Women’s Empowerment Month: Little Women (2019)

CONTRIBUTING WRITER
DILSIA MARTINEZ / Lady Geek

As an avid lover of period pieces I relish the opportunity to revisit literary favorites on film. That’s what geeks do! So a few months ago when the latest adaptation of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, became available to me — I watched it — despite the fact that I was initially put off by the casting of non-American actors.  Of course, those that know Lady Geek intimately would recognize that one reason alone wouldn’t stop me from indulging in yet another costume drama and a cup of tea!  I have to say I LOVED Greta Gerwig’s Little Women film adaptation. 

Read on to find out, why in a deep field of period pieces, it’s worth watching.

Little Women, like the novel written in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott, follows the lives of four sisters: Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth March, growing up in Massachusetts during the time of the American Civil War.  Their father is away serving the Northern armies. Their mother, whom they call Marmee, is left to survive as a single parent in times of great financial hardship for the family and the community at large. 

In the story each of the sisters possesses unique personality traits that shape their life goals and aspirations as they develop from young girls into women living in 19th century America. The first part of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women was such an immediate and lucrative success for both the author and publisher that a second part was added in 1869. The two parts in its entirety were published as one work in 1880. 

So beloved is this literary work that Little Women has been interpreted in film seven times, two of which were produced during the silent age of film, a British version in 1917 and an American interpretation in 1918. The first talking film of Little Women was released during the Great Depression in 1933 and starred none other than Katherine Hepburn as the principal character, Jo March. 

So compelling is this story that another film was released in 1949. This MGM Classic is jammed packed with the “hot” stars of the era.  June Alyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy,  a young Margaret O’Brien as Beth with none other than the heartthrob, Peter Lawford as Laurie. Little Women has also been adapted for TV multiple times as a movie, a mini-series and has been interpreted as a radio drama, dramatic play, and musicals. 

The common thread of themes woven through this work of art include: coming of age, pressures in socio-economic status, gender equality, and romance.  Like all the film adaptations of Little Women the novel is loosely based on the lives of the author, Louisa May Alcott, and her sisters.  In fact, librarians refer to this work as a semi-autobiographical piece of literature.  Yet, I think that Greta Gerwig’s adaptation best captures this notion of the autobiography of a young girl evolving into womanhood in 19th century America in a way that is extremely honest and relevant today.  

As a lover of period pieces and a total geek, I have seen most versions of this work of art except for the silent era films which have been lost to posterity. My favorite up until now has been the 1994 film, Little Women directed by Gillian Armstrong, starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Despite Gerwig opting to cast non-American actors to portray these young American girls, this movie adaptation is fresh and engaging. 

Emma Watson portrays the eldest sister Meg who desires to fit in with those in the upper class. She falls in love with her friend Laurie’s tutor, John, and sacrifices the desire to better the station of her family for true love.  Beth March is portrayed by Eliza Scanlen who represents the daughter whose life is precariously at risk because of poverty and poor living conditions. 

Florence Pugh is refreshing as Amy March, the sister that is in hot pursuit of improving her economic status through marriage.  This fresh take on Amy catches the reality that as a woman, she is powerless. “Well, I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman.  And as a woman, I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family.  Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married.  If we had children they would belong to him, not me.  They would be his property.”

  Wow! Just wow!  It is surprising that the clear depiction of what it means to be a woman in the 19th century is summed up by Amy! 

Saoirse Ronan, captures Jo’s outspoken uneasiness about the patriarchal society in which she lives, leaving her at a disadvantage simply because of her gender.  She resents that being a female she cannot fight in the war, but is relegated to sucking up to her rich Aunt March to help her family or have to find a husband of means to make ends meet. 

Jo’s independence is evident when she leaves the love and comfort of her home to pursue her life’s goal as a writer in New York City.  In the end, Gerwig chose to end this film keeping the author’s personal life trajectory front and center.  Jo successfully stands up for herself and negotiated the terms of her book’s publication with copyright and royalties.  Way to go, Jo!

Gerwig’s reimagined version of Little Women doesn’t cut out the beautiful and sweet intimate family moments that makes it a timeless story.  In fact, she is able to weave those touching family moments beautifully throughout this piece.  For instance, when the family wakes up Christmas morning to their one special meal in a time of scarcity only to find that Marmee wants to teach them a lesson about the real meaning of Christmas. Marmee persuades the girls to give their breakfast to Mrs. Hummel and her starving children. 

The scene of the girls confronted with Hummel’s poverty and their humble living conditions softens the hardest of hearts. I do say, they should’ve brought old Aunt March along with them. These emotionally-driven scenes, the beautiful cinematography, the costumes, and art direction are outstanding.  So, too, is the script that captures the uniqueness of four sisters sharing stories, talking over one another and even when bickering and fighting — giving this film the heart that was thoughtfully intended by Louisa May Alcott. 

It is no wonder that this film, although the 7th adaptation, garnered 6 Oscar Nominations including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures for its Original Score.  The film won the 2020 Oscar for Best Achievement in Costume Design.

So Yes! Readers it’s worth the watch!

2 thoughts on “Women’s Empowerment Month: Little Women (2019)

  1. Kind of fitting that this review was posted on mom’s birthday. She’s the reason we grew up loving these types of movies. As girls we watched the 1978 Little Women mini-series starring Susan Dey as Jo and would you believe William Shatner as Jo’s love interest, Professor Bhaer. We simply loved the story! Mom was a huge movie fan and introduced us to all the great classics including the 1933 film with Katherine Hepburn and the 1949 film with June Allyson. Thank you mom!

    Liked by 1 person

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