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.

Favorite Book-to-Screen Adaptations

My mom recently questioned the impact of television on my life and whether my imagination had been inhibited by her decision to allow me to watch television as a child. There is a faction of people who actually believe that television (and by extension, films) will rot your brain. Well, of course it will–if you lack self-control and merely watch trash (which is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society).

My mom, though, forced me and my siblings to exercise moderation–yes, we watched television but we also read, created watercolor masterpieces, and played outside endlessly. She also had (still has!) a little something called taste, a rare commodity indeed. My childhood evenings were filled with her reading to us (and vice versa)–I can even still remember the bookmark she used to mark our place in A Secret Garden–followed by an episode of I Love Lucy. (My bedtime was 9:30 because I could not rest without my daily dosage of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel at 9:00! Thank you, Nick-at-Nite.)

I think my love of reading is partly inherent, partly because of my parents fostering it through reading with me, trips to the library, and example. Would I have loved reading more if I had been denied television? Denied the privilege to play outside? To play with neighborhood friends? To have any contact with the outside world? A thousand times no. I’m glad my parents let me watch television but I’m even more glad they taught me how to balance choice media in my life.

During this same discussion, my mom brought up the point that she was once told that watching a film adaptation of a book would diminish your enjoyment and perception of the book, especially if you saw the film before reading the book. That’s kind of ridiculous (especially considering the particular example she used–which actually appears on this list!) and most definitely the worst kind of snobbery. I hate the idea that there is a hierarchy of art–the book is always superior to the film, a thirty-minute television program can never compare to the silver screen, the painting is of more value than the photograph, music holds more meaning than dance. Hollywood has indisputably butchered some of the most beautiful pieces of literature, but there have also been some I might even argue surpass the book.

These are nine of my favorite.

(Note: I only chose adaptations based on books I have actually read. Duh, right? Well, there are dozens of films I have watched which are based on books I have never heard of, never been able to finish, or never made it off my to-read list…)

9. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1965; Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)

“I sat down and picked up my pen and thought for a minute. Remembering. Remembering a handsome, dark boy with a reckless grin and a hot temper. A tough, tow-headed boy with a cigarette in his mouth and a bitter grin on his hard face. Remembering–and this time it didn’t hurt–a quiet, defeated-looking sixteen-year-old whose hair needed cutting badly and who had black eyes with a frightened expression to them. One week had taken all three of them.” 

The Outsiders was my favorite book when I was twelve. I probably read it fifteen times. In a row. I loved this book. Loved it. I knew the entire first paragraph by heart. I sometimes recited it for no reason: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…

People probably thought I had terrets or something.

I read this book, however, for the sole purpose of seeing the movie. I had gone to a sleepover, where we watched The Newsies and drooled on our pillows dreaming of Christian Bale. But someone at that sleepover mentioned this little movie called The Outsiders, which had given the world Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez (COACH BOMBAY!!), Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe. I really don’t know why this impressed me, but it did, compelling me to read the book, watch the movie, and fall in love with Rob Lowe. I have no regrets.

When I first saw the movie, I was initially disappointed. So much of the story–particularly of the Curtis brothers and the trial–was missing. Entire chapters and scenes I had committed to memory were nonexistent. While scouring the early stages of the internet for pictures of Rob Lowe, I discovered there were several deleted scenes (many of which included Rob Lowe as Sodapop Curtis). I finally had the opportunity to see the uncut film a few months ago. Even though I slowly grew to love the released film, the uncut film, as Coppola intended it, is a much more moving and coherent adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s poignant coming-of-age novel about a group of “outsiders” looking to belong amidst a society inundated with socio-ecnomic strife.

And for the record: Rob Lowe fresh out of the shower in a towel, an inhibition to my imagination? Fughetaboutit! 

8. Serpico (Peter Maas, 1973; Sidney Lumet, 1973)

“But while he would not participate in the organized payoffs, he found in the end he could not ignore them either. Instead he tried to do something about a system that allowed corruption to flourish. And it was this that angered so many police officers, and left them baffled and bewildered. He had broken an unwritten code that in effect put policeman above the law, that said a cop could not turn in other cops. Perhaps it would have been easier for them if Serpico fitted a recognizable puritanical mold. But he dressed like a hippie and sported a beard and long hair, and he lived in a bachelor pad in Greenwich Village doing, in their minds, God knows what. In the suburban tract houses with tiny, neatly trimmed lawns where most of the city’s policemen lived, in the saloons where they gathered, in the precinct houses and radio cars, Serpico became the prime topic of conversation. One frequently repeated rumor about him held that he was ‘part spic and part Ethiopian, and speaks a funny sort of Italian,’ as if this, somehow, explained everything.”

You should never, ever forget your first Al Pacino film and this was mine. Ahhhhh.

