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Greta Gerwig’s on-screen Little Women takes themes from the classic book, and adapts them to the lives of modern women so beautifully – a must watch on Prime Video.
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic by the same title was released in December 2019 and created quite a stir for its performances and the narrative style.
And, was I impressed? YES, a big yes there. As a woman, I felt elated watching this movie.
Simply put, Little Women is the ‘coming-of-age’ story of the four sisters – Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth in their teens, growing up within the confines of a close-knit home with their mother, suffering the financial constraints during the American Civil War times.
Just like Jo’s ambition for writing, Meg is inclined towards acting, Amy loves to paint, and Beth is passionate for music. Apart from pursuing their passions, the elder two sisters contribute towards household income in addition to the allotted chores at home.
As for Marmee, she continues her philanthropic endeavours without questioning her husband’s decision to leave his family for the war, or sob her way through for his return. The key to Marmee’s role is her involvement as the ‘Mother’ in molding the girls to understand right from the wrong, to make them empathetic and hard working. And, yet make time for what they want to do.
Meryl Streep as Aunt March is perfect as the adamant old woman believing in uplifting a family’s prosperity based on economically viable matrimonial alliances.
This wealthy fussy old woman living alone in a mansion reminded me of the resentful Miss Havisham from Dicken’s Great Expectations. In the book, the girls are fond of reading and enacting the Pickwick club from ‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Dickens. So, probably Alcott remodeled her version of Miss Havisham in Aunt March. Estella as Miss Havisham’s perfect prodigy gets a twist in this variation. Aunt March gets her first pick with Jo, who reads to her and aspires to go to Europe in return. In Jo’s opinion, Europe is where the opportunities exist for her. But Aunt March’s view on marriage is not acceptable to Jo which leads Amy to overtake her place.
The opening scene establishes the strength this movie draws from its portrayal of Jo – as a strong woman – working as a teacher and a writer in New York City. The story then takes a seven-year leap back in time. We are introduced to the young Josephine who would rather want to be a boy or at least have a boy’s name preferring to be called ‘Jo’.
Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan, earlier credited for her role in Lady Bird. And, she is fabulous as this headstrong, stubborn, and passionate character.
Why is Jo’s character so important?
Jo has shades of Alcott’s own story. This makes the movie even more interesting; you are a witness to Alcott’s passion for writing through Jo and her struggle to get published in a male dominant writing arena. Jo is never inclined to explore a love-relationship with Laurie, March’s next door wealthy eligible neighbor. She would rather toil hard and become a writer than find a rich husband for life’s comforts.
Why is Little Women an important milestone in feminist narratives?
The more popular female narratives are stuck with the idea of alienating every homely trait from feminism. Little Women integrates love and marriage with economic independence.
Even better, it bestows the liberty with the women to choose either of the two, just as Jo’s decision.
In the movie, Florence Pugh plays Amy’s character. Amy is the pampered, spoilt child of the March family but there is one scene where she confronts Laurie in Paris that elevates her. Laurie questions her decision to marry a rich man in Europe, for making marriage an ‘economic proposition’, contrasting it with Jo’s idealistic approach, even using harsh words. But Amy shatters all preconceived notions about her, the shell of a selfish girl and delivers the monologue on the practicalities of life.
Amy questions –
~ Do women have a way to make their own money? (this is in keeping with the society and times when it was published).
~ And, if somehow a woman did make her own money, wouldn’t that belong to her husband after marriage?
~ The children born of a marriage would be their father’s if the woman ever separated from the man. So isn’t marriage an economic proposition?
I felt this dialogue was so intelligently incorporated, especially when juxtaposed with Alcott’s choice of ‘Little Women’ as the title. Little Women is what Mr. March fondly calls his daughters, a very paternalistic name, making him the focal point of the story, and naming them after his words. It isn’t Marmee or Jo or the March girls but about the father’s ‘Little Women’. Ironic!
‘Little Women’ doesn’t shy away from the natural, normal envy amongst girls or siblings, the desire to own a pretty dress, or to look beautiful at a party. There is honesty in Meg’s envy and yearning to own a beautiful dress.
I was not so sure if Emma Watson could play the elder sister in the story but she does bring in her beauty and poise. You could feel the disappointment in her eyes at the inability to buy expensive dresses or groom herself like the other girls in her circle.
The movie, though, would want you to think beyond the norm so there is Laurie’s disapproval of Meg’s transformation into a silk-clad ‘Daisy’ from a simpleton. I could see a parallel to the Cinderella story here. I mean you don’t always need a fairy Godmother to win over a Prince. The Prince will rather be smitten by the virtues of a girl, needless to say, the girl in the movie being Jo.
One may argue Meg bore nothing but misery in marrying a man for love rather than economic prosperity. But, she doesn’t regret her choice.
Meg’s perspective contradicts the popular feminist notion. She establishes pride in wanting to have a family and sacrificing work over love. In another scene, Jo accepts the need for love in her life; I felt this candid confession went a long way in establishing that to marry is not subordination of one’s independence or the pursuit of a career.
In one of the scenes, Jo tells her mother, whom the girls lovingly call Marmee, “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 beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.”
Gerwig took this quote not from Little Women, but from another book by Alcott titled Rose in Bloom and made this such a natural outburst in the movie.
Heartbroken Jo begins to write, spreads out the sheets of her book on the floor before compiling it for the publisher to review. The publisher wants Jo to have a happy ending to the story, one where the heroine is married. Jo replies, ‘If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it’.
Once accepted for publication, Jo watches over her book getting into the printing press, with the final red-cover cloth jacket covering the copies with ‘Little Women’ embossed on the gold circle over the cover. So, Jo breaks Amy’s assertion of marriage as an economic proposition.
‘Little Women’ is like a hand-out for women to follow their hearts and pursue their passions without undermining either of the two paths – Work and Family. On both fronts, a woman’s contribution is immense. If not for Marmee, the four March girls wouldn’t have led a happy and contented life.
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