The recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women had potential. Right from the start, Gerwig makes it clear that her adaptation will be different from its predecessors.
She starts with lively music and Jo negotiating a deal with a male publisher. She chooses this over the traditional opening scene of quiet domesticity in which the four sisters sit by the fire on Christmas Eve. Gerwig wants you to know that outside the March household, Jo is her own person. But in doing so, she begins to equate capitalist individualism with the concept of a ‘Modern Working Woman’.
In the book, the March family lives in poverty in New England, but Gerwig’s Little Women doesn’t have an appetite for the greys of poverty. Instead, the March household is perennially bathed in warm golds and the Marches themselves look angelic in their cotton nightdresses and artfully tumbling ringlets. The March family’s relative lack of wealth comes across only in dialogue and the one scene where Meg plans to wear the same dress, the whole day.
Alcott’s Jo is a feminist hero. She writes Jo to understand that ‘marriage to a good partner is a blessing’ and ‘it isn’t necessary for a woman to be married’ are not contradictory statements. Gerwig prefers Jo to be alone, rather than fall into the interdependency of marriage, even with a good man. The rushed and comical romance of Jo and Professor Bhaer is a product of such thinking, in the film.
Gerwig admits to drawing from Alcott’s other work and adding her own flourishes to it. A monologue by Jo goes something like this, “Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for”, this is embellished with: But I’m so lonely.
By adding the lonely bit Gerwig attempts to create solidarity between Jo, living ahead of her time and women today, feeling what Jo felt decades ago. But she only succeeds in creating a feeling of isolation. Here once again, the capitalist incursion of Gerwig’s feminism comes to light- where anger becomes sadness and individuality becomes loneliness.
Being a woman is being angry all the time, especially in the 19th century, and Gerwig seems to understand this. She includes a conversation on anger between Jo and Marmee in the film. Jo blames her temper for Amy’s drowning accident and confesses to Marmee that her anger scares her sometimes.
‘I’m angry nearly everyday of my life’, Marmee replies.
What is an excellent buildup toward a conversation on latent anger of mothers, is missed. Instead, she chooses to immediately douse this with a wet blanket and restore an ‘All is Good’ sentiment in the narrative. The whole point of Little Women is the fact that ‘All is Not Good’.
As a result, in the film, Jo’s anger at the world comes across in short bursts, instead of the continuously burning fire that it is. Marmee’s confession of being angry all the time is further talked about in the book where she tells her daughters, “I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips, and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked.”
The point is not about Marmee being angry all the time. It is the suppression of her anger, because it’s what is expected of mothers. In the film, when Aunt March taunts Marmee about her husband having given away all their wealth to charity, she is forced to put on a holier than thou act. Who would be happy with their partner giving away family wealth to charity, without ensuring their own comfortable existence first? But a good mother doesn’t think such thoughts, much less be angry over them.
It is clear that most days Marmee just wants to scream but Gerwig beatifies her into the Virgin Mary archetype.
Other times, the film remains chained by the text when radical improvements could have been made. On Christmas morning the Marches aglow with moral goodness sacrifice their breakfast for the Hummels, their destitute neighbours. They are in turn rewarded for it by their rich neighbours, the Laurence family, with a breakfast grander than the one they had sacrificed. Such performative philanthropy could have been avoided.
Another instance is Laurie and Meg’s exchange during a ball. Meg is offered a splendid, new dress by her friend to wear for the evening, she also wears rouge. Meg is happy, having only dreamed of such finery. Laurie enters and looks at her choices with disdain. Meg’s ambitions are different from Jo’s, a sentiment she beautifully expresses on her wedding day to Jo, ‘Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they are unimportant’. But we are to expect such understanding from Jo, not Laurie. Why? Because she is a woman and he is not.
An empathetic Laurie, in this scene, would have been refreshing.
Apart from the movie’s fallacies of sometimes adhering and other times disregarding the book, Little Women will be one of the whitest movies you have seen, at least in recent times. The movie’s approach to the historical context that the book is set in can be best described as a white girl claiming ‘she was born in the wrong century’.
It reeks of privilege.
In the 19th century, white women were tolerated by white men and permitted the basic dignity of at least struggling for equal rights, it was not so for black women or any people of colour, for that matter. History -as we know it- has been selectively recorded and perpetuated by white people. It is important to look at our history from a different lens and show this perspective in cinema. Although Gerwig attempts to add a few lines in the dialogue about the race issue at the heart of the American civil war, it is simply not enough.
Either you show history in its entirety or you create a movie that disregards race in its casting, something that has been exemplified in the recent broadway musical production of Hamilton.
Critics have dubbed Gerwig’s Little women as revolutionary, it may have been a decade ago, but in this economy- it is sorely lacking.