Warning: this review contains plot spoilers for Little Women.
I rewatched Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film adaptation of Little Women on Netflix over the course of three train rides home from work about a month ago and at the end, I busted out laughing (in the quiet car – forgive me, fellow commuters) because I had this vivid memory of having watched the movie in the theater with my mother when it was first released. It’s the last scene of the movie, where our plucky heroine, Jo March, goes running after Professor Friedrich Bhaer in the rain to confess her feelings to him, and to beg him to stay in Concord with her and teach at the school she is starting in her late aunt’s mansion.
“Ugh, nooooooo,” my mom said. “Let him go! Let him go! Tell him to keep walking! Nooooo!”
And I joined her: “Go away! Go away Professor! LEAVE! JUST LEAVE!!!”
I’m sure everyone in the movie theater hated us that day. But my mom had read the book by Louisa May Alcott as a young girl, and had given me the book to read as well, and so, we both knew that Jo was going to end up with Friedrich, no matter how rudely we heckled the movie screen and irritated everyone around us.
The thing is, though, almost everyone I know who has read Alcott’s book feels the same way about this coupling. Professor Bhaer is old, dull, and a bit of a mansplainer. He judges Jo’s writing for being too lurid and fantastic, despite the fact that she is able to sell such stories and use the money to support her family. He’s like a proto-hipster who eschews popular culture and shames Jo for her pride in being able to publish her work. And yet in the end, she still runs to him in the rain and begs him to stay, because somehow along the way she has fallen in love with him, even though they have basically no chemistry and almost nothing in common besides a knack for teaching…?
He sucks. I mean, really. He sucks.
I am 34 years old, which puts me squarely in the “Old Millennial” territory, and as such, I think it’s safe to say that Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women is the definitive one for women my age. The 1994 adaptation is entirely charming with a staggeringly deep bench of a cast: Winona Ryder (just as she was becoming a huge star) as Jo, Claire Danes (in her debut film) as Beth, Kirsten Dunst (baby-faced and coming straight from Interview with a Vampire) as Amy, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, Trini Alvarado as Meg, and Susan Sarandon as the girls’ mother, whom they call Marmee, with Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer. Byrne is admittedly much more handsome than Friedrich’s description in the book, and he tries his damndest to do his best with such a thankless role, but ultimately he still fails to help us comprehend how or why Winona Ryder’s Jo would go chasing after him in the rain.
Oh, and there’s also, Christian Bale – Batman himself (but impossibly young and floppy-haired) as Laurie, Jo’s best friend, the boy next door who loves her, but for some reason in the end ends up married to Amy, and we’re just supposed to accept that that’s a plausible thing that happens.
I think you can tell that I have some major issues with the source material here.
And so, therein lies the trouble with Armstrong’s film: it is a faithful chronological depiction of the plot of Alcott’s book. Meticulously faithful. Extremely meticulously faithful. Which means that, much like the book, we have more than a couple of straight-up baffling moments. Not only does Armstrong fail to show us why Jo would fall in love with the Professor, she also fails to show us why Jo turns Laurie down, and she fails to convince us that somehow years later, Laurie would fall in love with an older Amy (played by Samantha Mathis) and Amy would somehow be okay with this, knowing that he loved her older sister.
And while we’re on the subject of Laurie and Amy – there is a super creepy moment in the 1994 film when young Amy (Dunst) is being taken to Aunt March’s house with Laurie accompanying her on the ride. Amy is all of 13 or 14 years old in this scene, while Laurie is in college. She wistfully tells Laurie that one of her fears is that she will never be kissed before she dies, and Laurie promises that he will make sure to kiss her at least once before she dies. She leans against his shoulder happily, and I shudder, because why is college-aged Batman making such promises to baby Kirsten Dunst?! It’s not ok! It’s not ok at all! And it makes their future marriage even creepier.
But it is a remarkably effective film all the same, with lush scenery, a beautiful soundtrack, and a heart-rending death scene from Claire Danes, and people went to see it in droves because the book, for all of its plot flaws, is still a beloved classic, read by many young girls – many little women – over the years. Nostalgia is a powerful tool.
So when I heard that Greta Gerwig was directing a new adaptation, I was curious to see how she might try to distinguish her film from my generation’s “definitive” adaptation.
Once again, a stacked cast: Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Florence Pugh as Amy (although I do wonder why Gerwig didn’t end up casting any American actresses as the titular Little Women in this quintessentially American Civil War-era story). Laura Dern plays Marmee. Meryl Streep is Aunt March. Bob Odenkirk as the girls' father (sounding a bit too much like Saul Goodman, but endearing nonetheless). And Timothee Chalamet – also young and floppy-haired – as Laurie.
And all I can say, really, is bravo, Greta Gerwig. Because she somehow found a way to tell this story, fairly (if not meticulously) faithfully, and she corrects the flaws that have always bothered me, both about Armstrong’s film and the source material.
