[Spoiler Alert: If you’ve never read Little Women and are planning to see the recent movie, you may want to stop reading HERE.]
Over the holiday I saw the new Greta Gerwig version of “Little Women” based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Truth be told, I plan to see it again this week because it has mesmerized me with its plotting and viewpoint. The first time I saw it was a delight, but the second time will be a study of how she did it. As both a writer and a viewer, I am intrigued by Director/Writer Gerwig’s choice—to tell the story in a non-linear plot, and to breathe a more modern voice into the lives of the March girls. This movie is unlike any version of the classic you’ve seen or read.
If you haven’t read the novel, here’s a very brief summary. Four sisters in the March family—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, grow from adolescence to adulthood beginning at the time of the Civil War. Their Concord, Massachusetts house also contains their beloved mother and a housekeeper, but their father is off to the war. This is a financially strapped household, but that doesn’t keep Marmee, their mother, from teaching them about generosity and kindness. They grow to adulthood navigating the social constraints women faced in the mid-1800s.
Alcott’s novel opens with the famous line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” and proceeds in a linear fashion from the mid-1800s to their adult lives. But Gerwig turns this plot decision upside down, beginning the film seven years later when an adult Jo March is speaking with a New York publisher about her writing. She lives in a boarding house in the city and has met Professor Bhaer whom she will eventually marry. She doesn’t know that yet, but we do.
After this appointment, Gerwig crisscrosses back and forth with their younger lives in Concord. Back and forth. Back and forth. The New York Times review said it was as if Gerwig had carefully cut the book apart and put it back together in a different order. Like a book being stitched together—and yes, you see that too in the film—the viewers must pay close attention to the plot and which time period they’re observing. As a writer, this technique intrigued me.
Fiction writers deal all the time with what are called “backstory dumps.” How much of the past does the reader need to know in order to understand the plot and characters? Too much will bore the reader; too little may confuse her. Gerwig uses her back and forth plot to weave together the adult lives of the March girls with their pasts. She has a reason to do this as we’ll see.
Besides meeting Jo March in New York, we also meet a grown-up Amy studying art in Paris. She runs across Laurie, who was the March’s neighbor in Concord. We know she will marry him, but first we must go back in time and watch his earlier love, Jo March, dump him.
Meg March will end up with Laurie’s former tutor and, according to Aunt March, be doomed to a life of poverty. How did that happen when we saw her—in the past—go to a debutante ball and long for the life of beautiful clothing and handsome suitors? The back and forth scenes explain what happened.
Always there is the specter of the death of Beth March, the quiet, musical daughter, and that hangs over the scenes of the past like a dark cloud. We also see Jo’s desperate attempt to save her, and how Beth's death affects the family into the future. Time and memory is a complicated thing, isn’t it?
All these relationships play out in a world of gender, class, and time. This is beautifully displayed in the second literary technique I admired in Gerwig’s choices. As the publisher tells Jo, he can’t produce her book unless her heroine dies or marries—both of which seem to be weighed equally for women. Throughout the non-linear retelling, the question of a woman’s freedom, independence, and frustration with social constraints appears in many of the scenes. By using a nonlinear plot, Gerwig makes these points so clearly, and they resonate with the many decisions women must make for their lives today. This gives the movie a modern feel.
We already know the fate of each March girl, but by sewing the plot together with past and future intermingled, we see the “why.” We can sit back and consider how each of them responded to her place in a time when marriage was deemed an “economic necessity” for women, and a woman becoming an author was seemingly impossible.
Gerwig has used her decisions about plot and voice to delight us with the “becoming” of the four March sisters. Even the end of her movie is not an ending Alcott could have used—nor did she—but I believe she would have loved it.
Have you seen this movie, and, if so, what did you think?