It used to be a matter of course that a new big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women would go into production every few years. As cinema jumped from silence to sound, from black & white to color, a new version of the same story would grace the screen – ensuring that each new generation of young readers in love with Alcott’s setting & characters could experience them in the flesh. Sadly, that tradition dried up after the 1940s version (featuring Elizabeth Taylor as an overgrown Amy, the littlest woman), leaving a forty-five-year gap before Little Women would be refreshed in adaptation for a new generation. The two major productions that ended that drought—1994’s Gillian Armstrong adaptation and the 2019 Greta Gerwig remix—had a lot of catching up to do, then. It wouldn’t be enough to just revive the same story with the updated stars & filmmaking tech of the modern day. Armstrong & Gerwig instead had to overhaul the material in a drastic display to make up for all the lost time. Both resulting films are great works in their own respects, but only one of the pair truly swung for the fences in its attempt to launch Little Women into the modern world.
On its surface, the 1994 version of Little Women appears to play it safe in its duties as a literary adaptation. Like the Old Hollywood adaptations that came before it, it tells the story of the fictional March sisters’ coming-of-age during the leanest years of the Civil War (an apparently autobiographical account of Alcott’s own youth) in a traditional, linear narrative. The will-they/won’t-they drama of its protagonist’s potentially romantic friendship with the wealthy boy next door drives the heart of the story. Meanwhile, the incidental episodes amongst her sisters that make the novel such a recognizably genuine depiction of childhood (which is almost entirely a series of incidental episodes, at least in memory) fill out the frame around that structural romantic storyline, so that Amstrong’s take on the material is practically a hangout film as much as it is a costume drama. Like in the previous routine of adaptations, the major overhaul in Armstrong’s picture was in seeing up-to-date actors breathe fresh air into iconic scenes from the long-familiar source material. The star-power appeal of 90s-specific heavy-hitters like Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and baby-faced newsie Christian Bale is the major update to the source material in Armstrong’s adaptation, same as in the previous revisions. The only difference (besides sound & color no longer being new inventions) is in just how much that youth-culture casting was allowed to reshape the text.
In particular, Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March is the casting choice that really jolts Alcott’s writing into a 90s era sensibility. As a hopeless 90s Kid™ myself, my love for Winona Ryder as a screen presence predates even my earliest childhood memories – thanks largely to her collaborations with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice & Edward Scissorhands. I still wouldn’t exactly call her approach to acting “versatile,” though. Like fellow Gen-X icons Keanu Reeves, Christina Ricci, and Jeanine Garofalo, Ryder more or less always gives the same performance no matter the project; the trick is just casting her in the exact right role. The brilliance of casting Ryder as Jo March is that her schtick fits both the original profile of the character (a powder keg mix of dorky enthusiasm within her home & righteous disgust with the ways of the world at large) and is distinctly of her own time – effortlessly conveying a sardonic wit central to Gen-X cynicism. If nothing else, the way she rants about the ills of the outside world and indulges in oddball slang like “Capital!” & “Christopher Columbus!” from her writing desk can’t help but recall the parallel narration of Ryder’s career-defining role in Heathers. If Armstrong’s Little Women were made just a few years later it might have updated the setting around Ryder to 1990s suburbia, the way Emma was transformed into Clueless or The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. As is, Ryder is doing all of that modernization work herself, performing Alcott’s century-old text with a 90s attitude & inflection.
Greta Gerwig’s more recent, currently Oscar-nominated take on Little Women was much more stylistically aggressive in its attempts to modernize Alcott’s novel. At the very least, it doesn’t rely entirely on the 2010s indie darlings of its cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet) to do all of its heavy lifting in refreshing the material. Instead, Gerwig violently shakes the story loose from the page – assuming that audiences are familiar enough with the source material to appreciate it scrambled out of sequence. In her version, the audience is informed up-front that Jo turned down the well-off heartthrob next door, essentially stripping the story of its will-they/won’t-they drama to push through to other concerns. Instead of following a linear retelling of the entire novel, we watch an adult Jo from the second volume reflect on childhood memories from the first. Meanwhile, debates between Jo and her publisher in New York City prompt metatextual speculations on how, exactly, Little Women relates to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life and what biographical events may have been altered to please her own Male publishers’ demands – forever reshaping how the original text will be interpreted for the screen in the future. In many ways, this recent adaptation of Little Women is about the very act of adapting Little Women – a much headier, more exclusively cinematic approach to the material than the versions that preceded it.
The major narrative innovation of Gerwig’s take on this story is in how it makes the adult half of Jo’s story more compelling by drawing direct parallels to the childhood half. The most iconic, memorable episodes of Little Women tend to fall in its first volume, which captures an enduring portrait of girlhood that allows the work to resonate & reverberate from generation to generation. Centering this adaptation on the adult end of the book is a bold choice, then, but it unlocks a lot of the untapped power of that second half by making direct in-the-moment connections to events from the first. As Jo returns home from New York City to care for a sister who’s taken ill, the familiar sights & personalities of her hometown trigger memories of the book’s most iconic childhood moments, revealing the power of the novel’s bifurcated structure. It also frees Gerwig to pick & choose what parts of the story she wants to emphasize thematically. Gerwig shifts the core story from focusing on Jo’s possible romance with her neighbor to instead exploring her combative relationship with her youngest, brattiest sister. Gerwig also searches for the border between truth & artifice in Alcott’s source material and interrogates how outside influences may have distorted the author’s original vision. While most adaptations lovingly stage Alcott’s exact narrative for the screen, Gerwig’s actively interprets it and its legacy.
There’s a brief image of young children playing pretend as pirates in the March sisters’ attic that flashes in the last minute or so of Gerwig’s Little Women that I cannot stop thinking about. After Jo’s debates with her publisher call into question what “really” happened in her story vs. what literary tastes of the time dictated should happen, I couldn’t help but puzzle over what that image was implying. Was it merely a memory from earlier in Jo’s childhood play than what the book or its resulting movies cover? Was it an implication of how Jo’s published memoir would influence the childhood play of her readers? Or was it a vision of How Things Really Were, as opposed to the distorted version of Jo’s memory that we had been watching the entire film? I don’t really want an Answer to this query. The more important thing is just appreciating how the film’s metatextual self-examination had my mind racing in its final minutes to the point where I got hung up on what, like, three seconds of footage “meant” within the larger story. I really liked how Gillian Armstrong updated Little Women for Generation X by handing the source material over to one of the era’s most distinct personalities (namely, Veronica Sawyer). This latest adaptation from Gerwig is far more adventurous in its own modernization efforts, though. There’s no single image in the 90s version of Little Women that incites personal interpretation or extrapolation the way Gerwig’s film does, which makes the newer film not only more modern but also more outright cinematic.