Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

“You want to stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth,” Marlon Brando once said. For it is part of an actor’s job to draw the audience into their performance so completely that the audience loses that need for the mindless eating that accompanies movie-going. This does not happen when watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale of sisterhood, Little Women. While some critics have deemed it “near-perfect” and “the best film of the decade,” that is unequivocally false. Instead, it is an agonizing two-plus hour film with no energy or story.

Nearly every actor in Gerwig’s film fails to lend any heart, warmth, or believability to their role. You are constantly aware that you are watching actors try to make characters come alive — and thus failing. When you watch Gillian Armstrong’s truly perfect re-telling of Alcott’s novel, you completely forget that you are watching a movie: Winona Ryder is Jo March. Susan Sarandon is Marmee. Even Eric Stoltz is John Brooke. No actor in Gerwig’s film–except perhaps Meryl Streep (and we all know how much I love Meryl Streep–I don’t)–gives a true performance. Ronan is awkward and contradictory as Jo; Beth is nondescript; Amy is truly, truly horrible, acting as a spoiled brat as both a child and an adult by the same actress. (When she storms off after telling Laurie, “I’ve loved you my whole life!” I wanted to laugh because it was just so pathetic.) Amy is oft-disliked for a reason, but Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis gave her a heart in Armstrong’s film. (Dunst’s Amy is truly apologetic after burning Jo’s sacred manuscript; in Gerwig’s film, it is as if Marmee is holding a knife to Amy’s throat, forcing her to express remorse.)

All the changes Gerwig has made to the story–focusing on the March sisters as adults, the non-linear storyline, and the subtle implication that Jo does not marry (I will get to that in a minute)–make no difference, as there is nothing for this film to stand on. Jo rushes home because her sister Beth is dying? That’s not sad at all because there has been no demonstration of any connection between these two “sisters.” Four sisters fall into an arguing, laughing pile on Christmas morning–actually, no, four actresses pretending to be sisters fall into an ungainly pile. Way to go. Professor Bhaer leaves to go West where they are not so particular about the accent? Ok, who is this guy again? Oh, the guy that has been interspersed into a handful of scenes with no authentic connection or interaction with Jo, who actually acts like she truly hates him? Get out. I wanted to cry because a story I love so much was being treated so very badly. Why didn’t Amy burn Gerwig’s manuscript instead?

While I respect that a film based on a book is a filmmaker’s interpretation and can even exceed the book in some cases (again, see the 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong), what Gerwig did to this story is quite unforgivable, as she tried desperately to put a book published in 1869 into a 2019 context, whereas Armstrong’s version of the story augmented the feminism of the original novel while still remaining true to the novel’s context. Gerwig does this by mixing the story’s creator, Louisa May Alcott, with the story’s heroine, Josephine March. Alcott undoubtedly poured some of her own spirit and beliefs into Jo, but her creation and own life should be considered separate. Alcott initially did not want Jo to marry (hence Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s proposal in the first part of the novel’s second part, “Good Wives”); Alcott herself never married. That does not make it acceptable to change the story by replacing Jo with Alcott–because that is not Jo’s story in Little Women.

Jo detests the idea of marriage throughout much of the novel and expresses her desire not to marry — simply because she loves her family as it is — and she pursues writing as a passion as well as an economic necessity, not as a way to justify a life without marriage. “You I leave to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it,” Marmee tells Jo in Alcott’s novel, “for only then will you find that there is something sweeter.” And so the novel really becomes not about whether or even whom Jo will marry but her journey in discovering that voracious ambition is not a substitute for familial connection. Furthermore, Jo realizes that the two ideas about marriage explored in the novel — marriage can be life’s greatest blessing and marriage should not be the sole purpose and goal of a woman — are not contradictory or opposing. Had such a marriage as the one Alcott creates for her heroine and Professor Bhaer been possible for herself, Alcott would have perhaps entered into a similar union. Jo’s decision to marry Bhaer does not reduce her independence or feminism; it makes her a stronger, more mature character. Alcott understood this. Gerwig meanwhile tries to justify her interpretation by inserting scenes that were never in the novel. Jo reconsiders Laurie’s proposal and voices regret at having turned him down. It is so untrue to the novel and the character, I wanted to gouge my own eyes out in the hopes that I could un-see the travesty.

In It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey expresses a similar distaste for marriage. “I don’t want to get married, ever, to anyone. I want to do what I want to do,” he says with intensity, visibly shaking his future wife Mary. Yet, George gives up his dreams of traveling and exploring the world for a married life rife with sacrifices to both his family and community in the place he always wanted to leave, Bedford Falls. George discovers — as does Jo — that these self-sacrifices have made his life that much richer and more wonderful. And so it would seem that in Gerwig’s world, George would need to travel and explore the world to have a wonderful life in order to lend the story relevance and credence. A thousand times NO. 

Furthermore, Gerwig forces words into little Amy March’s mouth that she never would have said. “Marriage is an economic proposition.” Well, that is true for Amy, as she has always wanted to marry rich, but the way Gerwig frames the conversation again makes it completely untrue to the character and the novel. Please stop vomiting your postmodern feminism views onto a perfectly pure and independently feminine novel.

I will credit Gerwig with producing a wholesome movie that emphasizes the importance of family relationships with strong, caring female characters amidst the Red Sea of crap that is flooded into movie theaters as a whole in these troubling times. And she does add a few touches that are appropriate and  effective — namely, illustrating the art of publishing a book and showing the depth of Mr. Laurence’s love for Beth. Perhaps her film will expose a new generation to the story of the March sisters and inspire them to pick up the novel and hopefully discover for themselves the true story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–and then go back to 1994 to find the most beautiful, wonderful, moving, perfect interpretation of this precious story.

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