Alex Cohen, Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan attend the American Cinematheque Screening Q&A of Columbia Pictures'(Getty Images)
Alex Cohen, Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan attend the American Cinematheque Screening Q&A of Columbia Pictures'(Getty Images)

Essay: On Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation of Little Women

The sixth movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (first published in 1868), which released commercially on 25 December, incorporates contemporary feminist terms and expressions
By Vrinda Nabar | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 17, 2020 05:54 PM IST


The sixth movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women had its worldwide premiere at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on 7 December 2019, releasing commercially on 25 December, 2019. Wikipedia reports that as of 5 January, 2020 it had grossed $80.4 million globally and a recent NPR survey indicates its continuing global appeal in diverse formats: seven television adaptations of Little Women between 1939 and 1970 and four TV adaptations since, including two animated versions on Japanese television, a Broadway play in 1912, a ballet in 1969, an opera in 1998, and a Broadway musical in 2005.

Little Women was first published in 1868, its sequel Good Wives a year later. In 1880, the two novels were republished as one though they continued to appear separately as well. Alcott published a third book in the series, Little Men (1871), while the fourth and last (Jo’s Boys) appeared in 1886. The four March sisters Margaret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Elizabeth (Beth), and Amy are the little women who begin the first novel and the title denotes the conflicted period between girlhood and womanhood, something both the book and its recent movie adaptation highlight.

The title page of Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. Illustrations by M V Wheelhouse. (Getty Images)
The title page of Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. Illustrations by M V Wheelhouse. (Getty Images)

In its own time, Little Women was a runaway success. Building on the story of her own family, Alcott produced fiction grounded in the real world, foregrounding women without patronizing them. While domesticity remained central to her women’s lives, Alcott gave them a space within their daily grind and suggested that women need not be constrained by their limited choices. The idea that women could do something with their lives besides marry was new to America even though in another continent Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot had already debated these issues. Greta Gerwig’s recent film mentions the Brontës just as it incorporates contemporary feminist terms and expressions into its script, but in Alcott’s own time the choices allowed women were few and far from easy. Jo’s would-be publisher Dashwood is categorical about not allowing spinsters in his publications: a woman would have to be married, or dead. Dashwood mirrors the generally accepted view of the time, and the hotheaded, outspoken, impetuous, independent-minded Jo March who says she will never marry is easily the most radical of Alcott’s women. Jo has often been seen as Alcott’s alter ego – in the latest movie version she is even cast as the author of Little Women.

A reviewer has pointed out how Little Women was marketed as “A Very Charming Book For Girls” in the Chicago Tribune’s classifieds, promising something “fresh, sparkling, natural, and full of soul.” This early marketing puff was undoubtedly the work of Alcott’s publisher but she acknowledges her own complicity when she says elsewhere in her writing that she could not have afforded to starve on praise. Gerwig has cleverly plucked out this statement and given it to Jo March in the movie, thereby pinpointing the universal dilemma (more acute than ever today) of an artist in a market-driven world. This detail is worth mentioning because, as the feminist perspective evolved, Little Women was critiqued for valorizing values considered “womanly”. Yet, as feminist critics acknowledged, Alcott’s work was revolutionary precisely because it did not falsify her social context but worked through her heroines to voice her principal concerns.

Marmee (Mrs March), in many ways the proverbial “Angel in the House”, is factual about her failings and the temper she has struggled to control all her life. She ably supports her family during her husband’s absence, stressing the importance of charity, compassion, community service, simple living, and independent thought. “Never let the sun go down on your anger”, she cautions Jo – a phrase that impacted me in my own tempestuous girlhood, remaining stuck in my head all these years. Meg is clear that she wants marriage, her own home, domesticity. Gerwig uses such statements skillfully in the movie to indicate the shifts in the feminist perspective, the acknowledgment that freedom implies choices and that these choices can never be absolute. Under her direction Alcott’s self-effacing Beth becomes a presence whose expressive face reveals a great deal about her silences. But Amy is the real surprise, Gerwig transforming the seemingly vain, spoilt and petulant youngest sister into a mature realist, a facet hinted at in Alcott’s novel but unambiguously evident here.

