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The history of Little Women is kind of nuts…. Here is The Lois Level on the new movie and a lot of reading and video suggestions….
I recently went to see the new Little Women movie, and I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot. I liked the characterizations of the sisters and Marmee, particularly Laura Dern’s Marmee, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo, Florence Pugh’s Amy, and Eliza Scanlen’s Beth. I think Beth is the toughest character to get right because so often she comes across as sappy, but I really liked this depiction of Amy as well because it’s more nuanced than usual.
Little Women is also tricky because you know going into it that most of the audience has both read the book and probably, if they are fans, seen at least one of the films. The 2019 is the FIFTH version made for theaters (including the silent adaptation), and there have been at least two major versions made for television that are currently available.
I like the chronology for this version because the jumping back and forth in time offers a fresh point of view for those of us who know the story. One criticism I have of the first 20 minutes or so, however, is that it is definitely difficult for someone who does not know the story to follow, and even I was a bit challenged. I had not really looked at any trailers before hand, because I knew I wanted to see this film, and honestly having to deal with a blond Jo and only one Amy (usually the role is split between a child and adult actress) combined with allusions to the climax of the plot, when Laurie switches his romantic attentions from Jo to Amy, made it confusing.
But I quibble.
I liked that the altered ending brings the two sisters into the resolution of the story in that they help Jo “get her man”. I was laughing at the idea that Professor Bhaer must have been a professional marathoner to make it to the station so quickly, yet still be there by the time they had a chance to hitch up the horses, because if you spend any time around horses, you know everything takes forever with them, but there you are. I was ok with it because I got the point: they are sisters, and they help each other get what they need.
What bothers me about this film, however, is the artistic license that director Greta Gerwig takes when actually interrupts the ending of Little Women and undermines it by intermingling Louisa May Alcott’s “life” with the character of Jo.
I note that IMBD states that the plot “Jo March reflects back on her life…”, which apparently I missed at the beginning when I was confused, but given that, Gerwig takes too much artistic license with the facts of Louisa May Alcott’s life by implying that they ending of Little Women lacks merit, when in fact she doesn’t trifle with other aspects of the novel’s plot even when Alcott’s real life is much more interesting.
It’s embarrassing that a female director represents a book that ends in marriage as “less than” a book that ends with a woman working on their own. Each have their own merits, and frankly, I prefer the compromise Alcott came up with, which is giving Jo a marriage in which she is a partner. I’ve always thought that Laurie is better off with Amy while Jo finds the right man for her.
There is no reason that fictionalized versions of anyone’s life need follow the contours of the life that is depicted. That is the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
The second thing that bothers me about the depiction of Jo at the end is that events were NOT depicted as they actually occurred in Louisa May Alcott’s life. She wrote Little Women in the first place at the request of her publisher, not despite him. While he did pressure her to change the ending, the fact is that that plenty of authors make changes at the request of their publishers. I know I’m not supposed to think this, but I have always like the fact that Jo does not end the book alone. I think what Alcott did, if this relates to her real life at all, is writer herself the man she might of liked to have had but never did find. She gave herself a man with whom she shared interests and who was interested in her as a person. And we may miss this allusion in 2020, but prior to World War 2, Germans were also considered to be the epitome of culture and sophistication. The film makes a couple of remarks about his immigrant status, which true, might have made it harder for him to break into his profession, but his German nationality probably would have recommended him as a partner who would be the intellectual partner for Jo that Laurie never would be.
It’s ironic that the casting of the film made Laurie seem exceptionally uninteresting as a potential mate for Jo: he’s just too immature. While I found Louis Garrel’s Professor Bhaer pretty hot; he’s the one I would have wanted. I know Louisa May Alcott was NOT interested in running a school in real life, but I have always been attracted to the idea of running a business with a partner, and that is what Alcott wrote for Jo. Alcott may have been “forced” to change the ending, but what she came up with is really something I think many of us want: a partnership based on shared interests and mutual respect. A joint business venture that suits both is the cherry on top!
I’m disappointed that Gerwig can’t see the value in this and chooses to undermine the fictional ending with her interpretation of what Alcott would have wanted…and I question the accuracy of that given the known facts about Alcott and the writing of Little Women that Gerwig misrepresents.
