Marmee March : [reading Father March’s letter] “Give them all my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems a very long time to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will be loving children to you, do their duty faithfully, fight their enemies bravely and conquer themselves so beautifully… that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”
What a lovely sentiment – in a lovely movie – the revolutionary new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women” (2019) written for the screen and directed by one my top favorites Greta Gerwig. On this Christmas day, I thought about what would make perfect viewing and I could only think of one choice. I wanted to feature her work earlier this year, but thought it best to save it for today. Gerwig’s version taps into the strength of the novel that inspires us to seize life’s many challenges – whether money, love or career – and feel supported by the affection of family while remaining truthful to ourselves. She puts her own imprint into this beloved classic. I loved it when I saw it a year ago during a very different holiday season. Having seen it just days ago, it gave me immense joy and provided me with great comfort – seeing how the March sisters carry on through difficult Christmases – while their father’s away during the Civil War – emboldened by the caring love of family. How can they soldier on when so much is out of their control?
Gerwig does something experimental here, and it works. After researching Louisa May Alcott’s letters and papers – she understood that the author pulled from her own personal experiences to draw the beloved sisters’ story. So she starts the narrative with Jo March – the aspiring writer – visiting a publisher to sell her work. It is this exposition that sets up the premise that what unfolds in front of us is it’s actual act of creation. The scenes in the past are the product of Jo’s mighty pen. I’m assuming that most of you are familiar with the story of “Little Women” – and that the book has two parts – the first focusing on the childhood of the sisters and the second half covering their adulthood. So what Gerwig does – instead of telling her tale chronologically – she superimposes part two on top of part one. The adult Jo is actually reflecting on what transpired. What plays like flashbacks are actually the writer reconstructing her memories and using them as source. This adds a propulsive quality, and becomes acutely beautiful in the last reel when the two realities start converging and we watch her book being published. Notice that when they show you the cover it says “Little Women” by Jo March. And another inspired touch is that Gerwig films March observing the assembling of the book – framed by a window that looks like a maternity ward. Observe how she clutches the final product in a close-up. This timeless story feels so personal to Gerwig – and by playing around with time – she’s made it deeply cinematic and alive. She obviously deeply identifies with Louisa May Alcott and her alter ego Jo March.
In real life Alcott never married. In Gerwig’s telling it’s the publisher (played terrifically by Tracy Letts who was so warm as the father in “Lady Bird”) who demands that the fictionalized Jo get married. In this version we get the Hollywood happy ending standing side by side with a realistic yet fulfilling conclusion.
Jo is portrayed by the greatest actor of her generation – Saoirse Ronan – and I think this might be the definitive embodiment of this famous character. I love her tomboyishness, her nurturing quality – her passion. Florence Pugh plays the aspirational painter Amy, which has always been a tricky role. She’d come across as petulant and selfish. In Pugh’s hand – an extraordinary talent – she’s complicated and so appealing. The rest of the cast that includes Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Bob Odenkirk is picture-perfect.
Working with cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, Gerwig creates a look for the film that is transfixing – drawing inspiration from paintings of the era – from Impressionists to Winslow Homer. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran – who won the Oscar for her work here – delineates each sister with a particular color palette underscoring that each sister has a distinctive way of seeing the world. Jo wears reds, Meg is in purples and greens, Beth in soft pinks and Amy looks fresh in light blues. The score by Alexandre Desplat is one of his best.
Gerwig makes some personal statements about being a woman and being an artist in this day and age through this film. What we get on our end is as perfect a Christmas gift as we could hope for.
Jo: “Merry Christmas, world!”
Available to stream on fuboTV, DIRECTV and STARZ via Hulu, Prime Video, Hulu and Cable/Satellite Provider.
Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig
Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel and Chris Cooper
Greta Gerwig on Bringing “Little Women” to the Screen
…writer/director/actress Greta Gerwig who, in 2015, hearing that Sony was planning another adaptation, implored her agent to get her a meeting with the studio. “I was not on anybody’s list to direct this film,” explains Gerwig who, two years later, scooped director and original screenplay Oscar nominations for her solo directing debut “Lady Bird.” “It was something I wanted to do because it was the book of my youth, of my childhood, of my heart, of my ambition, of what made me want me to be a writer, and also what made me want to be a director. “I had re-read it in my 30s and felt it was so modern and so urgent and so unexplored in terms of how much it was relevant to today,” she continues. “I had this pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do with it, so I fought my way into that room and, luckily, they hired me to write it, and then, ultimately, said I could direct it. I was hell-bent on it, because I felt there was something that was so deeply moving, but also revolutionary.” Gerwig’s adaptation reframes Alcott’s well-told tale by starting with Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) as adults, “then having childhood be a kind of snow globe, the halcyon days they’re trying to get back to, to rediscover what made them brave,” she explains. “Once they’re all separate, they’re never actually all together again. the thing they loved so much, that was so formative for them, is already over. I thought that had a poignancy and an emotion that was exactly right for how I was perceiving the book as an adult.”
When it came to Ronan’s aspirant writer, Gerwig combined Alcott’s Jo with the author herself, shooting on location in Massachusetts where Alcott lived, and weaving elements of her life, letters and journals into the script. “She had a wicked sense of humour and I gave a lot of the lines she had written, in another context, to Saoirse. One thing that was fascinating [about] Louisa May Alcott was the difference between her life and the life of Jo March. There were similarities, obviously. She had three sisters, she wanted to be a writer, but so many things were made tamer in the novel. The Marches are the genteel poor, but, in reality, the Alcotts were wretchedly poor, she had to work when she was very young, and they moved many times because they had no money. Jo March gets married, has children and stops writing; Louisa May Alcott never got married, never had children, kept her copyright, became fabulously wealthy and never stopped writing.” Given how decidedly autobiographical Lady Bird was, it is perhaps no surprise to discover Little Women is also deeply personal, with Ronan’s character as much a reflection of Gerwig as Alcott herself. “Because I grew up loving Jo so much, I don’t know if I was like Jo, and that’s why I loved her, or I loved her and so I became like her,” she says. “But who I am, and who Jo March is, are so linked, even though the book was written 150 years ago, and even though I didn’t grow up in Massachusetts as one of four sisters, it feels like I did, it feels so much a part of who I am. “More literally, the young woman trying to sell a story and figuring how much she needs to change it to be economically viable could have been me, yesterday, talking to a studio head,” she continues. “It’s something I understand and is embedded in the fabric of who I am. And, as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more relevant to who I am as a filmmaker.” (screendaily.com)
The Cinematography of “Little Women”
…the writer/director wanted her adaptation to move, to have a sense of dance and lightness in the way it was told cinematically. A key part of this was recruiting cinematographer Yorick Le Saux to shoot the film…Gerwig talked about how the beauty of “I Am Love” and the movement of “Carlos” drew her to the “Little Women” DP. “It was the movement in ‘Carlos’ he had that [was] relentless, almost like I felt some restlessness behind the camera,” said Gerwig. “I could feel him, and I liked that. I think sometimes with period pieces you run the risk of looking like everything is nailed to the ground, so I felt like if I could get that kind of lightness and that kind of irreverence of the camera movement, it would take some of that heaviness out and I think it was a big part of why people are saying it feels modern.” While during the adulthood section of the film the camera would be more formal, static and distant, Gerwig and Le Saux relied heavily on dolly camera movement for the flashbacks so the camera had “weight on the earth, like a dancer” quality to it, rather than the more floating sensation of a steadicam. Gerwig draws a strong connection between how these camera movements, the speed of her dialogue, and the work she did with editor Nick Houy all work in unison. “[Nick and I] looked at French New Wave movies, particularly Truffaut…because they are period pieces but they don’t feel like it and it’s hard to know why, but part of it is the cutting,” said Gerwig. “It just gives you little moments and they cut out before you’re settled. It cuts a beat before [landing]. I’m very hesitant of the land because I like keeping the ball in the air. I have a rhythm, but I need to dive right into it.” (indiewire.com)
Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran on “Little Women”
