When it was announced that Greta Gerwig was following up her autobiographical triumph Lady Bird with a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a classic novel that had been transferred to the screen many, man times before, it seemed like a retreat from personal filmmaking into the comparative safety of plainer prestige fare. A fresh pass at the material perhaps required some sharpness of eye — an imperative to find some new element to justify the umpteenth screen version of the story — but a straightforward approach was sure to yield easy rewards. As has been previously established in very good films, smartly assembling a cast of newer faces was novelty enough given the sturdiness of the original tale. That kind of flat-footed reticence clearly isn’t part of Gerwig’s being, though. Little Women proves decisively her ability to make any work purely, perfectly, blessedly her own.
The story of the March sisters is familiar and yet utterly remade in Gerwig’s film. In a simple stroke of brilliance, Gerwig undoes the straight chronology of Alcott’s novel, opting instead to pendulum back and forth between girlhood and the growing weight of adult concerns. The approach deepens the characters while offering the gentle reminder that a person ultimately remains the same throughout their lives, personal growth a refinement rather than a transformation. With greater daring, Gerwig also folds Alcott’s own experiences into the film, taking the obvious avatar that is Jo (played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan) and making the association explicit. The choice allows Gerwig to adhere to the novel’s published ending and nod to Alcott’s artistic preferences that tilted in the opposite direction, all with a flourish of cinematic construction that lovingly spoofs Hollywood’s usual depiction of romanticized acquiesce to society’s norms.
Every choice Gerwig makes with her Little Women honors the novel she grew up with, and that’s especially true of the most radical changes. That includes the more overt assertions of feminist commentary, especially the contextualizing speech given by Amy (the peerless Florence Pugh) when challenged about her calculated views on marriage. She treats Little Women not as an artifact, but as a living, thrilling work of art that has endured because of its ability to speak to readers across generations. Gerwig doesn’t simply adapt Little Women. She revives it.