Adapting a screenplay is about more than simply making the story of a book fit into the format of a script. Satisfying film adaptations understand that novels and films are two entirely different animals — to properly tell a novel’s story requires an understanding of its core, an eye toward the visceral and symbolic rather than the beat-by-beat narrative. Sometimes, telling a filmic version of a story requires foregoing structural or narrative accuracies for a broader, more holistic interpretation. No director has proven their mastery of this concept more than Greta Gerwig, writer and director of “Little Women” (2019).
Following the critically-acclaimed “Lady Bird” (2017), Gerwig’s third directorial project has created something that not only pays homage to Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel, but retells it in a film whose very soul pitches and sways with the emotional beats that have captivated readers for generations. Every fiber, every inch, every frame, every moment of “Little Women” seeks to understand the timelessness of the March sisters’ story, creating a feat of cinema so immaculately and sensitively rendered that it goes beyond diligently retelling a classic to get to Gerwig’s unique interpretation of the source’s essence.
Unlike the novel, which tells the chronological story of the four March sisters growing up, the film intercuts between adulthood and childhood, creating a collage of experiences that ultimately communicates each sister’s coming of age. The March sisters live in relative poverty in Massachusetts during the Civil War with their mother (Laura Dern); at the center of the tale is Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the tomboyish second-oldest March sister who dreams of becoming a writer. Childhood for the March family is bathed in rosy hues and firelight, and Gerwig expertly captures the chaos of four sisters in one house — at any given point, multiple conversations, arguments and observations may crisscross about the room with dizzying energy, interspersed, of course, with the occasional fistfight. Each sister has her passion — Meg (Emma Watson), the oldest, has an affinity for acting, while Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the quiet peacekeeper, plays the piano. Amy, in a standout performance by Florence Pugh, dreams of becoming a painter and living in high society, often butting heads with Jo as the two battle for the affection of their neighbor, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet).
Scenes from childhood are interspersed with the snow-laden solitude of adulthood, where each of the March sisters must confront the realities of growing up — lost loves, sickness, poverty and the responsibilities of marriage. While any period piece will communicate women’s struggle balancing love with a responsibility to marry for economic status, “Little Women,” more than any historical film in recent memory, truly dives into women’s emotional burden of having to negotiate these responsibilities, sequestered away from society as objects of marriage and childrearing. Jo grapples with this duty most obviously as she searches for romantic and financial independence as a writer, balking at Meg’s decision to marry and coming to terms with her own feelings for Laurie. However, Amy’s childhood haughtiness morphs into an unexpectedly telling cynicism (or pragmatism, depending on how you look at it) about the economic responsibilities of marriage that is entirely different — though no less ripe with meaning — than her sister’s experience.
By juxtaposing these very real tribulations with the shiny, ornament-like memories of childhood, Gerwig asks us to understand how growing up is balanced precariously on the seemingly innocent days of youth. From their shared experience under one roof, each of the March sisters grows up with unique demeanors and desires, guiding each along a different path through the turbulence of adulthood.
Of course, every element of “Little Women” not only contributes to the story, but also makes for an oftentimes achingly beautiful visual experience. Take, for instance, the beach scene that looks as though it were plucked right from a Monet, complete with billowy, breezy clothing, straw hats and high-flying white kites. Or, take Marmee and Jo’s conference as they sit side-by-side on the floor, lit by a low, warm candlelight. Or, perhaps, look at each character’s distinct style — Jo’s boyish waistcoats contrast sharply with Amy’s immaculate pastel dresses, while Laurie lets his sumptuous layers hang a little more loosely and a tad rumpled in times of emotional unrest. Every take, every costume, every set piece, not to mention Alexandre Desplat’s exquisite score, is crafted with intent and the utmost care, creating a masterpiece filled to the brim with visual delights.
“Little Women” is an achievement in filmmaking on its own; however, the sensitivity and clarity with which Gerwig handles her subject matter makes it a masterpiece when it comes to the art of film adaptation. By not only translating the story of a text to the screen, but breathing new life into it, Gerwig has once again established herself as a visionary interested in the powers of a story’s essence, executing with an unmistakable passion for beauty.