“I created a mood board, researching a lot of period-accurate paintings to get a feel for the era. I searched through old photos looking for the essence of Jo, Meg, etc., then I went through all of that with Greta. I looked at early photos of female radicals and people living different kinds of lives at the same time as Louisa May Alcott…For example, Jo is the writer, the tomboy, and the most nonconformist, so her costume doesn’t include a corset, which lends a freedom to how she can move. Each girl has an older and younger version of her character; we originally thought we might see Jo wearing a skirt when she’s older in New York, but it just didn’t feel right…Each girl had a core color palette that we played with; it wasn’t a firm rule, but we wanted it to be repetitive and consistent. Meg’s was green and lavender, Beth’s was brown and pink, Amy’s was light blue, and Jo’s was red and indigo. The colors are actually pulled from the notebooks that Marmee (played by Laura Dern in the movie) gives the girls in the book, and we added lavender for Meg…Even as a child, Amy is the most decorated. She loves fancy clothes, a trait that carries on into adulthood; when she’s in Paris, you know she’d be going for the biggest style impact possible. Her style is influenced by Impressionist paintings, which she admires but despairs of matching with her own artwork; she’s the most fashion-forward for 1897, and she’d be maximizing her costume even while painting, even in mourning. Meanwhile, Beth doesn’t dress for occasions; she stays at home, acting as the glue of the family, and doesn’t really care what she wears…Marmee was probably the hardest costume. I was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s mother, who was a radical herself, and Laura [Dern] interpreted that Marmee should be a radical woman, even though she’s from a good East Coast family. Marmee is an adult and an important person in her community, so her clothes needed to be quite Victorian to contrast with the girls. Still, she’s progressive, so it was tricky to show both. If she wore a dark cape, we’d add a red ribbon, to show that Marmee is nonconformist.”
Saoirse Ronan on Greta Gerwig and Playing Jo in “Little Women”
“She had been writing it even before she made ‘Lady Bird.’ She’d pitched the idea to Sony. They had the rights to it because [Columbia] had made the one in the 90s, where Amy Pascal was at the time. Amy’s named after Amy March. ‘Little Women’ is her passion project. So I think Greta went in, she got a meeting with them because either she heard they were going to make it or she wanted to make it, and she was like, “It needs to be and I’ll write it, but I also want to direct it.” And she was technically unproven at this stage. Nobody knew how incredible she was. She went off, she made ‘Lady Bird,’ and then came back to it as soon as all the press for ‘Lady Bird’ was finished; started writing a new draft. I had heard, I think from her or my agent, that this was a thing she was going to do, and so straight away I was just, “I have to be Jo.” Because it was her and because it was Jo… there was no way I could have seen her direct anyone else’s Jo March. And even she even told me, “The fact that you’ve been directed by other people is weird to me,” because we’re just very close. I really did just go up to her at an awards show and say, “I know you’re going to do this thing. I want to be in it, and I really think the only part I can play is Jo March. So, if you want me to be in it, this is what I’m willing to offer you.” It was the most ballsy I’ve ever been. She said that she would think about it, which wasn’t quite the reaction that I was hoping for, but OK [laughs]. And then she emailed me a week later. She said, “You’re right, you’re Jo.” So, she let me do it. I’ve never done that before. I’ve never pursued a role in that way.” (deadline.com)
About Author Louisa May Alcott
Famed author Louisa May Alcott created colorful relatable characters in 19th century novels. Her work introduced readers to educated strong female heroines. As a result, her writing style greatly impacted American literature. Alcott was born on November 29, 1832 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alcott’s parents were a part of the 19th century transcendentalist movement, a popular religious movement. Their religious and political beliefs deeply inspired Alcott as a child. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a popular educator who believed that children should enjoy learning. Therefore, at an early age, Alcott took to reading and writing. While most of her schooling came from her parents she also studied under famed philosopher Henry David Thoreau and popular authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne. Much like her novel “Little Women,” Alcott was one of four daughters and she remained close with her sisters throughout her life. Many times, Alcott’s family suffered from financial woes, forcing her to attend school irregularly. She took many jobs to help alleviate financial struggles, working as teacher and washing laundry. She turned to writing for both emotional and financial support. Her first poem, “Sunlight,” was published in a magazine under a pseudonym. Her first book, a compilation of short stories, was published in 1854. When the Civil War started in 1861, Alcott served as a nurse in a Union hospital. Unfortunately, in the middle of her assignment she contracted typhoid fever. Her experience in the hospital as a patient and a nurse, inspired the novel “Hospital Sketches.” After the war, Alcott published several other works and gained a following. Her audience included both adults and children. She also released many of her earlier works under the name, A.M. Barnard.