Serpico is the true story of New York City policeman Frank Serpico, an upstanding cop who uncovers illicit activity within his department. Despite being violently harassed and threatened, Serpico decides to expose this corruption. It’s an absolutely compelling read, and the film is a faithful adaptation. Al Pacino as Serpico? Peeeeerfect! I loved the film when I first saw it, shortly after reading Peter Maas’s biography of Serpico for a Literary Journalism course, but I ultimately preferred the book, which richly details not only the rampant police corruption and brutality Serpico witnesses but the prejudice he personally endures not only for his beliefs but the way he dresses and conducts his life outside of the station (illustrated by the above quote). The book, written in the style of literary journalism, employs all the typical literary devices–all except one: that happy ending. Serpico testified against police corruption, but that testimony did not completely eradicate corruption. It still exists.

7. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813; Joe Wright, 2005)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

You’ve read one Jane Austen novel, you’ve read them all. Or so the saying goes.

I never really felt compelled to read Pride and Prejudice (or any Jane Austen novel) until I saw Joe Wright’s interpretation a couple of years ago and completely loved it. What drove me to read the novel, though, was the film’s beautiful dialogue, most of which closely matches the novel. Wright’s version eliminates insignificant supporting characters and condenses Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, quickening the plot’s pace, but is otherwise a near perfect adaptation. Keira Knightley is Elizabeth Bennet; I always have to remind myself in the final scene between Elizabeth and her father (Donald Sutherland) that Knightley and Sutherland are just actors, yet the emotion between the characters is so real.

I know many people see the 1995 BBC miniseries as the ultimate screen version of Austen’s novel, and I once tried to watch it. For about three minutes and twenty-three seconds. That’s as long as I could stand the painful acting. Didn’t even see Colin Firth. Maybe I’ll try again someday–someday when I’m in the depths of despair, looking to torture myself literally to death…

(I’m just kidding–I think. I’ll try again sometime. Maybe.)

Well, I’ve only ever read one Jane Austen novel, and I think I’d watch this film again ten times before I thought about reading another one. It’s just that good.

“Mr. Collins, at your service!”

Kiss me.

6. A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean, 1976; Robert Redford, 1992)

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I’ve already gushed extensively about this film here, where I think I state somewhere that this is the most beautiful film I have ever seen. That is probably true, and I must admit I was sorely disappointed when I finally read the semi-autobiographical novella on which the film is based. The film is a much more comprehensive and coherent story than the novella, which sparsely records the early life of Norman and Paul to put their final fishing expedition, the heart of the novella, into perspective. There have been questions about how much artistic license was taken with the film and in particular the character of Paul, but I feel the film provides a fuller, deeper understanding of the characters. And without feeling something for those characters, there is no story. I often found myself referencing the film while reading the book, which, though full of the beautiful language used in the film’s narration, was too sparse on characterization and plot to hold my attention for too long. The book is also full of intricate descriptions of fly fishing, which would have completely lost me if I had not seen the film and been able to visualize whatever-the-heck-this-guy-was-talking-about.

Tears streamed down my face when I first watched A River Runs Through It; I was apathetic when I returned A River Runs Through It And Other Stories to the library.  

5. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott, 1868; Gillian Armstrong, 1994) 

“Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are?”

Just as Keira Knightley is Elizabeth Bennet, Winona Ryder is Jo March. She’s absolutely perfect in the role as one of my favorite characters of all literature. When thinking about which film adaptations were my favorite, I thought about ones that made the characters come to life, that overcame subtle plot differences (example: Laurie proposes to Jo after she returns from New York in the book, Jo goes to New York following her rejection of Laurie’s proposal in the film) to make the story seamless and believable, that made me see a book I’d read and loved multiple times differently. Little Women is all of those things. The cast is flawless. The sets, costumes, and soundtrack are perfect complements to the seemingly effortless acting. The film draws you into the world of these four sisters, each hovering between girlhood and womanhood, and by the film’s conclusion not only do you believe that those four actresses really are sisters but you almost feel like they are your sisters, too.

I love to watch this film at Christmas. Preferably with at least one of my sisters.

(I’d love to see George Cukor’s 1933 film, starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo with Joan Bennett as Amy, but I’m too afraid it just wouldn’t stand a chance. Someday!)

4. The Godfather (Mario Puzo, 1969; Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

“Then with a profound and deeply willed desire to believe, to be heard, as she had done every day since the murder of Carlo Rizzi, she said the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.” 

I can’t believe that I lived twenty-two years without seeing The Godfather. What was I doing with my life? What was my purpose? It’s scary to think about. I have absolutely no criticisms of the film, so how is it even possible that I could prefer the book, even just a little bit? It’s not. I love the book. It devotes a great deal more to the characterization of Johnny Fontane, it details Vito’s background which would form the basis for The Godfather II, and Michael executes his revenge on the two dirtbags who betrayed him in Italy, killing his one true love. I love reading Michael’s slow transformation from golden boy to Don Corleone, but I love seeing the change via Al Pacino even more. While the film mostly follows the novel, the greatest difference is the ending. In the book, Kay reaches a state of acceptance about Michael’s position as head of the family business; she prays for his soul. The film’s ending is much more chilling: Kay watches as Michael’s capos kiss his hand and address him as Don Corleone.

