“I miss everything.” So says Jo March at a central moment in Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women. Having just been asked if she misses an estranged lover, the firebrand character’s response is a rare moment of vulnerability. Her words make it clear that she longs for much more than lost affection; she yearns for a life she no longer lives.
Gerwig surely had no idea how prescient this desire for connection would become shortly after the film’s late 2019 release. By the time it hit home media in April 2020, most of the world had been thrust into the midst of a COVID-19 induced quarantine. Though this pandemic is 150-years removed from the movie’s 19th century source material, Jo’s experience of overwhelming loneliness is timeless. After all, Louisa May Alcott’s novel has not once gone out of print since its first volume was published in 1868.
Little Women tells the story of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and her sisters Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Meg (Emma Watson) coming of age in New England against the backdrop of the Civil War. Gerwig, pulling double duty as the film’s writer and director, looked to Alcott’s life as the inspiration for her script. Any viewer familiar with the author, who never married or had children will see in Jo March that same spirit of independence. Yet Gerwig takes a microscope to Jo’s radical nature, exploring how her path to a liberated adulthood is filled with loss, both familial and romantic, while essentially asking if independence can even exist without isolation.
Unlike the 1868 novel, Gerwig introduces Jo and her siblings deep in the throes of their adulthood. The film begins with Meg happily married and with a family of her own; Beth is nearly bedridden, weakened by complications of scarlet fever; and Jo has become a writer in New York City. Jo keeps the family afloat with her earnings as Amy studies art in Paris. This is in sharp contrast to the novel’s straightforward framework, which charts the linear growth of the March sisters from a hijinks-heavy adolescence.
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Speaking to IndieWire, Gerwig notes that the film’s new bifurcated arrangement is meant to emphasize the creeping loneliness of the book’s plot. “They’re never all together again, not the four of them,” she said, “Once they are in their separate lives, that’s it. I found that unbearably heartbreaking. I thought, ‘Oh, the thing you miss is already gone.'”
To simplify this dramatic restructuring for viewers, which methodically flashes backward and forward throughout its runtime, Gerwig distinguished each timeline through color choice and camera movement. While the lensing of the sisters’ adolescent years is glowing warm orange and constantly in motion, the scenes set years later are static and coded in a muted blue. Cutting between parallels in the plot adds a new perspective to each character’s arc, but also highlights the crushing loneliness that permeates into adulthood. By starting on Jo’s gloomy later life in New York, even the sunniest flashbacks feel as if our protagonist is reckoning with her current circumstance, only finding peace in the memories of her bustling childhood home.
However, by starting her story in New York, Gerwig also emphasizes Jo’s true love: writing. The very first scene introduces Jo to a curmudgeonly publisher who cuts down her work but offers to buy short lurid stories at a fraction of what he would pay a man to do the same job. Jo takes umbrage with the edits, identifying the hypocrisy in selling scandal but objecting to an unwed female character on moral grounds. This ethical judgment is nothing more than a disapproving male construct, which in the 1860s is practically the law of the land. Later, when Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), a male acquaintance, chides Jo for wasting her talents on lurid tales, she realizes there’s no winning and decides to return home with her bruised ego and conceded dreams.
Unlike Amy, who falls back on her femininity, or Meg, who finds stability in domesticity, Jo forgoes a spot in a society she disagrees with. Instead, writing allows others to see the world through her eyes. While Bhaer’s honest criticisms sting at first, the deeper pain comes when Jo realizes that she no longer connects with her work, and neither do others. After New York, a sickly Beth asks Jo to write something for her like she did when they were younger. “I don’t think I can anymore,” she says, “It’s just, no one even cares to hear my stories anyway.”
Though her bond with the introverted Beth seems to be the strongest, Jo finds a sense of community in siblings. Growing up in a small northern town without a fully functioning school leads each sister to take up their art: Meg acts, Jo writes, Amy paints, and Beth plays piano. Together, they perform plays for their parents and family friends. Their futures look limitless, and in Jo’s mind, they’ll always be together. The restructured story, cutting when the past and present appear to sync, hits hardest when challenging that spirit of youth, as nothing in these golden scenes will remain this way forever.
Then there’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), the rich boy-next-door that young Jo meets hiding away at a local ball. A dandy foil to Jo’s more outgoing tendencies, the two bend societal expectations all the way down to their reversed-gendered names, and take solace in each other’s acceptance. Laurie is also the initial signifier of change in the March household. When he reveals that his young tutor is hoping to court Meg, Jo reacts in disgust. “I thought you would be pleased,” says Laurie. “At the idea of anybody coming to take Meg away? No, thank you,” she responds. After Laurie suggests to Jo that he will court her, she rejects the ntion. Later on, when Laurie actually proposes, Jo admits that she doesn’t want to be a wife and will never love him more than she loves writing. To take his hand in marriage would be detrimental to them both.
Years later, when her mother (Laura Dern) asks about her lingering feelings toward Laurie, Jo doesn’t have a direct answer: “I care more to be loved. I want to be loved… Like, women have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But — I am so lonely.” Most of this speech was pinched from another Alcott novel, Rose in Bloom (1876). Yet Gerwig punctuates it with a final line of her own, underlining all of Jo’s aspirations and anxieties. By admitting our loneliness, are we not conceding that we are ultimately unwanted?
The ending of Gerwig’s film attempts to resolves these themes while also adhering to the source material and in doing so adds another layer to the forked timeline. Despite Baher’s criticisms, Jo can’t stay away from writing, and with the encouragement of her family, manages to redirect her angst and verve into a completed book. In this adaptation, Little Women is an actual novel authored by Jo, with all of the publishing battles Alcott faced — from the fate of her heroines to the ownership of copyright — depicted throughout.
“If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way,” she’s told, and in real life Alcott’s novel does in fact end with three of the March sisters married and one deceased. But this was not the author’s original plan, which found Jo happily unmarried and living off of her writing. The disagreement between Jo (subbing in for Alcott) and her publisher is depicted onscreen while Gerwig cuts to a romantic climax with Prof. Bhaer, coated in a golden hue. It becomes clear that the warmly colored scenes of her childhood are being written into Gerwig’s account of Little Women. This finalè is nothing more than fantasy.
Thus, our heroine is seemingly spared from a romantic loneliness, though the film has done enough legwork to assert that the bonds of family are what actually come to Jo’s rescue. It’s not through isolation, but through community that Jo is able to come to terms with her individualist identity. Alcott asserts that love and acceptance is a reward not to be sought out, but to be given, and the film amplifies the loneliest points of Jo’s journey to this discovery. Gerwig honors this arc, and Alcott’s spirit, by starting her take on Little Women with the author’s quote, “I have had lots of troubles; so I write jolly tales.”