What kills me is that some other things that Alcott changed about her real life, no one ever contests. Her father was kind of a lunatic and the family was half starved most of the time. That’s not in Little women; they are supposed to be poor because he is serving in the Army (as a chaplain). Louisa Alcott is actually the one who was a Civil War vet…she was a nurse, and she even wrote a book about it.
If I wanted to write a really good story of Alcott’s life (not Little Women), these are the points I would include:
1. Alcott’s father kept the Alcott family a few steps lower than the “genteel poverty” depicted in Little Women. They were often actually hungry and moved frequently.
2. Her mother “married down” to be with her father.
3. One of Alcott’s father’s money-making schemes was a school, so she does have some real-life experience with starting one.
4. Alcott’s mother worked as one of the first social workers to help support the family.
5. Alcott, not her father, went to the war. Alcott was the one who worked as a nurse and received medical treatments that compromised her health for the rest of her life, which would have earned her a basic pension in the 21st Century.
6. Alcott was an early suffragette.
7. Alcott’s family was friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, among others, in Concord, Massachusetts.
8. Alcott wrote Little Women as a part of a deal to get a book of her father’s published…her publisher wanted a “girl’s book”, not the other way around as presented in the 2019 film.
I would have liked Perfectly Miserable more if there had been less about Sarah Payne Stuart’s personal life. She tells waaay to much about her family and herself in a way that only serves to make herself look bad. She seems to think that she’s being self deprecating, but she actually seems pretty happy with herself while she basically does her best to mess up a privileged life. She spends most of the book talking down to residents of her native Concord when, if you ask me, she should be trying to emulate them. But then again, my own mother grew up in a town nearby, and it seems that even though I was born and raised in the South, I have a lot of Yankee in me. So I may be biased.
If you can deal with Stuart’s personal narrative, her reflections on the famous residents of Concord, including Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and most of all, Alcott, from the perspective of a native of Concord are interesting, especially her thoughts on Bronson and Abby (Marmee) Alcott.
Cover photo: John Phelan [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Alcott with curled bangs: https://www.flickr.com/photos/exit78/25668304114
Older Alcott: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Louisa_May_Alcott,_c._1870_-_Warren%27s_Portraits,_Boston.jpg
If you want to know more about the read Louisa May Alcott, check out these books about her war experiences.
P.S. I just love this portrait of Alcott. You can see the strength in that stare.
Marmee has got to be one of the most lovingly depicted characters in literature, which is probably why a whole book has been devoted to the relationship between Louisa and her mother.
I have always been a fan of her fictionalized account of a woman’s attempt to support herself in the 19th century…it makes me think of what Dickens would have written but from a woman’s point of view…and rest assured it’s a lot shorter than most of Dickens’ books.
The plot this novel, one of her more “pulpy” works, reminds me of the Brontes:
A fun, readable way to learn about the real family and more about the history of the book (s).
This graphic novel is popular, but I found it unreadable. Just too PC. Besides, as a former military wife, I found the depiction of a military family simply too unrealistic, and kind of demeaning, to modern military families.
Besides, when you’re dealing with Louisa May Alcott you can actually find biographies that have won awards. If you know someone who isn’t ready for Little Women (and really, it’s an adolescent novel more than a children’s novel), start him or her with this:
Or these, by Alcott:
And here we have the filmed versions of Little Women
PBS version. PBS/Masterpiece Theater/BBC versions tend to follow the books much more closely than films…partly because they are long enough to be able to and partly because their mission is different than commercial films.
A little-remembered (?) TV version with all of your favorite 70’s/80’s TV stars. Yes, that’s the Mom from “Family Ties”, Lori Partridge, and Jan Brady in there.
I’ve been to Concord, MA at least twice, and I recommend it for anyone who loves to read. Here are the highlights, and I don’t see anything about Hawthorne or Emerson’s homes.
America’s Magazine on Little Women and female empowerment…from the Catholic Church
For more reading options related to Little Women, from LitHub: The Ubiquity of Little Women: 11 Books Inspired by the March Family
If you need help choosing among the filmed versions, here is some guidance. There are also 2 silent versions, if you are really hard core.