So ubiquitous is Little Women, the classic novel published by Louisa May Alcott originally published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, that it is all too easy to forget how revolutionary it was in its time.
The novel, which focuses on lives of the four March sisters – Meg (Margaret), Jo (Josephine), Amy and Beth – challenged the idea that a woman only had worth if she was married and that any woman who dared to challenged this calcified ideal, either by remaining single or choosing to take on a vocation of some kind such as writing, was something less worthy of value that her betrothed counterpart.
Set in a loving family whose mother and father championed their daughter’s right to self-determination and self-fulfilment, Little Women, according to Sarah Elbert (A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture) argued that “Sexual equality is the salvation of marriage and the family; democratic relationships make happy endings.”
Indeed, in Greta Gerwig’s near-flawless adaptation of the much-loved book, these themes, which Elbert describes as the “unifying imaginative frame of Little Women“, are front and centre, a clarion call to women of any age to never be defined by old-fashioned ideas of what is acceptable.
Utilising a spoonful of sugar, or in this case, a great big helping of barrel of the stuff, makes the medicine go down approach, Alcott, and now Gerwig, has promoted the empowering ideal of women being in charge of their own destiny in such a way that many opponents of the idea, and sadly they are still out there in legion, would be unaware they are even imbibing such a (for them at least) revolutionary ethos.
Key to the emotional luminosity of Gerwig’s wholly passionate adaptation, the latest in a long line of TV and movie re-tellings, is the way the rich characterisation of her screenplay comes to the fore.
It takes no time at all for the March sisters to feel as real and tangible as your own family, young women so vital and alive and gloriously imperfect that you are compelled to invest yourself almost wholly in their happiness.
There is a buoyancy and a loveliness to Little Women that comes from how vitally alive each of the four sisters feel, a tribute not simply to the writing but the finely-tuned performances of Saoirse Ronan as lead protagonist Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.
There is no doubt that this is a film that swells your heart and breaks it in equal measure, much as the book itself does, but it does so even more so in this sparklingly fresh adaptation because it all feels so brilliantly, vivaciously authentic.
While we may not be young women in the mid-nineteenth century, nor facing the same social pressures as the March sisters do, we are all too aware of what it feels like to dream big about life and then find, for reasons innumerable that the path you want to pursue is not open to you.
The March women, of course, have two things well and truly on their side; first, the endless love and support of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is the towering parental presence in a story where Father March (Bob Odenkirk) is off fighting in the Union army in the Civil War but also the close-knit bonds between each of the siblings.
These are not perfect bonds and refreshingly, Alcott does not paint them as such, rendering all four sisters as flawed but deeply loving people, which makes sense since even in the most affirming and supportive of families, there is a degree of dysfunctionality.
By preserving that, Gerwig has given us a family we can relate to – one that is there for each of its members in ways profound and passing but also one where though cracks will appear, there is a means and a willingness to restore the familial closeness previously present.
But as each of the “little women” discover – the term comes from the period between childhood and adulthood where roles and life experience is messy and ill-defined – this is not always enough.
As each of the sisters set out to find their way in the world, save for one for whom life is short but sweet (and yes, this will break your heart just as surely as it always has), they each encounter the fact that family matters hugely but it is not the panacea for all of life’s ills.
Meg, married to the love of her life, the poor but wholly decent and loving tutor John Brooke (James Norton) with whom she is blissfully happy even if occasionally discontented is too aware that what you expect from life is always what you get, something with which sister Amy becomes all too familiar when her envisaged grand and famous painting career turns out to be not so possible after all.
She has even gone so far as Paris with her father’s rich sister, the prickly but distantly loving Aunt March (Meryl Streep), to broaden her artistic skills and French naturally but even this is no match for the vagaries of life.
Jo, a writer who lives and breathes writing short stories, mostly of the pulpy kind that sell magazines, understands this more than most – romanced by close family friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and eager for a whole new life in New York, which for a time is hers, she longs for a great deal that by her own design or life’s curve balls, do not fall as neatly into her lap as she would hope.
But Little Women is nothing if not a story with a happy ending – the pressure from Jo’s publisher to turn an enigmatic ending into a definitely positive one mirrors that of Alcott who admitted to the fact the novel is highly though not fully autobiographical – and while events may not play out the way each sister intended, they are always able to rely on each other and the family as a whole to see them through.
Gerwig succeeds triumphantly in balancing this inspirational sense of family always having your back with the perfidies of life and the way our best efforts are not always sufficient to counter them, offering a film that is heartwarming and affirming but not at the expense of some robust though deftly placed messaging.
It is not a feminist polemic by any means but it does hold up the original intent of the novel’s author as she sought to empower women to make their own way in the world all while reminding them that their families and those they hold dear are key to any of this working out remotely as intended.
Little Women is a supreme joy – a film that embraces lively, amusing and often heartfelt dialogue, a narrative that is both full speed ahead and yet poetically and reflectively immersive, characters that leap off the screen and into your hearts in a way that is not even slightly corny, all told with a passion and warmth that will draw you in, hold you close and assure that life is best lived, even on your own terms, within the bosom of your family, whatever form that may take.