Can a “women’s movie” ever just be ... a movie?
That’s just one of the questions raised by “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the beloved novel that opened on Christmas Day. This latest iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s story of the four March sisters proves that Gerwig, who made her directorial debut in 2017 with the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird,” was not a one-hit wonder.
But mostly, “Little Women” will make the audacious claim that the lives and adventures of women possess just as much meaning, moral weight and entertainment value as those of men.
It’s a claim that Gerwig underscores in everything, from her insistence on filming at the Alcott family home in Concord, Mass., to the movie’s lavish, richly detailed production values.
“I cared very much that we made this a certain way,” Gerwig said. “I cared very much about shooting on film, shooting with this cast, shooting on location, making it as big and as glorious as it could be. There are things about filmmaking that cue the audience to importance. And that’s what I wanted to give this story, because I feel it has importance.”
Producer Amy Pascal, who also produced Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of “Little Women,” credits Gerwig with making the story her own while honoring its deeply personal legacy for legions of devoted fans. “What Greta did in this movie is take all of the collective memory that people have of ‘Little Women,’ whether it comes from seeing whichever film or reading the book or thinking [they] read the book,” Pascal says. “She takes all of that and she uses it to tell something very different. This is a completely different movie than has ever been done.”
When “Little Women” was published in 1868, it became a runaway bestseller. Since then, millions of people have watched Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March grow up in dozens of stage adaptations, television series and feature films, at least three of which — Armstrong’s production, George Cukor’s in 1933 and Mervyn LeRoy’s in 1949 — became generational touchstones.
But “Little Women” has remained oddly sidelined from the literary and cinematic canons. Alcott’s novel is rarely taught alongside “Huckleberry Finn” or “Moby Dick.” Similarly, even though the movies have been successful, they’ve been branded “chick flicks.” It stands to reason that studio executives who have spent their careers mythologizing Big Men would dismiss something called “Little Women” with the equivalent of a pat on the head.
But the cultural gatekeepers may be surprised to learn that men were just as crazy about “Little Women” as women were when it first came out, awaiting the second half (published in 1869). Alcott’s story — in which Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan in the new movie) and her sisters navigate reluctant adulthood, romantic desires, artistic ambitions and stuffy social mores in Civil War-era New England — is nothing if not universal. And yet, because it’s a narrative about women, it’s relegated — reflexively, lazily, inaccurately — to being of interest primarily to one gender.
“How can [men] not identify with the process of writing, with the process of being an artist?” Pascal asks. “Why would it be different for a woman than it would for a man? There are a zillion stories about wishing you didn’t have to grow up, from ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon,’ to Huck Finn to ‘Peter Pan.’ Every story about a boy is about the boy not wanting to become a man and having to become a man. This is a story about a woman not wanting to give up all the things she had in childhood, yet having to do it. It’s the same.”
Gerwig sees glimmers of optimism. At award-season screenings in Los Angeles, she says, “I have actually embraced a lot of men over 60 who are crying and telling me they’re Jo.” Whereas it once might have been perceived as a threat to identify with a female character, she observes, “I actually think they can and they want to. And it’s never a diminishment of masculinity. I think that that’s the confusion. It’s an enhancement of humanism, it’s enlarging their own palette.”
That message, Gerwig notes, lies within “Little Women” itself. The great power of the book was in how it allowed women to see themselves in spirited, thoughtful, flawed and ambitious fictional characters. But there’s a meta level of identification in the text in the form of Theodore “Laurie” Laurence — played by Timothée Chalamet in the film — who first spies on Jo and her family from his window next door.
“He wants to be one of the March sisters,” Gerwig says. “He wants to be part of the club and he wants to hang out with them and there’s nowhere he’d rather be than with those sisters. And that is also what male viewers can experience.”
She recalls her astonishment when Chalamet, a fast-rising movie star with his pick of vehicles, eagerly took a supporting role in a film about four women. “I think it speaks to a different generation, because he said, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ ” Gerwig recalls.
Gerwig’s “Little Women” leans into the book’s fluidities and contradictions, especially among the characters themselves, who are self-sacrificing and ethereal one moment and graspingly materialistic the next. She pointedly begins the movie when the Marches aren’t the dreamy, yearning girls of the first half of Alcott’s novel, but young women, their childhood aspirations slightly dented by the realities of adulthood, but still in forward motion.
“Often the narrative we tell girls is that [childhood is] the time of bigness and ambition and wildness and sisterhood and camaraderie, and that this utopia ends when you become a woman,” Gerwig explains. “It’s like: Party done. It’s over. I’ve talked to lots of women who say they’ve only read the first half of the book and they never liked the second half because it was about adulthood. But ... we cannot be saying that girlhood was the time that you were free, and then everything else is just settling. ... I felt so deeply that we have to give them adult adventures that match what they had as girls.”
Perhaps predictably, there’s already some grumbling that with the exception of Laurie, the male characters in “Little Women” are two-dimensional, largely ornamental and relegated to the background, much as women are in myriad male-centered films. Taking out her phone and pulling up a handsome group portrait of co-stars Chalamet, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Louis Garrel, James Norton and Chris Cooper, Gerwig praises these “world-class actors and artists” who dared to support a female cast in a movie called “Little Women.”
“They showed up with everything they had and were so proud and so honored to be there,” she says. “When I think about that, it makes me emotional, because it shows me what’s possible. And it is a mirror image of an idealism that Louisa laid out in her text when she imagined what equality would look like.”
Gerwig admits that she developed an almost mystical relationship with Alcott, whose voice is still in her head. As she was writing the script, Gerwig took most of the dialogue directly from “Little Women,” or from Alcott’s journals and letters.
But one scene is hers alone, and it reads simultaneously like a defense of an underestimated piece of literature and Gerwig’s personal challenge to conventional notions of what’s worthy and inherently cinematic. Partway through the film, Amy and Jo are talking about the manuscript Jo is working on, with Jo insisting that no one will care about the March family’s “domestic struggles and joys.” Amy disagrees. “No, writing them will make them important,” she says.
Gerwig tears up a little when she describes the sequence, admitting that when she first wrote it she thought, “Everybody’s going to know this is just me saying my thesis, what a snore.” But no one seems to have noticed that they’re her words, not Alcott’s. In that moment, it’s as if two artists are reaching across the centuries to one another.
“That is what I think,” Gerwig says, with determination and a touch of defiance. “Movies are a way we organize what we think matters in life.”