Louisa’s take on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

The 2019 Alcott sisters from Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women

Alcott on Gerwig’s Little Women

Alcott on Gerwig’s Little Women

The author of Miss Alcott’s Email wonders what Louisa May would make of the new Oscar-nominated film adaption of her most beloved book.

By Kit Bakke

Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig lets her audience know right away that her adaption of Little Women will be a little quirky: She begins her film with a quote from the real Louisa May Alcott: “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” It’s our first clue that we’ll see plenty of the beloved Jo March character, but we’ll also see snatches of the real Louisa—two sides of a similar, but not exactly the same, coin.

As one of Louisa’s many biographers—albeit a quirky one, as reviewers of my Miss Alcott’s Email have noted—I was curious to know what Alcott would have thought about Gerwig’s film version of Little Women. Here’s my take on Alcott’s reaction, if she were able to watch this wonderfully delightful and evocative film.

Although Louisa would likely find the modern-day scene cuts a bit too jumpy for her Victorian story-telling tastes, I’m sure she would have loved picking out the bits where actress Saoirse Ronan was playing Jo and where she was “being” Louisa. In the real life story of the Alcott family there was no rich, spoiled, handsome boy named Laurie living across the way; there was no Aunt March and therefore no big house and no happy school; and though Mr. March was indeed mostly absent, he never went to war (but Louisa did go as a Union Army nurse).

On the other hand, there was a musical Beth (her real name) and she did die, most likely of scarlet fever; Meg (Anna in real life) did marry and mother two children; Amy (May in real life) did go to Paris to study art, but didn’t give it up—she did well, and had a painting hung in the celebrated 1879 Paris Salon before she died in childbirth later that year; and, of course, in the end Louisa stayed true to her beliefs and did not marry anyone. Sadly, missing from all film versions of Little Women, and from Louisa’s own book, are the Alcott’s exceptional actual neighbors and friends: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The parts of Louisa’s real life that sneak into this fictional film of a fictional story are telling and timely. For instance, when Marmee tell Jo that “I’m angry nearly every day of my life,” it rings totally true, as are all the lines sprinkled throughout about women’s lives, from Aunt March’s steely-eyed realism about women’s lack of occupational opportunities and the purpose of marriage, to all of Jo’s interactions with her condescending publishers. Louisa’s fierce loyalty and determination to earn enough to save her family from abject poverty is true and impossible to miss: Louisa hated being poor.

Louisa really did write in red hot streaks, as the Ronan’s Jo portrays. In particularly hot streak, working around the clock in the attic of the family’s Orchard House, Jo writes ambidextrously: when her right hand cramps up, she moves her pen to her left rather than stop writing. That was true.

Louisa left an unfinished story about two women named Diana and Persis. It was written for adults, not children. In the story she poses these four questions:

  1. Can a productive and creative single woman be happy?
  2. Can a married woman maintain her personal life and friends?
  3. Can women be both personally happy and professionally successful?
  4. Can people be happily married and still respect each other’s privacy and basic human rights?

These are all questions that were worth asking in Alcott’s day, and they’re questions still worth asking today—as Gerwig has, beautifully.

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