‘Little Women’ has cinematic staying power 150 years after book

News of Greta Gerwig’s rumored Little Women adaptation for Colombia Pictures lit up the Internet June 29, with a powerhouse cast of Oscar-nominated actors in talks to play the familiar characters.

Variety broke the story of Gerwig “eyeing” direction of the script she helped rewrite. The Hollywood Reporter later confirmed Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet and Emma Stone could potentially be starring as Aunt March, Jo, Laurie and Meg, respectively.

Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel was first published in 1868, exactly 150 years ago. Her seemingly simple story of four sisters and their mother coming of age in the late 19th century as the man of the house serves in the Civil War is one of the first examples we have of an entirely female story not defined by romance or traditional women’s roles. “Within Little Women can be found the first vision of the All-American girl…her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters,” Sarah Elbert wrote in her 1987 book A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Reading Alcott’s novel or watching one of its many film adaptations, viewers can identify with Meg’s compliance, Jo’s stubborn independence, Beth’s kind shyness or Amy’s artistic prowess. It was recently chosen as one of the 100 best novels of all time by PBS as part of their Great American Read program, citing how “the March girls grapple with first love, tremendous loss and the gaps between who they are and who they would like to be.”

Little Women didn’t just pave the way for women’s stories through American history. It also has a rich cinematic background as many of its more recent film adaptations were written and directed by women. The BBC aired a miniseries late last year directed entirely by Vanessa Caswill. Lea Thompson will play Marmee in a modern take on the classic set for a September release, written and directed by Clare Niederpruem. The 1994 version starring Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Christian Bale is a beloved adaptation directed by the prolific Gillian Armstrong and written by Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Jane Austen Book Club), who will produce Gerwig’s adaptation.

“It’s really taking a look at what it is for a young woman to enter the adult world,” Swicord told the LA Times of Gerwig’s screenplay July 3. “It’s very adult and interesting and thoughtful … and, of course, given the material, it’s always going to be romantic.”

Some Twitter users asked why we need yet another Little Women retelling when its story has already been told so many times, through film, TV series and even a Broadway musical. “Both the passion Little Women has engendered in diverse readers and its ability to survive its era and transcend its genre point to a text of unusual permeability,” Barbara Sicherman wrote in her 2010 book Well Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women.

For the girls who didn’t grow up with Armstrong’s adaptation like I did, or the ones who aren’t tuned into the BBC, this might be their only chance to enter the March home, to feel its warmth and relate to its message. There might be a girl out there who thought she could make movies when they saw Greta Gerwig nominated for an Oscar this year; maybe that same girl wants to write like Jo, who didn’t let being a woman stop her from telling stories. (Ronan is the perfect choice to play such a universally loved and strong character, with her Lady Bird co-star Chalamet already proving himself capable of emulating Laurie’s dreamer in standout roles in Miss Stevens and Call Me By Your Name.) Maybe there’s a viewer who wants to paint like Amy or raise a family like Meg and Marmee, who isn’t quite old enough to comprehend Alcott’s 500 pages and would rather see her favorite actresses teach her about growing up with hardship. As more attention is thankfully drawn to gender parity in film directing, it’s a bit early to be asking, “Why another one?” when a female director nails down such a prominent project. 

“Greta has a wonderfully associative, well-furnished mind. Her take on the novel more than convinced us that we could bring something new to the screen,” Swicord said. Jo March would be proud.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (7/3/2018) FF2 Media

September 2018 Update: Colombia Pictures casting news states that Emma Watson will replace Emma Stone as Meg March and Laura Dern will play Mrs. March.

Photos: Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Little Women starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes; writer-director Clare Niederpruem’s adaptation will be released in September for the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s novel; Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet starred in Greta Gerwig’s award-winning directorial debut Lady Bird last year and are in talks to play Jo March and Laurie Laurence in Little Women.

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