I was able to catch Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women this week, and while I must admit I had my reservations going in, I thought it was an excellent adaptation.
My biggest reservation going in was whether or not the dialogue would come off forced at all; that was an area in which the PBS Masterpiece adaptation last year had disappointed me a bit. The language of Little Women is very specific to its setting amongst an educated chaplain’s family in Civil War-era New England, which is what I feel makes it harder to bring to life successfully on the screen or stage. Not every actor can throw the phrase “niminy-piminy chits” around convincingly, let alone naturally enough that it could be part of their regular vernacular. Saorise Ronan (Jo) does just that, however, and her co-stars Timothee Chalamet (Laurie) and Florence Pugh (Amy) are equally successful in that vein. Honestly, no one in this cast truly struggled with that aspect, although you could see by contrast where Laura Dern (Marmee) and Bob Odenkirk (Father) weren’t always as at home with it compared to how well the others pulled it off.
Structurally, the film begins the story in the middle of Jo’s experience in New York, with Meg (Emma Watson) already married and a mother, Amy in Europe, and Beth (Eliza Scanlan) sickly, then flashing back to seven years earlier, to the beginning those familiar with the novel might be expecting. It then continues to alternate throughout the film between those earlier flashbacks and the characters’ present timeline. I’ve heard of some complaints regarding this making it harder to follow the story, but there are pretty clear visual cues to help viewers distinguish the two timelines. The first couple of times the jump between timelines happens, it might take a few extra seconds to catch on just because it’s not the way we’re used to hearing this story & the film is still establishing it’s structural rules, but if you’re paying any attention at all, there are clear differences in hair styling for each of the March sisters, and the flashbacks utilize more warm coloration while the characters’ present is distinguished by cooler tones. The structural change was an unexpected, but ultimately smart move as it allowed the familiar story more freshness and unpredictability for even those who might know the book by heart.
What surprised me most about this adaptation was how much I ended up liking Amy, who is usually one of my least favorite characters, and I think it’s because Gerwig’s script finally lets her grow up. At the beginning of the novel, Amy is the overdramatic, sometimes vain, and often self-centered baby of the family, but as she grows she becomes a still passionate, but more aware equal to her sisters, and Gerwig’s script allows more room to demonstrate the difference than I think any adaptation has done before. Florence Pugh’s performance captures it well too, showcasing the shifts in Amy’s character as we switch from the younger flashbacks to her current experiences abroad with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and Laurie.
While the book purist in me was a little nervous as we approached the ending (I’d heard some rumors it wasn’t exactly the same as the novel) I have to admit that I actually liked the adjustment Gerwig gave it, and it wasn’t really even a change. More like a wink to Louisa May Alcott herself, one that I feel pretty confident she’d approve of.
All in all, I definitely recommend this adaptation of Little Women. It might be the best adaptation yet.