Book vs. Movie: Little Women (2019) (SPOILERS!)

Posted March 26, 2020 by Amber in Bookish Things / 0 Comments

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I’ll admit, the first time I saw a trailer for the 2019 Little Women movie, I balked.  This has nothing to do with the trailer or the fact that this movie was being made… and everything to do with the fact that I loved the 1994 version and dislike when there are remakes of perfectly good movies.

But I love Emma Watson and I love Saoirse Ronan, so between that and the 100% always positive reviews, I wore down and went to see the film at the end of January.  And man, I am going to acquire so much hate for this post because Little Women was snubbed already at the Oscars and I just… I didn’t love it?  I liked it.  It was a good movie, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.  I’m going to say that straight up, because I want to be clear about my bias.  I still love the 1994 version, and I do think this is a film worth seeing.

I’m going to go into my breakdown of the film and the differences between the book and the movie, and some of my own impressions, but please don’t think I’m trying to attack this film and bring it down. I know it’s beloved and I am so happy for all of you.  I really am.  And I will discuss the main reason why I did not love it near the end.  This is one of those cases where “not loving it” is unequal to saying “it was a bad film”.  It was a good film!  It was just not my favorite adaptation.

First point – the storytelling style.  For those of you who have read Little Women, you know this is a long book.  The edition I own is 528 pages.  That is long for a domestic story without much variety in the pacing and action. Greta Gerwig tells this story in the present, approximately at the time of Beth’s death, with flashbacks for childhood memories.

On one hand, I can see how this helps contain the long story.  She also creates Beth’s death as the central moment for these women’s lives.  It is not only the loss of a sister, but the loss of childhood and innocence for all three women.  Artistically, it makes sense.  It does.

But I honestly didn’t care for it.  I found that the jumping around made it more difficult to become emotionally invested in the story.  Beth’s death, when it came, hurt.  But with limited exposure to Beth herself, it was not as devastating as it should have been.  The moments were there, the ones that should make you love her, but they were brief and we moved away from them too quickly to let them sink in.

With the exception of Amy, I didn’t find there was a lot of change in the girls between past and present.  Their behaviors were similar, their appearance was similar.  In particular, when we were switching from Jo!Past to Jo!Present, it took a few moments for me to reorient and figure out when we were.  Hairstyles and dresses helped most of the time, but the change was a bit jarring as I had to pull myself out of the narrative to figure out where we were.

Another casualty of the back-and-forth storytelling style was Jo’s relationship with Laurie.  Their most poignant scene is the one at the dance where Jo is not allowed to be seen dancing because she burned her dress.  While Alcott never have intended Jo and Laurie to enter a relationship, generations of readers have fallen in love with them as a couple long before Jo rejects him and runs away to New York.

To my memory, they have two scenes in this film – the dancing scene and the marriage proposal.  All other times, they are surrounded by Jo’s sisters. That is the heart of the story – the relationships and choices of the four women – but it did not need to be at the sacrifice of Jo and Laurie.

What we saw of this relationship was not enough justify Jo second guessing her decision to reject Laurie.  Which is a whole other thing, by the way. I don’t mind the dimensionality of Jo added here, because life is full of regrets, but it’s not canon.

Which leads me to the next critical point on my list.

This one, I think, may be entirely personal opinion.

I deeply disliked Laurie.

This was the first time I have found myself faced with this character and thought “why would anyone want to marry this brooding sop?”  There’s a few different ways to portray Laurie.  Sometimes he’s a bit of a rouge, or a miscreant.  This film’s version was self-important, indulgent, and moping.  I kept waiting for his character to grow.  When he did (ish), it was an instant change and off camera.

There were moments where Timothée Chalamet brought some of Laurie’s spirit to the screen, but mostly, there was angst.  *raises her shield* I know, the internet loves this casting.  But I’m sorry… I just… don’t.  But the brooding rich boy love interest never did it for me, either, so that may contribute!  You guys can keep loving him, and that’s fine, but he just didn’t work for me.

This is another reason to love books over films, my dears.  There are many interpretations of things and we, the readers, may take what we will.

Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of the sisters and each of their importance and placement in the story was… different.  In Little Women, you must always have Jo.  Jo is the writer – she is the protagonist.  But.  This adaption has given us Amy with just as much importance as Jo.  I will go as far as to say that this adaptation was just as much Amy’s story as it was Jo’s, if not more.

