and to provide a more evident meta-layer). Gerwig, with her film, benefits from about 150 years of interpretation, criticism and adaptation. I would argue this new adaptation is definitive but this is only possible due to what has come before; however, the credit still goes to the filmmakers who ultimately made the choices that needed to be made. In the novel, linearity adds verisimilitude; in cinema, this isn’t as necessary as proficiently bringing a book to life, visually, arguably achieves this aim. Therefore, the structure is able to be much more interesting – and experimental – and, honestly, paves over every fault with the novel while still accentuating every one of its numerous successes.

Little Women, the novel, is a wonderful, but flawed, text. These flaws often depend on who you are talking to but one overriding issue is in how it justifies and wraps up the arcs of certain characters. It is the story of four entertaining and independent women living with their mother while their father fights in the American civil war, and it follows them into adulthood. Each sister has a definite destination, as do other major characters, and – in the novel – these end destinations are not always satisfying. Certain arcs carry less impact and certain conclusions arguably come out of nowhere. The issue being, everything you need for the text to make sense may actually be in the text, it’s just that cause and effect are often too far removed from each other. This is where the slavish linearity comes in: so much is covered – and the perspective is so narrow (giving chapters to characters more often than giving an overall picture) – that the storytelling doesn’t necessarily aid the story. In this latest film, Gerwig has done a lot to make the narrative work, and to make it work seamlessly. By adopting a non-linear narrative, she is able to tie cause and effect and is able to present ideas visually in a masterful way (so much of the film’s brilliance actually comes from small, visual moments that cinema can deliver). The real brilliance, however, is in how effortless it appears. The plot construction is utterly meticulous – a precision engineered piece of storytelling – but it never feels artificial or constructed. Again, this is the psuedo-modernist aspect of the film, in which structure is used as a narrative tool and through which the film feels fluid and dynamic. The film doesn’t just sit on the screen, it comes alive and feels as vivacious as the characters it is presenting. It’s a revitalisation that is the result of decades of study and critique; however, this somewhat academic construction never isolates, it merely adds to a wonderful sense of spontaneity and energy.

There are, however, notable deviations from the source material. The main characters are interpretations of Alcott’s heroines rather than literal translations. But, everything is in service of an end goal and of achieving the actual impact of the novel. Florence Pugh (who can seemingly do no wrong) creates an Amy that is far more interesting and consistent than the one in the novel. As previously mentioned, there is a vivacity to each performance, as well as an aesthetic brilliance to the film, that allows everything to work perfectly. Timothy Chalamet’s Laurie is also hugely successful – a somewhat different approach to the character than you may be used to but the perfect fit for the film that he is in (at this point it is worth noting that I could list every actor and go into how brilliant they are. Obviously, Laura Dern, because she’s Laura Dern, steals the show. Basically, rest assured that everybody is superb – which denotes sublime direction and casting). Beyond this, the contentious love triangle – or perhaps quadrangle – of the book is greatly enhanced by casting and structural choices. While characters may not end up with the characters you want them to end up with, the fault now seems to reside in-fiction, as opposed to outside of it. It’s easy to interpret the book as making the wrong move, for making its characters take a step they should not have and therefore putting the blame with the author. Gerwig doesn’t change the plot but she reframes things enough, or contextualises, so as to justify the narrative in the world of the film. You may leave thinking the character made the wrong decision but this is an effective choice that enhances the reality of the film. The characters feel flawed in a way that is compelling and is interesting.

Outside of mere adaptation, it is also necessary to note that Little Women is just marvellous. If you came to it with no knowledge of the material, you would still be blown away by it. The story is so excellently told, with every moment contextualised perfectly so that every emotional and narrative beat not only lands, but sings, while still feeling accessible and realist. It’s a film that will inspire a whole new generation of little women – but it’s also a film with so much to say to everybody. It is full of incisive commentary and important moments that shows so much, and says so much, without ever feeling didactic and preachy. The brilliance of the filmmaking allows it to be hugely evocative, and important, but it never feels defined by this. It’s a piece of mainstream entertainment that works on multiple levels and will appeal to wide audiences, without alienating the pretentious sods like me. It’s rare to be in the cinema and, while watching, realise that you are witnessing a classic. Little Women is that rare film. It is transcendent.

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