“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” begins the first line of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women—words that can be seen in close-up, being copied out in looping 19th century script, at one point (not the beginning) of Greta Gerwig’s very 21st century adaptation. Glad tidings for audiences who, like the book’s tomboyish protagonist Jo March, might be grumpily anticipating a holiday season devoid of pleasures: Gerwig’s first film since her solo directing debut, Lady Bird (she had previously co-directed a movie with Joe Swanberg), arrives as a present in itself. Set to roll out on Christmas Day, as crammed with gorgeous movie stars in luscious period costume as a fruitcake is with candied nuts and cherries, this is the kind of holiday blockbuster that would likely haul in the seasonal family crowd even if it weren’t hugely entertaining—as it is—and didn’t seal the deal on Gerwig as a major new filmmaking talent—as it does.
A case might be made, as it was by someone I watched Little Women with (my second time through, his first), that this adaptation is too gauzy, too cozy, too concerned with dresses and crushes and girlish hijinks, for a story that hinges on such serious subjects as a father away at the battlefront or the lingering illness and early death of a beloved main character. Then again, let it be noted that the person making that objection was a man, and one who—I’m going to go out on a limb and wager, like most dudes—did not grow up with the book imprinted on his brain the way generations of American girls have done for a century and a half.
Gerwig’s choice to keep the film focused on the sometimes comically petty troubles and triumphs of a quartet of squabbling Massachusetts sisters is a purposeful gesture, and a pointedly political one. In fact, late in the movie, three of the girls—bookish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), marriage-and-motherhood-minded Meg (Emma Watson), and artistic and ambitious Amy (Florence Pugh)—have a conversation that touches on exactly this point. Discussing the content of Jo’s latest writing project—the book that, in the last scene, will turn out to be Little Women—they differ over whether what Jo dismisses as the “domestic joys and struggles” of their everyday lives could ever be the stuff of literature. “Writing doesn’t confer importance. It reflects it,” Jo observes. “I don’t think so,” objects Amy, ever eager to spar with her older sibling. “Writing things is what makes them important.”
Wildly successful upon its original publication as a two-part novel in 1868 and 1869, Little Women did indeed “confer importance” on its humble subject matter. Its popularity led Alcott to write a series of sequels about the March girls’ married lives and the fates of their children, and helped to start a whole new publishing category of fiction written specifically for adolescent girls. And though some feminists disparaged it in its time for concentrating on matters of home and family rather than imagining radical new social roles for women, Alcott’s semifictionalized autobiography has lived on as a strangely timeless feminist text. I read it so often in middle school that the book—a pleasingly solid hardcover edition, bound in rough-woven blue fabric—could fall open to any page and I’d reread the rest from there. My daughter loved a chapter-book retelling of the story as an early reader, but could never make it through Alcott’s original. I suspect the dense Victorian language and lengthy digressions about Christian allegory seem less worth the struggle to a 21st century child with, let’s get real, a wider choice of entertainment options after school. But even in the retold version, she immediately grasped the archetypal simplicity of the story: four sisters, each of a contrasting character type, navigating the rocky shoals of late girlhood and early womanhood together under the guidance of their legendarily forbearing mother, Marmee—in the book, a “stout, motherly lady” dressed in an “unfashionable bonnet,” and in the latest movie … Laura Dern.
Alcott’s story has a long history on screen as well. In addition to two silent versions, both now lost, there was George Cukor’s sparkling 1933 adaptation with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, which won an Oscar for best screenplay, Mervyn LeRoy’s lukewarmly reviewed but very successful 1949 remake with Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Amy, and Gillian Armstrong’s fondly remembered 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, and Kirsten Dunst. But no Little Women movie until Gerwig’s has pulled off the feat of finding just the right actor for nearly every role. Hepburn, for example, made a convincingly fiery Jo, but Douglass Montgomery as her neighbor, best friend, and eventual suitor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was something of a damp rag.
All the Laurie-and-Jo shippers out there will be pleased to know that Timothée Chalamet, he of the bladelike cheekbones and elfin-yet-lanky grace, is the most perfect Laurie who ever Lauried. There’s an unaffected playfulness about him, a spontaneous sense of mischief that made his connection with Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name not just electric but believably affectionate. His chemistry with Ronan is less overtly sexual—fittingly for a storyline in which Jo resists Laurie’s romantic advances, then has second thoughts—but the two share a coltish energy, teasing and tumbling with each other like a pair of young animals. Chalamet also gives Laurie an air of sheltered rich-kid indolence that contrasts with the March girls’ buzzing middle-class industriousness; no one can throw himself sideways across a piece of furniture and lounge like Timothée.