During this time, one of Alcott’s publishers asked her to write a novel for young women. To do so, she simply reflected back on to her childhood with her sisters. In 1868, Alcott published her most popular work, “Little Women.” The novel was published in a series of short stories, but was eventually compiled into one book. “Little Women” was an instant success and the book cemented Alcott as one of the foremost novelist of the 19th and early 20th century. In 1870, with one successful book, Alcott moved to Europe with her sister May. There she published, another classic “Little Men.” She also joined the women’s suffrage movement. Throughout her life, she would contribute to several publications which promoted women’s rights. She was also the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Connecticut. Alcott never married nor had any children, however, when her sister died, she adopted her niece. Afterwards she moved to Boston, Massachusetts and continued publishing more works that followed the characters from “Little Women.” Alcott suffered from bouts of illness throughout her life. She attributed her poor health to mercury poisoning which she believed she contracted while she worked as a nurse during the Civil War. In 1888, she died at the age of 56 in Boston, Massachusetts. Today, readers continue to enjoy Alcott’s writings and her novels still appear on bestseller lists throughout the world. (womenshistory.org)
About Writer and Director Greta Gerwig
Gerwig was raised in Sacramento, California, and planned to be a ballet dancer until she shot up and turned gangly. “I was very serious about ballet until the age of 12. At which point my body changed and it wasn’t quite right,” she says. “And then my mother pulled me out of it because she thought: ‘I’m not going to send my child to a studio to stare at her body for three hours each day and think that it’s wrong.’” After that, she studied modern dance; she diversified. “I was part of a hip-hop group called Fly Style,” she recalls…After ditching the ballet, she set her heart on becoming a playwright and went on to study English and philosophy at Barnard College in New York. Her then-boyfriend had befriended an unknown film-maker named Joe Swanberg who was looking for someone to act in his next no-budget drama. The summer Gerwig graduated, she figured she would give it a shot. “I’d applied to graduate school for playwriting and I got rejected by every school,” she says. “I felt that theatre was closed, but that when it came to film, the door was very slightly ajar. If I have any virtues, it’s that I’m good at walking through doors that are slightly ajar.” This particular door opened out to the mumblecore scene, where the cameras jiggled, the actors dropped their threads, and the films largely made themselves up on the hoof. Gerwig played the vacillating temptress in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” the long-distance lover in “Nights and Weekends,” a jittery scream queen in the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead.” She held the boom-mic and shouldered the camera. She mapped out the scenes and then filled them with improv. These days, she looks back on that time with great fondness. She suspects, however, that she and mumblecore did not make for natural bedfellows. “I’m so grateful for the experience, but I was always more interested in the script as a piece of writing, as opposed to just shooting improv and finding the film in the edit.”…During her two years with the mumblecore crowd, she worked various jobs (nanny by day; SAT teacher by night) and slept on a blow-up mattress in a shared bedroom in Brooklyn…(theguardian.com)
…At the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2006, her senior year, she saw a film directed by a woman around her age. “I thought, Wait, are we allowed to do that? Who told you you could?” And then she realized: “Nobody told her. She was just gonna do it, like the guys were doing it.” It was one in a series of moments, many involving female directors giving her advice and encouragement, that led to her deciding to do it too…In many ways, the 25 films she appeared in over the course of a decade served as a substitute for film school. She’s best known for her flaky aspiring dancer in 2013’s “Frances Ha,” which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, now her partner of several years. She received a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination for the role. But for all that she put into the performance, she was working overtime after her scenes were done, loitering on set to take notes on the lighting and production design. “When you’re an actor on a movie, people don’t kick you off the set,” she explains. “They assume you have a right to be there.” As she immersed herself in this self-directed curriculum, she continued acting in films like the historical drama Jackie and the acclaimed coming-of-age indie “20th Century Women.” She missed sitcom fame when a “How I Met Your Mother” spin-off she starred in failed to get picked up…After a decade spent in front of the camera, she released her solo-directorial debut, “Lady Bird…”…The film has since been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Director. (time.com) In 2019, Gerwig wrote and directed “Little Women.”