"We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers... What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?" - George Elliot, 'The Mill on the Floss'
We begin with Jo March standing at a door, her back to us, in silhouette. It's almost like the beginning of a play, a moment of stillness and anticipation before the action begins and our hero steps into the light. You can feel her - and the film - holding its breath.
There is something so indescribable about Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel 'Little Women'. It's a feeling almost beyond words; a warmth deep in your heart that rages and smoulders and burns eternal. These kinds of films are special, the kind that participate in how you navigate the world, not just for their considerable artistic merit but for what they say about the human soul, the human condition. I remember seeing 'Little Women' for the first time, my breath catching moment after moment at the intelligence and life-affirming generosity of it. By the end - and by the end of every subsequent viewing - it has reduced me to tears of joy and left me feeling that little bit better about the world, that something so beautiful can still exist in it.
Adaptation is such a tricky business, especially when a work is as beloved and as often adapted as this. The question asked with every adaptation must be why now, why this work and what can a further visiting of it offer that we haven't had before. In her screenplay, Gerwig answers all these questions immediately. By dismantling the chronological structure of the novel, mixing the timelines and moving ecstatically between the two, 'Little Women' becomes a vital conversation between the past and the present of the March sisters and particularly Jo - a conversation between innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood, hope and loss, life and death, defined by nothing less than time itself. Beginning with the sisters in adulthood, their childhood then becomes context, almost a ghost, and the two are given greater weight and power. It's a quietly radical conceit on Gerwig's part, not because of the possible confusion it could cause (her direction easily solves that) but in how it reframes the story itself, forces us to look at characters and scenarios that are familiar on a cultural level in a whole new way. Even for me, who had not read the novel or seen other versions, could hear the conversation, understand and marvel at the intelligence of the structure and the endless gifts it offered.
In a way, the fact that 'Little Women' has been adapted so often works in Gerwig's favour - when there are so many versions already, why not try something different, why not do something radical? Hers may be the finest choices of any film adaptation of any kind in years, with strokes of simple and staggering genius. Classics are not works that should be left intact as sacred relics. They are classics because they speak to us across time and culture. Adaptation is our way of speaking back.
In Gerwig's hands, as both writer and director, the film and its characters sing. With all the structural work done in the screenplay, she does exactly the right thing as director and trusts to it, allowing her direction to follow her gut just as she did with 'Lady Bird'. The film embraces its period setting and yet lets it breathe, loosens itself, finds precious moments of spontaneity. It moves with insane electricity, even when characters are standing still, and every frame crackles with energy, with immediacy, with desperate and infectious vitality. It even sounds gloriously alive, the constant sound of the bickering March sisters becoming a symphony of sibling love and rivalry, rendered exquisite when silence drops in like a stone.
That infectious energy and sense of play spread through the remarkable cast, and between them - Saoirse Ronan as Jo ('Brooklyn'), Emma Watson as Meg ('The Perks Of Being A Wallflower'), Florence Pugh as Amy ('Midsommar') and Eliza Scanlen as Beth (TV's 'Sharp Object') - they capture that aspect of sibling and sisterhood we often take for granted - that to be a sibling is to know someone down in the depths of your marrow and yet to be so different as to be divided by a chasm. At any given moment, you can cross it instantaneously or find such a task impossible. Each performance is superb in its own way, especially Pugh, but they simply wouldn't work without the other. Even the decision to have them play both the younger and older versions of themselves is a beautiful one, helping to further ground the shifting timelines and their connecting communion, but also to allow the actors to demonstrate consequence of action and experience across time. Perhaps some people might find this unrealistic or distracting, but once again, when other versions exist, why not try something new?
