One can groan about the debased state of Hollywood but despite the relentless assembly line of blockbusters there are always new productions that shore up one’s faith in the cinema. The big surprise is that some of these films are re-makes of beloved golden oldies. I say “some” because the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, for instance, was a debacle of titanic proportions.
The only justification for making a new version of a classic movie is to make something better. Bradley Cooper achieved this feat with A Star is Born (2018) – a palpably superior product to its three (or four) predecessors. The nostalgists will always hold a candle for George Cukor’s version of 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason, but when I watched that movie again it felt boring, overlong and disjointed.
With the appearance of a new version of Little Women, scripted and directed by Greta Gerwig, I thought it worthwhile to plunge into the archives once again. The classic rendition of Louisa May Alcott’s novel was also directed by George Cukor. Made in 1933, this horribly cheerful movie stars the one-and-only Katharine Hepburn in the central role of Jo March. Although anything with Hepburn is worth watching I’m bound to say she’s the only good reason for returning to this film.
There is also a 1949 version, directed by another Hollywood stalwart, Mervyn LeRoy, which stars June Allyson as Jo, and a gorgeous, nubile Liz Taylor as Amy. Another highly professional, light-hearted production, this film ticks the boxes for nostalgia and entertainment, but merely skims along the surface of the story.
I haven’t seen Gillian Armstrong’s well-received treatment of 1994, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t improve on Cukor and LeRoy yet fall short of what Gerwig has achieved. It’s significant that the two most recent adaptations are the work of female directors because Little Women is a great proto-feminist fiction too often presented as sentimental, ‘heart-warming’, family fodder.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-88) was a storyteller and an intellectual – a contemporary of the New England Transcendentalists and a student of Henry David Thoreau. She held progressive views on most subjects, and never felt compelled to marry. The character of Jo, who sets her sights on a career as a writer, was largely a self-portrait. Indeed, most of the characters in Little Women were based on people in the author’s life.
To tell this tale for the umpteenth occasion, Gerwig has taken the daring step of exchanging a conventional linear narrative for one that jumps around in time. We begin in the era of the Civil War, with Jo (Saoirse Ronan), trying to sell a story to a publisher in New York.
Almost immediately we find ourselves in Paris, with Jo’s sister Amy (Florence Pugh) and her Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who encounter a young neighbour from home, ‘Laurie’ Laurence (the ubiquitous Timothée Chalamet). We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal of marriage – a scene that doesn’t occur until a late stage in the book.
Soon we are back at the March residence in Massachusetts, in earlier days, with Jo and her three sisters – dull and dutiful Meg (Emma Watson); spirited and selfish, Amy, who aspires to be an artist; and placid Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the baby of the family, who is devoted to the piano. They share the house with their adored mother, whom they call Marmee (Laura Dern). Husband and father, (Bob Odenkirk) is away with the Union army.
This may seem confusing to those who know the story well, but it’s that very familiarity which has emboldened Gerwig to mix up the time frames. The narrative zig-zagging is risky but it succeeds in adding layers of significance to each scene, compunding rather than diffusing expectations. For those discovering the story for the first time it adds an element of mystery that removes the plodding inevitability of earlier versions.
Cukor simply threw away incidents that Gerwig transforms into dramatic coups. The scene, for example, in which Amy sets out to “hurt” Jo for a perceived insult, is completely omitted from the 1933 film. In the new version it plays a crucial role, emphasising that Jo and Amy are antagonists and rivals, with opposed ideas about a woman’s lot in life.
The abiding issue – as it was for Allcott – is the ability of an intelligent and talented woman to forge a career for herself, without succumbing to social pressures to be a wife, mother and homemaker. Amy is an accomplished painter, but cynical and pragmatic in her views. Jo is a headstrong idealist, seemingly destined to repell those men who are attracted to her energy and intelligence. Both accept that marriage is an economic proposition. The question is: “Can it also be a romantic one?” They have before them the discouraging example of Meg, who falls for John Brooke (James Norton), an impoverished schoolmaster. Is love any compensation for lifelong indigence?
Saoirse Ronan throws herself magnificently into the role of Jo, displaying a vulnerability that makes Katharine Hepburn’s version seem almost brutal in comparison. The other standout in an all-star cast is Florence Pugh, who captures Amy’s coquettishness, but also finds a tough, stubborn streak in her personality. Pugh is perfectly cast, blending cuteness and grit into a character of genuine complexity.
Among Gerwig’s other bravura acts is the transformation of Jo’s admirer, Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), from a German comic turn into a smouldering hunk of French sex appeal. She presents Laurie – to great effect – as a louche, troublesome delinquent rather than a bumptious rich boy. She includes a lot of excellent classical music in the soundtrack, making these Marches seem a cut above the crew who creak out Abide with Me in Cukor’s film. Finally, she makes the movie into a kind of meta-fiction, as Jo becomes the author of Little Women, the story we have just been following.
In doing so she creates a parable of female self-fashioning – or perhaps that should be “self-reliance”, to use the term made famous by the great Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. There can be few directors that have pierced so deeply into the heart of a book known to everyone but so often misunderstood and under-estimated. If a classic is a work of art perpetually renewed for each generation, this version of Little Women speaks with a passionate voice to a country in which the painful divisions of the 1860s may soon need to be healed all over again.
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Written by Greta Gerwig, after a novel by Louisa May Alcott
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper, James Norton
USA, rated G, 135 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 January, 2020