Little Women (2019)
I cannot tell you how faithful Greta Gerwig’s new big-screen adaptation of Little Women is to Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic. I’ve never read the book. Nor can I tell you how it compares with previous adaptations, including the beloved 1994 film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Claire Daines, et al. I’ve never seen any of them. What drew me to this film wasn’t the source material or any respect for its cultural significance. What lured me in was Gerwig herself, whose brilliant directorial debut—2017’s Lady Bird—earned her enough creative currency in my book that I’ll watch anything she helms going forward.
Still, my wife snickered when I told her we’d be watching the film.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You’re way more of an Emily Brontë than a Louisa May Alcott, that’s all.”
I frankly have no clue what that means. But I do know this: If I honestly cared about organizing some personal ranking of the best films of 2019, Little Women would leave me scrambling to rearrange it yet again.
I think I can safely say that Gerwig’s film is structured very differently from Alcott’s book, if only because a novel written in such a temporally idiosyncratic way would read like James Joyce on a bad acid trip. The film follows seven years in the life of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen—but rather than following their maturation from adolescence into womanhood chronologically, Gerwig instead groups scenes thematically, jumping forward and backward in time with seemingly no rhyme or reason until you catch onto the fact that rhyme and reason are exactly what influenced the grouping of moments in time, rather than the straightforward passage thereof.
By taking this approach, Gerwig has constructed more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative, and it reminds me more of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in its pace and momentum; definitely not in its tone or effect) than perhaps any other film I’ve seen in recent decades. Much like that film, Little Women assumes the intelligence of its audience, and trusts the viewer to locate themselves in time and space by way of context. Only one subtitle early in the film calls out the drastic time shifts, and from there on out Gerwig seems to assume you’ll either keep up or give up and enjoy the ride.
Far more than merely a cinematic conceit, these near-constant temporal shifts allow the viewer to do something I honestly wasn’t quite sure I would be able to do at the beginning of the film: Truly understand the unique personality of each of the story’s numerous characters. By clumping the tale’s visual, thematic, and narrative echoes together rather than sprinkling them throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime, Gerwig invites us to ruminate more on meaning than exposition, more on character than narrative.
Again, I’m at a loss to compare the themes of the film to the themes of the book, but the story as Gerwig tells it is really about the creative impulse. The drive to make art. The struggle to be taken seriously not just as a woman in Civil War-era America, but as an artist in an inartistic world. In many ways, the film ends up being as much a commentary on the story as an adaptation of it, best I can tell. And while it also grapples with issues of class, gender, and societal norms—all with surprising nuance and complexity—it’s really that artistic impulse that centers the film and gives distinct personality to each of its characters.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Little Women is that it isn’t afraid to get a little weird at times. But it’s not a weirdness driven by affectation. Instead, it’s a weirdness driven by the needs of the story. As much as Gerwig’s film deviates from the structure of any comprehensible book to craft a uniquely cinematic work, it’s still in many ways a celebration of the written word. And in paying homage to the inimitable structure of written language, it relies on tropes that would normally drag a film down or cheapen it—like narration, for example. Rather than taking the safe approach or trying to bury that narration in the tried-and-true ways, Gerwig hangs a lantern on it at times and has her characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, even when they’re not speaking to the viewer.
Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but in Gerwig’s hands it does. And the cumulative effect is a film that’s as playful as it is heady, as sentimental as it is rebellious, as joyful as it is solemn in places. The one place where Gerwig doesn’t take bold risks is with the look of the film. I could have told you without looking that Little Women was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T stock, which gives the cinematography a decidedly warm cast, with a yellowish tint to whites
and a flush ruddiness to skin tones. But the overall look of the film is intentionally muted, and even the 4K/HDR presentation on Kaleidescape doesn’t make much obvious use of its expanded dynamic range and color gamut.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely film. Just not one that will be used as videophile demo material. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, on the other hand, is unapologetically adventurous. Shockingly so for a period film of this sort. The height channels are used judiciously but effectively to provide a vertical boost in scenes that need it—large parlors, big theaters, the grimy city streets of 19th century New York—but they probably get used most to expand Alexandre Desplat’s score (his best since The Shape of Water, in my opinion) into the z-axis.
Sadly, Kaleidescape’s release of the film is delivered sans extras for now, which is unsurprising given that it’s a Sony release. Expect those bonus goodies to drop right around the time the film is released to disc (Blu-ray and DVD only, no UHD) in April. One supplement in particular I’m eager to see is an exploration of Orchard House, the real-life home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women.
While I wait, I think I might actually give Alcott’s book a try based purely on the strength of this film alone, and despite my wife’s objections. As the credits rolled, I looked at her and playfully scolded her: “Why have you never pestered me to read that book?!”
She pondered for a few moments and replied: “Don’t get me wrong. I love the book. It’s one of my favorites. But the book wasn’t that good. It’s entertainment. That film was art.”
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.