In breaking down Greta Gerwig’s new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to its individual components, the natural starting point for evaluation is the faithfulness of the adaptation. Alcott’s novel made its bow a few decades before there even was cinema, and it was already a beloved standard when director Alexander Butler became the first to bring it to the screen, in 1917. It has been made over and over again, by formidable figures such as George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, and Gillian Armstrong. By official count, Gerwig’s version is the seventh to grace movie theaters, and it comes at a time when there is arguably less patience for taking liberties with the classics in adaptation. Fidelity is a selling point, and Gerwig is remarkably true to the book, often pulling dialogue verbatim from Alcott’s pages.
And yet Gerwig’s Little Women is also immediately notable for the way it scrambles those pages. Alcott follows strict chronology in moving through the story of the four March sisters and those in their orbit, making one sizable leap forward in time at the halfway point. Gerwig moves back and forth between the two major time frames of the novel, finding the characters alternately in the throes of childish impulse and easing into the demands of young adulthood. Other cinematic storytellers using such a device often scramble events according to where they believe the dynamics of the plot best suit the needs and interests of the audience (when Tarantino has done it well, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume 1, this is what he’s pulling off). With Little Women, Gerwig instead does it by feel. She might be shrewd and tactical in her decision-making, but the effect is to swoop scenes together according to their defining emotions. It’s easy to believe that the film is assembled the way Gerwig holds it in her heart, reconfigured after years of rereading and internalizing.
As much as the film feels like a pure expression of Gerwig’s relationship with the book, her enthusiasm manifests in a way that is expansive and generously collaborative. She assembles a wonderful cast and creates the room for them to incisively build the characters. Gerwig’s Lady Bird lead, Saoirse Ronan, has the plum role of Jo March, and works marvels with her adeptness at shifting back and forth between bravado and vulnerability, and sometimes showing how both divergent sensations exist in the same space at the same time. Eliza Scanlen captured Beth’s decency and fragility, Timothée Chalamet aches through the slow growth of next-door dreamboat Laurie, and Tracy Letts is vividly alive in a small role as Jo’s publisher. More than anyone, though, Florence Pugh commands the screen, playing Amy with a stirring forthrightness and blazing creativity.
Every scene is staged with an easy deftness and beauty, which builds up the internal credibility of Gerwig’s approach to the narrative until she takes an especially ingenious pivot in the closing scenes. Little Women, Gerwig’s film, is truest to Little Women, Alcott’s novel, by operating in a sort of dialogue with it. The movie ends as a celebration of storytelling itself, a testimony to the specialness of the original work. In doing so, Gerwig solidifies the certainty that she, too, is an uncommonly talented creator. Gerwig’s work is also destined to thrill, inspire, and endure.