Maybe Greta Gerwig’s Upcoming Adaptation Can Rewrite the March Sisters’ Endings
When the Little Women trailer dropped, no fewer than seven of my friends texted me immediately. My favorite simply read, “TIMOTHEEEEEEEE!” without context.
As a lover of a good marriage plot and extremely vocal fan of Lady Bird, it makes sense that they’d peg me as a superfan of Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. There’s Jo, our spunky heroine, who can weave a rather salacious yarn when she’s not traipsing through the mud—a regular Lizzy Bennet-type onto whom literary women have pictured themselves, I’m sure, since its release in 1868. Together with her three charming sisters and the family matriarch, affectionately and disturbingly known as “Marmee” throughout the novel, the Marshes paint a picture of (a certain kind of) feminine bliss.
“Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion,” Alcott writes of their idyllic life, “and what a comfort it is!”
And this cast! Sweet heartbroken baby Timothée Chalamet as the Laurie to Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is enough to stop hearts. Add in the lineup of remaining March women: Emma Watson as Meg, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, Florence Pugh as Amy, and queen of Monterey Bay Laura Dern as Marmee who reunites with Meryl Streep as Aunt March. All would arguably be the perfect literary adaptation to set my heart a-flutter for this beloved story — except for the glaring fact that I deeply, unflinchingly despise Little Women.
I pulled out my high school American Literature notebook recently, where I found scrunched within the margins of my notes on Little Women, “SO! MANY! CHRISTIAN! VALUES!” In a way, that gets right to the point: Alcott and I simply value different things.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a regular DIY millennial who prefers to mend her own clothes and make her own bread dough over the comforts of Amazon Prime delivery. The Marshes value hard work over the lavishness displayed by Aunt March or the Moffats, and that’s a lifestyle I can get behind. Where we differ, however, is the expression of that humble life, what we ultimately hope to achieve. Though Alcott herself sought and achieved literary fame, her little women all end up married or in the case of poor, sorry Beth, dead.
Alcott wrote the novel as we know it today in two separate parts, Little Women and the horrendously titled Good Wives, and people of sense and sensibility have long agreed that the second half is a stinker. All of the good details that come to mind when one thinks of Little Women—four busy little heads bent over their sowing in front of a cozy fire on a snowy day, the gender-bending relationship roles (and even names) of Jo and Laurie, the characters’ reliance on books and good stories to pass the time—are contained within the first part, and are largely where most film adaptations end.
Part two is where Alcott’s potential feminism takes a U-turn. Meg marries John Brooke and settles into a life of solely caring for their twins, while learning a valuable lesson: Always be sure to greet your hubby with a smile and a nice meal. Jo, my hero, abandons her writerly dreams after a man she only just met, Professor Baehr, criticizes her work and eventually asks her to marry him. Beth is too good for her world and dies. And Amy, a character who pretty much just sucks for 800 pages, marries Laurie. Have I mentioned that he’s now played by the prince of our hearts, Timothée Chalamet?
As tiresome, dull and obsessed with wifely duty as Good Wives is, we can’t just cut it out of existence like the 1933 film adaptation. Little Women, in its entirety, is required reading for young people every school year, reinforcing outdated relationship roles and toxic behavior. It wasn’t that long ago that teachers presented Alcott’s tome to me, a young woman in an all-girls high school, as a model of Christian womanhood. But for a long time, I felt out of the loop. Surely I wasn’t reading the same novel as everyone else who loved it.
Even accepting that part two was only Alcott’s last-ditch effort to earn all the money she could off of the Marsh family, I cannot abide the novel’s proselytizing about the values of hard work and suffering. Our little “pilgrims,” as she calls them, are growing up in the middle of the Civil War. Times are certainly tough, and each little woman has to make sacrifices for the good of the family. The least we can do for them is allow each child to feel a little grumpy about it; not everything needs to be a lesson in persistence and cheerful struggle. Not every character can be Captain America.
The literal sixth paragraph of the book reads, in part, “Meg said in an altered tone, ‘You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t.’ And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.” And the rest of the 800 or so pages continue thusly.
Amy, the youngest March sister, who is selfish, spoiled and cannot turn a phrase without embarrassing herself, gets a lot of heat for being a truly dreadful character—and she is. But at least Amy owns her desires and complains endlessly until she realizes them. That is, until she sees the light of reason and marries rich. Though we all read Little Women and say we’re Jo, most of us would probably act like Amy.
Gerwig, whose interpretation of the novel comes out on Christmas Day, is a Little Women superfan. “This feels like autobiography,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “When you live through a book, it almost becomes the landscape of your inner life…It becomes part of you, in a profound way.”
Perhaps, then, it is unfair to pin all of my hopes for Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy on the forthcoming film. However, the trailer surely points to a brighter retelling of Little Women, what Hillary Kelly calls “Little Women the feeling”: four little personalities triumphantly romping around 1860s Massachusetts.
“Women, they have minds, and they have souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty,” declares Ronan as Jo in the trailer. “I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for, I’m so sick of it!”
Despite my distaste for the original, I’m hopeful about the film’s ability to combine domestic bliss with an independent, satisfied life for our heroines. (Also maybe Amy will not marry Laurie? That would be great.) Whether Gerwig’s Little Women is predictably anti-feminist or not, I’ll be there on Christmas Day, arm and arm with my mother, making sure I’m one of the first people in Philadelphia with an opinion of the film. Though I’m sure the movies on a holiday is a tradition of which Marmee March would certainly disapprove.