Little Women (2019)


Food:  Recently went to Goodnight Sonny for brunch. It has a really tasty brunch menu which still embraces the French cuisine elements, but also serves omelettes, french toast and yogurt. The atmosphere is lovely and the servers are typically friendly. The biggest downside is that, for brunch, compared to other local spots, Goodnight Sonny doesn’t offer any brunch deals (i.e., bottomless mimosa, 2 for 1, etc.).

Film: Following up Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” she chose to bring back to life an old classic for her next feature film. A story that many have grown up with, each character resonating in the hearts of those young and old, she brings us a new adaptation of the beloved “Little Women” (2019) with an impeccable cast and even a new twist on the ending.

“Little Women” has been adapted for the screen many times – but, most notably, with Katherine Hepburn in 1933 and Winona Ryder in 1994. With each re-telling, different parts are hashed out or brought to light. Most versions set their focus on Jo March as the prominent perspective. She is the heroine. But Gerwig’s version looks back to the story found within the book, which equally fleshes out each of the March sisters, depicting them as women of the same background, with some similar ideals, but varied personalities, all trying to find their place in the world.

The most significant character update was Amy March – thanks to Gerwig’s writing and an especially attuned performance by Florence Pugh. Amy of the past adaptations was seen as the youngest sibling, leaning into every stereotype that offers. She was bratty, attention seeking and naive. This Amy still fits every line with perfect delivery, but despite hearing them a thousand times before – “Jo, your one beauty!” –  they sound anew. Now we see that Amy is as ambitious and determined as Jo. She has a quick wit and a spirited approach to everything she does, dreaming of becoming a world renown painter, and wanting to experience everything.

The biggest difference in the end is that Amy yields to logic with an understanding that she can best pave her way in the world this way, as opposed to Jo’s mullish drive to be an author over anything else. With this revised understanding of both of these characters, their bond feels all the more powerful. They are reflections of each other and their boisterousness is a welcome complement to their other two quieter sisters.

Emma Watson plays a convincing Meg and Eliza Scanlen (You saw her in “Sharper Objects”) is efficiently sweet and quiet as Beth. Complete with Timotheé Chalamet as the beloved neighborhood boy, Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmie, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March (also with some unexpected performances from Bob Odinkirk, Chris Cooper, and Louis Garrel), the whole piece is well-casted and thoroughly enjoyable.

*Spoiler Alert*

Of course, Greta Gerwig’s clever take on the ending has people talking the most. First off, it is important to understand some of the context behind the endings of the past and why anyone ever felt the need to change it. Many audiences felt that Jo and Laurie made an idyllic match, and were short changed when she turned him down, never to look back. Further, she goes on to marry an older German professor by the name of Fredreich Bhaer, who even author Louisa May Alcott has admitted was an “odd match.” This is because supposedly, Alcott never wanted Jo to be married in the first place. She was pressured by publishers to make Jo fall in love, writing in her diary at one point, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.” After publishing the final version, where Jo marries Bhaer, Alcott writes to a friend (circa 1896), “Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.”

In this ending, we meet Bhaer at the beginning of the story, in her present day life. They seem to take notice of each other, and he is drawn to her intellect and unapologetic determination. Not to mention, he is not an elderly German man, but an attractive young French professor. This, I thought, was a great way to prepare the audiences for the passage of time, building their relationship in the foreground and placing her and Laurie’s rightfully in the past.

However, that is not all. Once we’ve reached the end of the film, Bhaer finds his way to the March family home, impressing the whole pack and making Jo giddy. Suddenly, we flip to a new scene entirely. Jo is no longer running after her beloved Fredreich, but instead, she is sitting in her publishers office, discussing her new book.  Her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) wants her to end the novel with Jo married. Jo negotiates for the book’s copyright and a larger percentage of the royalties, retorting, “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.” After an agreement was reached, we see the ending play out the way it did in the age-old story: Jo is wisked away in a lovely kiss under an umbrella with Fredriech, who she weds, and she inherits Aunt March’s estate, choosing to open it as a school for children. In a flash forward to an “alternate Jo,” she proudly watches the print and publication of her book, “Little Women” stamped with the author J.L. March.

It is a wink and a nod. It’s Greta Gerwig’s creative ploy to give audiences both endings at once, in hopes to finally “do an ending [Alcott] would have liked 150 years later,” adding if we can’t, “we’ve made no progress.” Further explaining, “the hat trick I wanted to pull off was, what if you felt when she gets her book the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed? So it’s not girl gets boy, it’s girl gets book.”

However, one could also argue that by giving this meta-ending, you also deliver no concise ending at all. Using non-linear storytelling for the rest of the piece works because it is clear. It uses the past to help dictate the present, and vise versa. But with this ending, the film is suddenly convoluted. Which Jo is the real Jo? What was her real ending?

Additionally, some disagree that Louisa May Alcott wanted Jo to be a spinster after all. As a 30-year-old Jo notes in the book’s final chapter, “The life I wanted [as a child] seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now.” One of the most impactful elements to the story of Jo, and also the story of “Little Women” is that we may never achieve the precise goals we had when we were young, and life is an ever-evolving narrative that requires our ability to ebb and flow with it. Jo’s redirection was a source of comfort for many readers throughout the years, proving that when one door closes another opens.

The success of the ending is subjective. Gerwig’s approach is well-researched, perceptive and sharp. It is a clever homage to not only this classically told heroine, but also her maker. It is, unfortunately, confusing without context, which could end up hurting the film for some viewers. “Little Women” as a film and as an adaptation, overall, is an unparalleled version of this long-told story. Each character is brought to life with a messiness and energy that resonates down to the core. Outstanding!

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