Louisa May Alcott, author of (Getty Images)
Louisa May Alcott, author of (Getty Images)

Gerwig combines the novel’s 19th-century context with a contemporary perspective that allows subtle, relevant additions to the script. Friedrich Bhaer, whom Jo marries, is off to California because they are more welcoming of immigrants, while a black woman at a community centre tells Marmee brusquely that the Civil War has not changed what’s bad in the country. But not all Gerwig’s adaptations work satisfactorily, as happens with both Friedrich Bhaer and Laurie (the boy next door whom Amy marries). Alcott saw the shabby, unkempt and older Friedrich Bhaer as Jo’s soulmate because he went against the romantic grain, a viewpoint ignored by Gerwig whose Bhaer is undeniably handsome, quizzical and just “foreign” enough to sweep any woman off her feet. The handsome playboy Laurie never ages and lacks the dashing flamboyance and evolving maturity of Alcott’s original.

Read more: Feminist retellings of Hindu myth: Return of the Devi

Gerwig has been deservedly commended for adapting a beloved book not merely because it is beloved but because she has found in it something to say. She begins her movie midway, with Jo poised outside Dashwood’s door for the first time and follows this dramatic, unexpected opening with back and forth movements between the original fictional plot. It’s a move that has been severally lauded but one cannot help seeing it also as constraining the movie’s accessibility to global audiences. Contrary to what the Anglo-American world may assume, most of the human race did not grow up reading Little Women. While Gerwig’s method imparts a refreshing tempo to the plot it could prove an unfortunate stumbling block to the uninitiated.

Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
Author Durjoy Datta says the idea of love in his books has evolved over time. (Photo: Instagram/DurjoyDatta)
Author Durjoy Datta says the idea of love in his books has evolved over time. (Photo: Instagram/DurjoyDatta)

Durjoy Datta: Criticism used to bother me but now I don’t have energy for anger

By Mallika Bhagat, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 02:22 PM IST
The author popular for exploring romance genre talks about not taking criticism to heart, his ever evolving concept of love, and even shares some words of wisdom for the young writers.
Close
Women's Day: Reese Witherspoon shares this ‘illuminating’ book as her March pick(Instagram/reesewitherspoon)
Women's Day: Reese Witherspoon shares this ‘illuminating’ book as her March pick(Instagram/reesewitherspoon)

Women's Day: Reese Witherspoon shares this ‘illuminating’ book as her March pick

By Zarafshan Shiraz
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 01:03 PM IST
  • Ahead of Women’s Day 2021, Hollywood actor Reese Witherspoon shares an ‘exceptionally powerful and illuminating’ book as her March pick after launching a free app for her book club which celebrates ‘diverse voices that put women at the center of their stories’
Close
Priyanka Chopra shares her favourite books by women authors(Instagram/priyankachopra)
Priyanka Chopra shares her favourite books by women authors(Instagram/priyankachopra)

Women's History Month: Priyanka Chopra shares favourite books by female authors

By Nishtha Grover, Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 11:09 AM IST
  • Priyanka Chopra recently took to her Instagram stories and shared a few of her favourite books written by female authors in celebration of Women's History Month. Check out the list here:
Close
Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri (Mohit Suneja)
Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri (Mohit Suneja)

Essay: A tribute to Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri

By CP Surendran
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 04:30 PM IST
The work of the Malayalam poet, who died on February 25, invoked an inclusive democracy of kindness and of the coexistence of humans, animals and things
Close
Books on food nostalgia, the uses and excitement of lifelong learning, and colonialism feature on the list of recommended reads this week. (HT Team)
Books on food nostalgia, the uses and excitement of lifelong learning, and colonialism feature on the list of recommended reads this week. (HT Team)

HT Picks: New Reads

By HT Team
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 11:30 PM IST
Recipes, nostalgia, the art of picking up new skills, and an exploration of Britain’s strange collective amnesia about its colonial past feature on this week’s reading list
Close
Author Olivia Sudjic (Courtesy Bloomsbury)
Author Olivia Sudjic (Courtesy Bloomsbury)

Interview: Olivia Sudjic, author, Asylum Road

By Simar Bhasin
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 11:09 PM IST
The author talks about exploring self-destructive impulses and the myths of exceptionalism in her post-Brexit novel
Close
A picture, dated December 20, 2020, of a mural in New Delhi depicting the fight against the corona virus. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
A picture, dated December 20, 2020, of a mural in New Delhi depicting the fight against the corona virus. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Review: Covid-19: Separating Fact from Fiction by Anirban Mahapatra