There is still the question though of why - if there are so many tellings of this story, what does another version of 'Little Women' serve? The key is once again in Gerwig's approach, and the point where the film ascends to something truly special. At its heart, her 'Little Women' is the story of being alive, of finding where you fit in the world when age and experience bring you to a point where redefining it is inevitable. Our past is the story of who we are and who we will become. As Jo goes to face the devastating truth of Beth's mortality, with all four sisters separated by geography or circumstance, she turns back to her anchor, that which she knows. Between Gerwig, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and editor Nick Houy, that journey is made visual. The past shimmers with the glow of an open fire, with the warmth of rose-coloured glasses, the comfort of memory and the known, while the present shines like winter sunlight on fresh snow, cold and sharp yet clean, full of possibility and the unknown. Moving between then is the iconography of a life, physicalised in Jess Gonchor's production design and Jacqueline Durran's Oscar-winning costumes, evolving in meaning and potency from childhood to adulthood, some slowly fading into the background with others suddenly bursting into life. "I miss everything," says Jo to Beth about their childhood, their days in the sun, and even we the audience long for those moments, so much more certain than Jo's present, her ailing sister and her regret at the loss of her relationship with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, 'Call Me By Your Name'). But as she reaches a place of understanding, where the lessons of the past inform the future, the film shifts again into the tentative light of spring, of new life and new starts and the freshness of a blank page. One should not spend their energy living in the past, but instead seek to understand it.
'Little Women' is the story of being alive, of finding where you fit in the world when age and experience bring you to a point where redefining it is inevitable.
Great adaptations not only come from a place of respect but a place of love. It's that love that allows Greta Gerwig to interrogate a novel she adores, to ask questions of it, to understand why it endures and to demand to know what it can say to us now. Even her bookending of it is a reclamation for Alcott, an acknowledgement of her legacy and the power of her work. None of that intelligence and daring matters though if the film itself is no more than an intellectual exercise. At its best, at its sublime and ecstatic best, 'Little Women' is a powerful, emotionally overwhelming and deeply beautiful experience, one that speaks directly to that voice in all of us that seeks direction and to be heard, especially those to whom literature and culture and society have been neglectful. It is a film that will endure because of its humanity, its generosity, its spirit and its love. We are in the midst of a new American classic, a masterwork that will only grow in beauty with each passing year.
We end with Jo March, standing at a window, her now printed book in her hands. Between its covers is all she is, all she was and all she will be - all the love and loss, all the pain and sadness, all her hopes and her dreams, the summer days and the firelit nights, those she has loved and those she has lost and those she has found anew. To live is to survive, but also to dream, to lose and to break and to love, and to tell the story of being alive. Her book is the story of a life, her life, the lives of her and her sisters, the little women she has shared it all with, and as she clutches it to her chest, this little stack of binding and pages sewn together, she knows in her heart how just how precious such a life is.
PICTURE AND SOUND
This Blu-ray release offers 'Little Women' a gorgeous 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. The delicate beauty of Yorick Le Saux's cinematography, shot on 35mm film, is beautifully preserved here, the preserved grain adding to the deep organic textures of the image. There are moments of inconsistency in the image, but these are artistic choices rather than technical faults, and part of Le Saux and Gerwig's engagement with the shifting language of memory. The important use of colour is also preserved, and the transfer really blossoms as the film moves from the present to the past. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is also superb and surprisingly powerful, energetically bursting into life with the first arrival of Alexandre Desplat's wonderful score. You don't expect a track this punchy for a period film, but it helps to build the strong sense of place and immediacy so important to the success of the film.
The film comes with a small but solid set of well-produced extras, featuring interviews with all of the major cast and crew. They include:
- 'A New Generation of Little Women' (12:52), which looks at Gerwig's approach of giving the story a modern energy, the considerations and justifications for staging another adaptation, how Alcott's own life informed changes in the adaptation, and a look at each of the main characters.
- 'Making a Modern Classic' (9:02), an overview of the creative and technical side of the production, including how the design of the March house was informed by Alcott's own family home, the remarkable visual dramaturgy woven within the costumes, how the decision to shoot on film was informed by the photochemical process of photography of the period, and how the lighting achieved the kinetic energy in the cinematography.
- 'Greta Gerwig: Women Making Art' (9:22), which focuses on Gerwig, her relationship with the novel both as a reader and in the adaptation process, how it is for her about women, money and art, the bookends of the film and her almost-musical directorial approach, only making you admire and love her even more.
- 'Hair & Make-Up Test Sequence' (2:58), gorgeous raw footage of pre-production camera and design tests set to Desplat's score.
- 'Little Women Behind the Scenes' (3:25), a quick overview of the making of the production, most of the material repeated from the other featurettes.
- 'Orchard House, Home of Louisa May Alcott' (10:07), an introduction to Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts from Executive Director of the house, Jan Turnquist, and how much of the novel is based on Alcott's own life and family.