If you grew up loving Little Women, as I did, there was one pretty much inviolable truth you lived with: Jo, the second oldest sister was the character everyone wanted to be. She’s fun and smart and so determined to be independent and become a writer that she rejects a marriage offer from her best friend, Laurie, the rich boy from next door.
This rejection scene is repeated in the many film versions of the book from Katharine Hepburn in 1933, to June Allyson in 1949, to Winona Ryder in 1994 — and it appears again in Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation as well, starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo. But producer Amy Pascal says Gerwig puts a new spin on a familiar story.
This adaptation, Pascal says, “takes all of that collective memory and our understanding of what Little Women means and then it says something very different.”
Pascal sees this version of Little Woman as a movie within a movie. It is the story of the four March sisters as told in the novel — but it’s also the story how of that book got published. The fictional Jo stands in for the novel’s author, Louisa May Alcott, and Pascal says the movie shows what Alcott might have gone through to become a writer.
“It’s a very interestingly subversive novel at the same time as being a sentimental novel,” Pascal says. “It tells you what you can be if you are a woman. It tells you: There’s a chance for you to have more.”
Jo’s story dominates Little Women. But each of her sisters play a crucial role in the narrative. Meg, the oldest, is Jo’s confidante. Shy, sensitive Beth is the most beloved. And spoiled, vain Amy is her nemesis. She commits the most heinous act of the book when, in a fit of anger at her older sister, she burns one of Jo’s manuscripts.
No one, it always seemed to me, would ever want to be Amy — not so, says Pascal, who has a special connection with Amy.
“I always identified with Amy because Amy speaks her mind,” Pascal explains. “Amy says whatever she thinks regardless of whether you like it or not — and she knows exactly what she wants.”
The Amy in Gerwig’s movie is a revelation. The spoiled girl becomes a savvy young woman. And when Laurie, her sister’s spurned lover, criticizes her for contemplating a marriage to a wealthy man, Amy tells him exactly what is expected of a woman in her society:
As a woman there’s no way for me to make my own money — not enough to earn a living, or to support my family. And if I had my own money — which I don’t — that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children they would be his, not mine – they would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.
It is not just Amy whose role is elevated in the film — Gerwig set out to make each sister’s story stand out. Everyone relates to a different character in the book, Pascal says, and “Greta did a beautiful job of making all of these girls as complicated as Louisa May Alcott wanted them to be.”
In this Little Women, the March sisters enter the 21st century without losing any of their 19th-century charm.