I have very mixed feelings about this, and I think that there’s a bit of contention between people who love Amy, and people who deeply dislike her.  First, I think Florence Pugh was wonderful.  She did a great job.  Amy’s character was the only one who grew.  Meg gave up her passion for love and pined for what she lost.  Jo gave up her love for her passion (sort of – more on that later) and pined for what she didn’t have.  But Amy took a very straightforward look at her options and dabbled in everything before deciding to accept an… economic proposition.  She was mature and intelligent by the end of the film and although she was still pushy, she had grown from her needy, vengeful state into something refined and sophisticated.  I don’t begrudge Amy any of these things.

What bothered me personally about this interpretation of the story was that… honestly?  I love Jo.  I love her determination to keep to her passion and to succeed as a woman in a time when women were perceived as property.  There’s an excellent (if un-canon) speech about this that Amy delivers to Laurie in Paris.  Jo’s character was harsh and selfish, only just barely behaving herself when speaking to her publisher.  Compared to Amy’s intelligence and sophistication, Jo seemed brutish.

Which is fine, it’s an interpretation.  But I’m sore about it, because I have grown up loving Jo.  Full honesty.  Amy is given spotlight, and Florence Pugh shines in it.  But as a Jo fan, it frustrated me.  I can both appreciate it and be frustrated by it.

There are more points I can hit where Little Women offers a different interpretation than that of the book or previous film incarnations. A lot of the canonical changes are minor ones – Meg is the voice of morality rather than the little books from their mother one Christmas, and Aunt March is portrayed as Aunt instead of Great Aunt (although she appears a generation older).  The shift from Jo to Amy, for example, is just an act of highlighting a different part of the book than we are used to.  Technically, it’s not a change, just a different perspective.

The final point I will bring up is the ending.

never liked Friedrich Bhaer.  I dislike Jo’s scenes with him.  I was never a “Jo and Laurie should hook up” person because I was a “Jo doesn’t need a man person”.  Friedrich was always a gruff character to me, book and films alike.  It frustrated me when she settled with him because I found him unsupportive of her independent spirit.

In this film, Jo gives Professor Bhaer her sensational stories to read and critique, then he tells her she’s talented but the stories are rubbish.  She yells at him and storms off, only to rush home to Beth before making amends.  In this film adaptation of Little Women, Professor Bhaer comes to find her because he loves her.

In the book, he comes to the March House because he found a publisher for her novel.

Different motivations, which give different directions to the story.

This choice, this ending sums up everything I didn’t love about this movie.  I will say it again – I did like it.  But I didn’t love it.  The film focuses first and foremost on the girls’ romantic relationships.  Their reactions to love and their choice in marriage.  The romance.  What I love about Little Women and appreciate about the book is the passions of each of the girls.  Meg, the actress.  Jo, the writer.  Beth, the musician.  Amy, the artist.  Each of these passions are present in this film, but they are hobbies, not passions.  They are not as important as love.  Well, except, perhaps, for Beth, because she did not have time to fall in love.  Even Jo succumbs at the end, and it just… it made me mad.

It made me mad because my interpretation was: Jo changed the end of her story because she fell in love and now understands.

After exiting the theatre, I expressed my rage to my husband.  He has never seen the other films, has never read the books, and in fact was only there because I agreed to see the new Bad Boys movie with him if he would see Little Women with me.  This is how he responded:

The romance and the ending, in particular Jo’s choice as it has been presented in the film, is reversed. Jo chases the man and falls in love because it’s an ironic choice, a statement to society who wants their women wrapped up with a bow and delivered with a hetero love story because that puts women in their place.  Jo may not have fallen in love and chased Professor Bhaer.  It was the ending the viewers were given because the publisher – a metaphor for society and “tradition” – asked for it.  It was not her heart, not her choice.  It was the box she had been put into, and one she wants the world to know is ridiculous.

I like this interpretation.

I mean, lets be real.  We know Jo ends up with Professor Bhaer because it’s canon, but I can thoroughly appreciate that the romantic focus in the film could have very well been a middle finger to society saying we women have more to offer than our hearts, as Jo so adeptly says.

Take what you will from that.

All in all, Little Women is a perfectly enjoyable film.  The acting was generally fantastic – I particular applaud Soairse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh.  The costumes were gorgeous.  The sets and shooting locations were stunning – there’s this one shot on a hill overlooking a rural New England town in autumn that, in a single visual shot, explains why I love where I live (Louisa May Alcott’s home is about 20min. from mine).  I think it is deserving of its praise, and it’s a fresh take on a told-and-retold story.  For my personal preference, it may not be my favorite, but it is compelling and enjoyable in each individual moment, and worth a see.

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Have you seen this adaptation of Little Women?  What did you think of the creative choices?  Was your opinion – like mine – affected by previous interactions with the story?  Let me know what you thought of the movie, or if you would like to see it, in the comments!

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