By Sukumar Ranganathan
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 10:36 PM IST
Anirban Mahapatra’s book places the coronavirus disease pandemic in the context of the science of viruses and viral pandemics
Close
The book, titled "Dynasty to Democracy: The Untold Story of Smriti Irani's Triumph", traces Union Minister Irani's journey from her defeat in 2014 to her victory in the Congress stronghold of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.(Amazon)
The book, titled "Dynasty to Democracy: The Untold Story of Smriti Irani's Triumph", traces Union Minister Irani's journey from her defeat in 2014 to her victory in the Congress stronghold of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.(Amazon)

Book on Smriti Irani's victory in Amethi to release in English

PTI, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 04:57 PM IST
The English translation of journalist-author Anant Vijay's book "Amethi Sangram: Aitihasik Jeet Ankahi Dastan" will be released on March 15, announced publishing house Westland on Friday.
Close
Cecilia Ahern's book 'Roar' to be aired as female-driven dark-comic Apple series(Twitter/SairaHussain90/Cecelia_Ahern/delirium_nerd)
Cecilia Ahern's book 'Roar' to be aired as female-driven dark-comic Apple series(Twitter/SairaHussain90/Cecelia_Ahern/delirium_nerd)

Cecelia Ahern's book 'Roar' to be aired as female-driven dark-comic Apple series

By Zarafshan Shiraz
UPDATED ON MAR 05, 2021 01:02 PM IST
  • Irish author Cecelia Ahern's book 'Roar', which was a female-driven anthology of 30 short stories, to be screened on Apple TV+ as an 8-episode series starring Emmy and Golden Globe award winners Nicole Kidman, Alison Brie, Cynthia Erivo and Merritt Wever
Close
King, 77, will also write about her activism on behalf of women in tennis and beyond, and such private struggles as an eating disorder and acknowledging her sexual identity.(Amazon)
King, 77, will also write about her activism on behalf of women in tennis and beyond, and such private struggles as an eating disorder and acknowledging her sexual identity.(Amazon)

Billie Jean King memoir 'All In' to be published in August

AP, New York
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 10:52 AM IST
Billie Jean King has a memoir coming this summer, and she calls it a journey to her “authentic self.”
Close
As the warming world faces raging forest fires, rising seas and increasingly erratic weather, the United States has seen a boom in books about climate change.(Unsplash)
As the warming world faces raging forest fires, rising seas and increasingly erratic weather, the United States has seen a boom in books about climate change.(Unsplash)

Worried about climate change? There's a book for that.

Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 07:24 PM IST
Books titled “Trees in Trouble” and “How We’re F—ing Up Our Planet” scream out from the shelves of Barnes and Noble’s nature and wildlife section between reassuring tomes on hummingbirds and wildflowers.
Close
Ira Mukhoty at Bada Imambara on her recent visit to Lucknow (Sourced photo)
Ira Mukhoty at Bada Imambara on her recent visit to Lucknow (Sourced photo)

Ira Mukhoty: I want to talk about strong women of Nawabi era

By Deep Saxena
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 02:43 PM IST
Author Ira Mukhoty is researching her first book on Awadh. Having penned ‘Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History’, ‘Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire’ and ‘Akbar: The Great Mughal’, the Delhite spent about a week in Lucknow hunting down facts for her book.
Close
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021). (Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021). (Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons)

Essay: The importance of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

By Chintan Girish Modi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 02, 2021 05:38 PM IST
The courtroom drama around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), that focussed on the defence of free expression, provides a case study for contemporary writers, filmmakers, and stand-up comedians in other parts of the world facing censorship
Close
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu(Amazon)
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu(Amazon)

New book uncovers Indian mystery probed by Sherlock Holmes author

PTI, London
PUBLISHED ON FEB 28, 2021 10:27 AM IST
Arthur Conan Doyle was drawn to investigate just one real-life crime during his lifetime and it involved a British Indian man wrongly accused of a series of mysterious crimes in an English village in the early 20th century.
Close
On this week’s reading list: a portrayal of the publishing world in India, lessons from the unusual career of a civil servant, and a critique of illiberalism and violence in Indian politics. (HT Team)
On this week’s reading list: a portrayal of the publishing world in India, lessons from the unusual career of a civil servant, and a critique of illiberalism and violence in Indian politics. (HT Team)

HT Picks; New Reads

By HT Team
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 10:46 PM IST
This week’s list of interesting reads includes a satire on the Indian publishing scene, insights from the career trajectory of an atypical bureaucrat, and a critique of the illiberal forces that dominate our lives
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP