I’ll establish my credentials here first. I have been a huge fan of author Louisa May Alcott since I was in 3rd grade. I credit her with being one of the great literary influences of my life. By the end of 5th grade, I had read Little Women at least ten times, no joke. I went on to read everything by the author I could get my hands on, and then later, as an adult, hunted down her post-humously published adult novels and read those as well. Needless to say, I’ve watched every film version of Little Women ever produced – with the exception of a rough vintage copy of a 20’s version. Further, I am the oldest of four daughters, and like Jo, was a tomboy, and loved to read and write stories. I wanted to be Jo. The fact that I’m now a romance writer, I credit partly to my early exposure to the romance of Little Women. I even took her first name as my pen name, in her honor.
The photo attached to this review is one of me standing in front of “Orchard House” in 2012. This was the home of the Alcott’s at the time Louisa wrote Little Women and is featured in the film. It’s now a museum. Going there was like going to church for me. I saw the desk Louisa sat at when she wrote Little Women. Truly thrilling.
You can imagine that I’d have strong opinions about the most recent film version of Little Women. Well, I do. So, get ready. Spoiler alert! My focus in this review is how well the film did in depicting the emotional journey of the characters, which is written so beautifully in the novel. The reader can’t help but fall in love with the March family in the book. This should happen in the film as well. However, in this 2019 ‘modernized’ version, that distinctly does not happen.
I’ve read multiple interviews with the director, Greta Gerwig, and am aware of the great lengths she went to in her decision-making process about how to craft the best screenplay. The research she did on Louisa May Alcott’s life was fascinating and I discovered facts even I didn’t know. I appreciate that she attempted to find Louisa’s true spirit as an author, and her desired intent when she wrote the book. However, what she did with the film did not capture the full, true spirit of the actual book, in my opinion.
To begin with, Greta’s fateful decision to tricksy up the timeline, over and over, nearly ruined the emotional impact of the film. Starting the movie seven years in the future gave us a Jo that none of us understood yet. In the book, her journey to publishing is deepened by being with her along the way; understanding who she was as a young girl, her relationships with her family, and her difficult path as she attempted to use her writing to help support her poverty stricken family. Part of the beauty of the writing in Little Women, is how the author develops each character over time. Skipping back and forth on the timeline deprives us of that emotional continuity, making the characters seem shallow and less relatable. I think anyone not familiar with the book would be confused by the timeline jumping. I believe she made an ill-calculated attempt to modernize the story with cinematic effects that hurt the movie more than it helped. It’s unfortunate that for all of the director’s vaunted research, she didn’t notice how ill-served the film was with all that cinematic nonsense.
Now, let’s talk about the actors. Meryl Streep was perfect, of course, as grouchy old Aunt March. And Emma Watson shone as Meg, along with Chris Cooper as Uncle Lawrence. I didn’t like any of the other main actors. Sorry, but Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern and Timothee Chalamet just didn’t cut it.
I never liked Saoirse as Jo, partly because she doesn’t look a bit like Jo. Where’s the long dark hair? None of the family carried any real resemblance to each other, and Saoirse looked like she was from a different branch altogether. Her acting was decent but not Oscar worthy by any stretch of the imagination. She gave some depth to her character, but was hurt in the end in part by all the timeline shifting. She also had an effected modern manner that seemed out of place for the times. Cue the dance sequence with Laurie where they first really connected. The dancing they did on the porch, especially for Saoirse, was more 2019 than the late 1800’s. And with all of the director’s talk about capturing the true intent of the author, would she really have had Jo run after the Professor in a carriage with her entire family along to stop him at the railway? People – this did not happen in the book!! I felt the director betrayed the audience with that hokey scene. Also the Professor – much too young and good looking. Come on! In the book, he was bearded and appeared the full 20 years older. In addition, the relationship between him and Jo as depicted, was too short and shallow to give the proposal at the end the emotional impact it should have had.
Florence Pugh, the actor who plays Amy, had a distractingly deep and masculine voice. I found it bizarre and off-putting. I don’t understand why she got the part. Plus poor Amy’s emotional journey was given very little to build on in ways of character development, and her vain, selfish personality was barely mitigated or softened over time. She was borderline unlikable for most of the film. The case for a relationship between her and Laurie was never even hinted at earlier in the film, making their marriage in the end seem odd and surprising, instead of making total sense emotionally, like it should have.
Laura Dern gave a decent performance, but she seemed stiff and unnatural at times, and didn’t have the ultra warm, “mother ” depth necessary to fully carry it off. Her encouragement to the girls never really moved my heart, and her breakdown after Beth dies is spoiled by Saoirse’s lukewarm response (the scene in the kitchen, when Saoirse barely managed to hug her back. Ugh).
Beth’s character as played by Eliza Scanlen …meh. Bland and forgettable. I was sad when she died, but not quietly weeping like I have for other versions, or with the book.
Timothee Chalamet as Laurie was too young and too flippant, with not nearly enough depth. He just didn’t do the character justice. And he never seemed to age, even years later with a baby on his shoulder, he looks exactly the same. Another disappointing actor choice.
Last night I watched again, the 1994 version of Little Women with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Christian Bale (as Laurie) and Eric Stoltz, (as John Brook) with Gabriel Byrne as the Professor. What a stellar, perfect cast! Watching this beautiful version, and crying at all the right moments, absolutely backed up my opinions about the newest addition being only a pale imitation. The director, Gillian Armstrong, takes her time with each character, building their emotional arc and letting us see how they mature and change as the years go on. She even takes care to insert some hints about Amy and Laurie in the future, and builds that relationship so it makes sense in the end. Compare Winona and Saoirse as the two versions of Jo. Winona acted circles around Saoirse, who seems shallow in comparison. Saoirse does not deserve an Oscar nomination.
I don’t care particularly if Louisa May Alcott wished she could have ended the story differently, or whatever she felt about the book at the time she was writing it. She managed to write a novel that has reached into the hearts and minds of millions of young readers for 151 years (it has never been out of print). I would feel so blessed if I could ever do the same.
I’d love to hear what you think of this review. Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org.