Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Four Little Women and How They Grew

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” So Little Women begins on the page, and so previous screen versions have always begun: with the four March sisters lamenting the poverty they face while their father is off in the Civil War. One striking feature of Greta Gerwig’s new version is that it dares to break the mold and play with the book’s chronology.

Growing up I was a serious Louisa May Alcott fan. I read most of Alcott’s novels, which fall into the category you could call 19th century YA, and I later persuaded my kids (yes, my son as well as my daughter) to enjoy Little Women, as I had. More recently I’ve read Alcott biographies, and also the fictional March (about the Civil War escapades of Jo’s father), plus Anne Boyd Rioux’s scholarly Meg, Jo,Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. So I guess you could call me a true believer.
As such I’ve always been partial to the 1933 George Cukor screen adaptation, at least to Jo as portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. Alcott’s original description of Jo, her own literary alter ego, was that she was “tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way.” No other Jo in my memory comes so close to this physical description as Hepburn, and her striking combination of awkwardness, intelligence, and occasional pig-headedness makes her my nostalgic favorite. The 1949 musical version features, alas, June Allyson warbling about being “the man of the family now that Papa is away from home.” Allyson is just too cute and perky to be my Jo. In this iteration, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Janet Leigh makes a conventionally pretty Meg, Margaret O’Brien an appropriately fragile Beth, and Elizabeth Taylor  an extremely unlikely Amy, overgrown and wearing a distracting blonde wig. (Yikes!)

Hollywood then left the story alone until 1994, when an actual female director, Gillian Armstrong, took it on. Her version, much loved by many women I know, conveys a nice warm sense of family, presided over by a glowing Marmee (the mother character) in the person of Susan Sarandon. I’ve admired the young Claire Danes as Beth and the even younger Kirsten Dunst as a perfect snip of an Amy, though at 12 she could not play Amy’s later scenes and had to be replaced by Samantha Mathis. It all looks gorgeous but I just can’t accept Winona Ryder: too petite and too pretty to ever be awkward, intense Jo.

Greta Gerwig had the bright idea of focusing on Jo’s literary aspirations by starting the film near the story’s end, with Jo living in New York as a fledgling writer. Gerwig’s structure is complex, moving us back and forth in time. Uniquely, she focuses on a Jo who genuinely spurns marriage in favor of a career. How does she handle the fact that Alcott’s Jo does indeed fall in love and get married? There’s a clever twist I don’t think it’s fair to fully disclose; suffice it to say that this is the most “meta” of Little Women adaptations, so that the Jo we meet is in many ways Alcott herself, adapting her family’s story for popular consumption. Other virtues: Laura Dern’s Marmee and Florence Pugh’s Amy are far more complex than usual; Meryl Streep is a hoot as stern Aunt March; and Saoirse Ronan’s uninhibited romping with the boy-next-door, Timothée Chalamet, captures a delightfully warm relationship that  she cannot allow to ripen into love.

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