Gerwig accomplishes this primarily by not showing the story in chronological order – we begin with the four girls as grown women, and are shown via flashbacks all of the events that lead them to where they end up as adults. We first meet Jo as she tries to get a story published in New York, and we first meet Amy in Paris with Aunt March, running into Laurie. And it might even be this simple – the fact that when we first see Laurie, he’s with Amy and not Jo (which is what a chronological tale would do) – that made me more open to the idea that these two could somehow fall in love, despite the spectre of Jo’s earlier refusal of Laurie hanging over them. Meeting Amy as a fully formed adult with her clear-headed understanding of the world, her place in it, and how she intends to fulfil the destiny she has always wished for – to marry a wealthy man, and thus save her indigent family of teachers, artists, and writers – makes it easier to not totally despise her in flashbacks when she famously burns Jo’s manuscript out of spite. For the first time, I could see Amy as a real character – an actual person, not a concept (bratty little sister, vain young woman), and as a counterpoint to Jo, as opposed to a thorn in her side. Gerwig also ensures that we see that Amy has always had a crush on Laurie since she was young, which gives the scene where he begs her not to marry her boring boyfriend Fred Vaughn some real stakes. Instead of being flattered, Amy gets upset, because she has always felt like she was second to Jo, and she can’t fathom being so in marriage as well.
This moment in particular took my breath away, because it allows Amy to vocalize that truth: that she can’t take a proposal from Laurie seriously, even though she has loved him for forever, because she knows how deeply he loved Jo, and how Jo’s refusal destroyed him. And because this then sets up Laurie’s transformation from debauched playboy to a somewhat serious businessman in a plausible way (whereas the same transformation is borderline comical in Armstrong’s film) – Laurie wants to prove to Amy that he doesn’t see her as a second choice, and that he will be worthy of her.
I’m talking a lot about Amy here, when it’s fairly accepted that the heroine of Little Women has always been Jo. Saoirse Ronan imbues Jo with a lively mix of tomboy energy, intellectual fortitude, and a sense of world-weariness (even as a young girl). She is the Jo I envisioned in my head when I first read this book when I was little. It might be controversial to say this, but I will: Winona Ryder is not a strong actress, and her version of Jo always reads as cartoony to me (which matches Christian Bale’s cartoony depiction of Laurie – he never seemed comfortable playing a romantic hero, so…).
The scene where Jo refuses Laurie is a melodramatic mess no matter how you look at it or who are playing the characters, but Chalamet does well with his quiet devastation when it occurs, which was a welcome difference in interpretation for me. Where Bale whined and wept and rended his garments during this scene, Chalamet turns his anger inwards and imbues Laurie with a level of gravitas that I never saw in him before. This in turn also helps support the storyline that Laurie eventually outgrows his heartbreak and falls in love with Amy. And it doesn’t involve a creepy carriage kissing promise between an adult and a young teen. (Shudder.)
But I’d like to close this out by highlighting my favorite changes that Gerwig has made with her interpretation. It’s a two-part correction: the first, being that she casts Louis Garrel as Professor Bhaer, essentially changing the character from a fusty old mansplainer to a bonafide young foreign intellectual hottie, charging the few scenes he shares with Ronan with enough chemistry that I could actually, finally, see what might have attracted her to him. When he criticizes her writing, it reads more like a peer trying to challenge her to do better, rather than an old man telling a young woman, WRITING: UR DOIN IT RONG. I can understand why between his words and Beth’s request that Jo “write something for her” that she would be inspired to write the book that turns into the text of Little Women – she’s doing it out of a desire to fulfill her own ambition, rather than to please some old dude who has irrational fears that her page-turner pulp stories will somehow morally corrupt her readers. (I mean, really, dude? What a prig. Ugh.)
But even better is the suggestion, at the end, that Jo does not actually end up married to Friedrich, even though she does chase after him in the rain and beg him to stay. Jo is back in the publisher’s office – a publisher who told her that books about women only do well if the heroine gets married by the end. So it is implied that Jo writes the happy rainy ending for herself and the Professor to get her story published, but she remains fiercely independent and unmarried in the end, the way she always declared she would be. “Book” Jo gets Hottie Foreign Professor, and “Real” Jo gets to see her book being printed, bound, sewn, pressed, and published.
I had no desire to heckle the end of this movie the way my mother and I did 25 years ago watching Armstrong’s adaptation. I clapped. In fact, everyone in the theater clapped. It may seem blasphemous for me to be so critical of the source material, and so dismissive of the film adaptation that reminds me the most of my childhood because of its overzealous faithfulness to said material, (I mean, who am I? I’ve never published a book and I’ve barely used my expensive film degree) but Little Women is a book that so many young people are given to read because it is an early example of a story about women’s lives that treats the characters as important people with substantial inner thoughts and feelings and desires aside from the men in their lives. And yet, I’ve always found the ultimate fates of Jo, Friedrich, Laurie and Amy in the book, so completely implausible that they made me angry. This 2019 adaptation has effectively corrected these plot flaws and as a result, we end up with a beautiful film about women finding their way in the world, rather than a contrivance of marriages for the sake of making sure everyone ends up married.
“Writing things is what makes them important,” Amy tells Jo at one point in the film. Gerwig has rewritten this version Little Women in a way that makes me appreciate the importance of the story on its own merit. I may be an Old Millennial, but this most recent adaptation is now my definitive one. It will clean up like mad during awards season, and it is not to be missed.
Reeya is the Communications Director for Song-Smith, Inc, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that produces song•smith, a bi-monthly web series that spotlights songwriters in the Hudson Valley. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, sings and plays bass guitar, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.