The classic novel “Little Women” has charmed America for over a century since its publication in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott. Since then, it has been adapted into several films — first in 1917, then in 1994 and finally on Dec. 25, 2019, retold by director Greta Gerwig. Each version attempts to show its own flair and originality to keep moviegoers engaged and excited, but the feat has proven to be difficult to accomplish as the story continues to be reimagined throughout the years.
As the film is based on a book, there is only so much a movie can accomplish before it strays too far from its original source material. So, in an effort to keep the integrity of the story intact while still being refreshing and new, the 2019 version attempts a different strategy by toying with the timeline of events. However, in doing this, the movie ended up being confusing and hard to follow, as scenes bounced around from the “present time,” 1868, to seven years earlier to years in between. For someone who hadn’t seen any of the earlier versions or read the book, the movie would’ve been difficult to follow.
The film also failed to establish deep, meaningful relationships and connections between the major characters. Headstrong Josephine “Jo” March, portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, loves her family and writing. In her younger years, she interacts with her three sisters, mother and childhood friend, Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence; when she’s older, she takes on other relationships like the ones with newspaper editor Mr. Dashwood and reserved Professor Friedrich Bhaer. There are a lot of relationships, but most of them feel very forced and undeveloped. Their relationships are told, not seen.
As soon as the movie starts, the audience is thrown into a scene of conflict between Jo and Bhaer. They immediately quarrel about Jo’s sensationalized writing because Bhaer says it doesn’t seem sincere, then the audience is transported back to seven years prior when the entire March family still lived in their parental home. The next time Bhaer is seen again is at the very end of the movie. The audience never sees why Jo fell in love with him — the only scene that explains why they had any feelings for each other is summed up in five seconds of eye contact as they pass each other in the entryway of Jo’s boarding house — making for an injustice for Jo. For the entire movie, Jo insists she’ll never find love, so the fact that Jo eventually did find love shouldn’t be diminished to a cop-out “love at first sight.”
The relationships between the sisters weren’t portrayed as real sibling relationships. There was lots of fighting, like when Amy burned Jo’s manuscripts because she was angry that she couldn’t attend the opera with her sisters and Laurie, but there was a lack of affection between the sisters. It seemed like the sisters were always smacking each other or retorting something under their breath but were rarely genuinely loving.
The movie also went overboard by making one particular love-triangle relationship much more complicated than it needed to be. Laurie had originally proposed to Jo, who turned him down. Then, years later, he ran into Amy in France, and they later got married. Instead of leaving the situation sensible, the movie goes on to show a frantic Jo deliberating with her mother about whether or not rejecting Laurie’s proposal was the right thing. After the discussion, Jo ultimately writes a letter to Laurie, accepting his proposal when he’s already gotten together with Amy (albeit unbeknownst to Jo). The entire situation was nonsensical, and too much time was spent dealing with it rather than developing actual relationships between Jo and Bhaer and Amy and Laurie.
The movie also throws out hints that Amy and Laurie wind up together, but does a poor job giving the audience a reason to root for the pairing. When Amy was younger, she draws pictures of Laurie and constantly talks about him. While drawing pictures is no crime, what is a crime is that the movie makes no effort to make Amy’s feelings for Laurie seem more meaningful than an artist’s attraction to an acutely arranged bowl of fruit. When she is older, Amy constantly berates Laurie for drinking, hanging around girls and not being serious about a career. In the end, the film fails to make it clear why Amy marries him.
Amy’s character is significant because the audience sees her grow up and transform from a 13-year-old girl to a mature 20 year old. Florence Pugh, who plays Amy, was tasked with portraying both young and old Amy — this proved ridiculous as she does not look the part of a little girl.
At one point, young Amy is in class and draws an unflattering picture of her teacher at the recommendation of her classmates. The scene is awkward, as it shows Pugh, who is 24 years old, surrounded by children who the audience are supposed to believe are the same age as her. Whatever the reason for this casting choice, it was not done well. It would have been much more effective to have two separate actresses depict Amy through her years, as it is done in the 1994 version, because the audience is then able to see her transformation from an immature girl to a refined woman.
As a whole, the movie isn’t entirely unbearable to watch. The redeeming components include the original score by French film composer Alexandre Desplat and the suspenseful final scene. The classical music fits each moment perfectly, increasing, anticipating and eliciting emotion when the event on screen calls for a change.
One of the most notable and well-executed scenes in the movie is at the very end of the movie when Jo runs after Bhaer as he heads to the train station to catch a ride to his new life and teaching career in California. Because the movie jumps back and forth in time, the final scene of Jo running to find Bhaer is interrupted with a clip of Jo sitting with the editor of a newspaper. He is reading her manuscript entitled “Little Women,” which is based on her life with three sisters. The editor tells Jo the heroine has to either end up with someone or die alone, but Jo makes it clear she finds that to be a ridiculous requirement. It’s at that moment that the audience is left wondering if Jo will actually end up with Bhaer. A few moments pass until it is finally revealed that Jo finds and embraces Bhaer at the station as it starts to rain.
All in all, it’s difficult for a remake to live up to its predecessors, but this version really missed the mark. Though it was entertaining, its jumbled, back-and-forth storytelling and lack of depth in many of the characters’ relationships make it difficult to envision as a timeless classic like the book is today.