Um…I think the next nine hours of my life are booked. Time to watch all three Godfather films. Again.

3. Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936; Victor Fleming, 1939)

“Sir, you are no gentleman.”
“An apt observation. And you, Miss, are no lady. No one can remain a lady after saying and doing what I have just overheard. However, ladies have seldom held any charms for me. I know what they are thinking, but they never have the courage or lack of breeding to say what they think. And that, in time, becomes a bore. But you, my dear Miss O’Hara, are a girl of rare spirit, very admirable spirit, and I take off my hat to you.”

When I was in middle school, there was something called Accelerated Reader (AR for short). Certain books in our school library were marked “Accelerated Reader”, with a certain amount of points. You read the book, took the AR test, and earned a number of points proportionate to your test score. At the end of the year, the student with the most AR points earned a prize. It was probably a library card–I can’t remember. Anyway. I always wanted to read Gone with the Wind since seeing the film, and it was worth like 900 AR points. The library’s copy was solid red, with white letters on the side: GONE WITH THE WIND. And I loved it oh so much. I never expected it to have such deep, captivating character development (although only for the white characters). Later, my senior English teacher was my favorite English teacher of all-time…until I learned he thought Gone with the Wind was a silly book. (OK, so he’s still my favorite English teacher, but let’s be real–his competition was sli-i-i-im.) Uh, no. It is not a silly book. It is not just a book about Scarlett and Rhett loving and hating and loving but a book about how some people survived the War and some didn’t, and the amount of detail and characterization floors me each time I read it.

I can only remember very few plot differences–for example, Scarlett has a child with each of her first two husbands in the novel–between the book and film, but they ultimately don’t matter because the film is so successful at bringing that novel to life. Another perfect cast. Miss Mitchell was most disappointed with the Tara set; she claimed there was nothing so grandiose as that in the South. Of course she wasn’t too concerned with the racial stereotypes or the minimization of the violence of the Ku Klux Klan or anything like that.

By the way, I earned all the AR points for Gone with the Wind, but I ultimately fell short of the overall high score. Some boy who read all the Brian Jacques books beat me by a handful of points. I was pretty disappointed at the time, but I figure since he used to sit next to me and get blamed for my stinky farts, we’re even.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960; Robert Mulligan, 1962)

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” 

I read this book multiple times as an adolescent, and I recently read it again. Each time I read it, I’m unsure whether the story is really about Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, or both, and I’m always on the edge of my seat, anxious to see how Harper Lee connects them. Atticus tells Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they make beautiful music and do not harm other creatures. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are both innocent and harmless, and it, too, is a sin to kill them. The novel is also about much more–growing up and losing that innocence, gender roles, class, status, and, of course, racial injustice and prejudice. The film version does not fully explore all those issues, but it is nonetheless a beautiful adaptation. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? I do believe that is otherwise known as a match made in Heaven.

When I was in seventh grade, I had the assignment to compose a short biography of an author. I chose Sir James Matthew Barrie, but a friend chose Harper Lee. I vividly remember sitting in the school library, doing research, and my friend excitedly telling me that Harper Lee was still working on her second novel. We were so excited, but Miss Lee has never written that second novel. She explained why in 2011: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Atticus tells Scout that you never really understand another person until you look at things from their point of view, climb into their skin and walk around for a bit. It’s a lesson of compassion, understanding, and respect that still resonates. What more needs to be said?

1. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery, 1908; Kevin Sullivan, 1985)

“I know I talk too much, but I am really trying to overcome it, and although I say far too much, yet if you only knew how many things I want to say and don’t, you’d give me some credit for it.”

Any of these screen versions could have topped this list. They all feature great acting and faithful screenplays. So why Anne of Green Gables? Is Megan Follows really any more Anne than Winona Ryder is Jo, than Vivien Leigh is Scarlett, than Al Pacino is Michael? Each of them are their respective characters to me. But Anne of Green Gables might just be my favorite adaptation simply because it is probably my favorite book. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it. And when a scholarship committee asked me why it was my favorite, I told them it was my favorite because of the amazing detail, the rich language, the way Anne’s imagination draws you into her world and unlocks your own imagination along the way. Kevin Sullivan’s miniseries brings that stunningly beautiful world to life.

(I even prefer his Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel, based on Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, and Anne of Windy Poplars, to the original novels. Whoops.)

Reading a book and watching a film or television program are two very different experiences that cannot fairly be compared. Of course you form your own images of what a certain character might look like (Mario Puzo always imagined Brando as Vito Corleone) or how it might feel to walk through the front door at Tara. And of course a director’s vision is always going to vary, if only ever so slightly. But both the screen and the written word have the ability to disengage you from reality and pull you into another world, if only for a two-hour movie or 30 pages a day. And what a wonderful world that is.