Ronan, who played Gerwig’s autobiographical alter ego to perfection in Lady Bird, suits the restless and rebellious Jo to a T, even if, like Ryder and Hepburn before her, she’s far too good-looking to be the sister who describes herself with a straight face as “homely and awkward.” Allowing for the generous beauty upgrade that’s perhaps inevitable in a $40 million Hollywood film, what Ronan so deftly conveys in the character—aided by Gerwig’s sensitive script—is above all Jo’s writerly ambition, as glimpsed in the ink-stained fingers that fidget anxiously through the film’s first scene. This Little Women is framed by two conversations at a New York publishing house, where the editor of the Weekly Volcano (Tracy Letts, dry-humored and mutton-chopped) has it out with Jo over whether, under what name, and, eventually, for how much money to publish her stories. The way Jo has changed in those scenes between beginning and end—at first timid and modest, later sure enough of her worth to bargain for copyright ownership and more cash upfront—doesn’t need to be emphasized with dramatic close-ups or pointed lines of dialogue. It’s one among countless details that the director, who generally keeps the camera at a graceful medium-shot distance from her subjects, trusts the viewer to notice.
Gerwig chops up the timeline of the novel like a chef demonstrating her knife skills. Rather than starting with the Marches as young teens and following them through adolescence, she begins with the girls at a later stage, just beginning their independent lives: Meg is a young wife and mother, trying to curb her taste for new silk dresses to stay within the budget of her poor teacher husband (James Norton). Jo is living in a New York boardinghouse, tutoring for a living while she tries to make it as a writer. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), her heart weakened from a bout of scarlet fever some years earlier, lives at home with their mother and servant Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell). And Amy is on a tour of Europe with the girls’ rich and disagreeable Aunt March (Meryl Streep, resplendent in dowager finery). Once we’ve been introduced to the basics of their lives in this time frame, we’re whisked back to seven years earlier, when all four girls were living on top of each other in their threadbare but comfy Concord house.
This temporal scrambling is hard to follow at first—at least one important plot twist is revealed before the characters involved have made their first appearance on screen—but once you learn the visual language of the two worlds, it becomes easy to move in between past and present. Gerwig uses these time hops, among other things, to point up emotional “rhymes” between past and present: An event that’s funny or maddening on first occurrence becomes nostalgic or painfully reminiscent the second time around.
On the off chance that you don’t know what becomes of the principal characters in Little Women, I’ll leave off the story description there. This is a story that hinges on things like the location of a missing glove or the embroidery on a pair of slippers as much as it does on seismic changes in the characters’ lives. As Amy, a character who begins as the quintessential pesky younger sister and matures into a thoughtful and self-possessed young woman, Pugh nearly steals the show in a series of very funny scenes that showcase her physical comedy chops. She’s not afraid to show the pettiness of Amy’s small vanities while allowing her basic decency and love for her family to shine through. Casting the lesser-known Eliza Scanlen as Beth amid this pack of high-profile actors was a low-key brilliant move on the director’s part. Her lack of an off-screen star persona suits the character’s shyness and avoidance of the spotlight.
Really, there’s no such thing as “stealing the show” in an ensemble piece like this. Every small role features an actor who’s arguably overqualifed for the job: Bob Odenkirk as the girls’ father, French heartthrob Louis Garrel as Jo’s romantic interest at the boardinghouse, Chris Cooper as Laurie’s indulgent and softhearted grandfather. You will notice that all three of the small roles just cited are for men; though Little Women takes place in an unapologetically feminine universe, it treats its male characters with generosity, never painting them (even Letts’ hard-nosed publisher) as sexist villains.
Even more than the novel, Gerwig’s adaptation functions as a piece of metafiction—or, to be more precise, a poioumenon, the rhetorical term for a work of art that tells the story of its own making. The leather-bound edition of Little Women that serves as the movie’s opening title, its red leather cover stamped in gold with the name “L.M. Alcott,” reappears in identical form at the end—all except for the name, which has become “J.M. March.” And though it’s tricky to get into the details without spoiling, there’s a hint in Jo’s last scene with the publisher that the ending of her own story as we’ve just seen it may not match up 100 percent with the ending of the manuscript she delivers. In a movie that’s all about female agency and the importance of owning one’s own story—in both the emotional and financial senses—that shift from object to subject, from character to author, is key.
This luxuriously appointed film, with autumnal-hued cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, a lush score by Alexandre Desplat, and brilliantly detailed costumes by Jacqueline Durran, is a big step up in scale for a writer-director who got her start in the freewheeling world of low-budget indies. Seeing her pull off a grand period drama with such confidence, humor, and style leaves you with a sensation not unlike what Jo March must be feeling in the film’s final scene, as she watches while her first book is printed, sewn, and bound, a tiny smile playing on her lips. I can’t believe it’s all finally happening, her face seems to say. I can’t wait to see what comes next.