Little Women breathed life into the women of the 19th century and changed the very concept of women in literature forever. In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), the Victorian Era novel is treated almost as a modern teen coming-of-age drama, yet it is still most definitely a period piece that follows the book loyally. Tackling something this culturally significant is ambitious, especially with this being Gerwig’s third time as a director, and, on the whole, this adaptation does well with doing this novel justice and making the story of Little Women accessible to a modern audience. This accessibility, though, is what gets in the way of making a film that could have otherwise been great only good.
Greta Gerwig has perfected the art of capturing the attention of artsy teenagers, and although that worked well with Ladybird (2017), in Little Women, this becomes distracting, specifically in two areas: the acting and the timeline. A good majority of the actors did exceptionally well with their roles, especially Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Florence Pugh (Amy March) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth March). Their performances felt natural and appropriate for the time in which they were capturing, and their accents never faltered. Ronan and Pugh played their roles beautifully, with Jo and Amy’s conflict threading the story together and creating heart-wrenching turmoil. Timothée Chalamet (Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence) and Emma Watson (Meg March), however, felt as though they were a part of a different era. Chalamet treated his role as Laurie as a sort of “Riverdale”-esque teenage heartthrob, while Watson did the exact opposite, and played Meg underwhelming and forgetably.
The timeline of the film as a whole, though, is what caused this adaptation to fall flat. Gerwig made the creative choice of skipping around in the story: hopping between the past and the present, which would have worked well if not for the massive shift in tone. When we’re in the past, the tone is warm, welcoming, and happy; when we’re in the present, the tone is cold, dreary, and melancholy. Moving between these two time frames at the rapid rate Gerwig set made me unsure of what exactly I was supposed to feel at any given time. The scenes that were meant to tug on heartstrings did just that, until we are brought back to the warm and joyful past. This might have been an attempt to emphasize the bittersweet nature of the story, but I just felt unsure of what the tone was supposed to be.
Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women from book to screen is well done on a written level, though its visuals lack the vibrant, yet soft-toned colors depicted in the trailers released earlier in 2019. Most of the film is inside of the sepia-toned March home, and although this subtle sepia undertone works exceptionally well with scenes filmed outdoors – especially on the beach and when Amy is out in a lush, green field with Laurie – these brown tones “suck out” any of the color that could have been. Because of this, a good majority of Little Women lacks any visual interest.
Greta Gerwig has definitely made a name for herself as someone who is ambitious and unafraid of taking on challenges that carry monumental cultural weight. Little Women (2019) is just that: ambitious, and although there are some issues that prevent this film from being as good as it could have been, this adaptation provides some retrospect in a time where looking back on how we’ve grown is important and comforting.