We watched the new version of Little Women on the weekend. I can’t imagine how daunting it must be to take on remaking that movie, with so many beloved versions. My beloved version was made by Gillian Armstrong in 1994, with Winona Ryder as Jo and Christian Bale as Laurie. Basically, perfection, and a mandatory Christmas watch every year.
Disconcerting on Many Levels
I found it somewhat disconcerting to watch Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie. I love Saorise, especially from Brooklyn and On Chesil Beach, both quiet slices of magic. She’s brilliant, and I have no issue with her as Jo, except that she clearly isn’t Winona Ryder and she’s not in Gillian Armstrong’s movie. Timothee Chalamet is new to me, and quite frankly he didn’t work for me, at all. Too scrawny, too delicate – nowhere near a sufficient match for Jo in the early scenes. Nowhere near as dreamy as Christian Bale in the later scenes when he comes courting for Amy. A bit too lightweight.
Also distracting me was the fact that I realized Laura Dern, as Marmee, looks identical to my friend Brenda. I’ve seen Laura Dern in a million things, including Big Little Lies seasons 1 and 2 recently, and never noticed that she and B. were separated at birth. Clearly were. (Update: B. doesn’t see it. But I’m totally right.)
And a further distraction was the actress who played Beth. (Where have we seen that actress before? Oh, I know, Dan in Real Life, I told myself – a really underrated movie!) I was convinced it was Alison Pill (also from The Newsroom), and it wasn’t!! Turns out she’s an Australian actress I’ve never heard of.
Are these not the same woman?
Even after I IMDB’d who was playing Beth during the movie, I was still convinced Alison Pill was playing Beth – that’s who I saw on the screen. If Pill showed up at the Golden Globes to accept an award for playing Beth, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.
Despite being very distracted by these casting issues, I tried to focus on the positive qualities of this updated version. Which I like more in theory than in reality, but let’s take an inventory.
What’s Good about It?
Feminism. The 2019 version is very feminist, and I ideologically have no problem with that, being, well, a feminist myself.
Of course Ryder’s Jo is a feminist too – she wants to make her way as an author. But this version presents women’s options as much bleaker – Aunt March nearly scares Amy to death when she tells her the fate of her entire family rests at her feet. She must marry well. She has no other choice. You kinda get why Amy is so fixated on marrying moneybags Freddie Vaughan for much of her early adult life.
Nuance. The characters of Amy and Meg, in particular, are much more nuanced than in the 1994 version. Amy is not just a spoiled, money-grubbing, vain brat – she’s talented and independent and thoughtful. Worthy of Laurie’s love in a way she’s not in the 1994 version. I am convinced Laurie married the 1994 Amy because he wanted to be part of the March family. I’m convinced he married Greta’s Amy because he was in love, as he tells Jo he is.
Meg is virtually a saint in Gillian Armstrong’s movie, misstepping only once at Sally Moffat’s debutante ball, having a tipple and showing some decolletage. Otherwise, perfection to a nauseating degree. Emma Watson’s Meg is much less saintly, splurging on silk fabric even after she’s married to John Brooks and poor as dirt, just to show Sally she can (when she can’t). She is much more fallible and human. (Having said that, Emma Watson was a complete milquetoast and groupie in that role. Didn’t like Meg at all.)
Even Marmee is far more nuanced – much more vulnerable and much less saintly. She cries (but doesn’t let her daughters see), she seems a bit cross with her injured husband, and then she gets snippy at her husband jokingly suggesting he would go to California with Prof. Baer. Theoretically, I should like her character a lot more in this film. But there’s something very comforting about Susan Sarandon’s unflinching and unwavering Marmee. No tears for her. Sainthood all around.
I haven’t read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women since I was about 11, so I can’t say which version of the characters is closest to the book.
Onto my Gripes.
What’s with the timeline? I found the non-linear timeline pretty darn annoying. Wait … Meg’s married with kids now? What time period is it? I’m confused.
It was also confusing that Amy is played by the same (brilliant) actress throughout (across a span of, what, at least 10 years?), and I found it hard to tell whether she was a girl or a woman in some scenes. Which was a bit creepy. The Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis girl/woman split in 1994 fixed that problem.
I suppose the narrative served the main purpose of putting Jo’s writing and her book Little Women front and centre, a character in its own right. The movie culminates in the publication of her book, rather than her pairing with Prof. Baer. That’s her accomplishment, that’s her true worth.
Still, it was distracting and precious and not entirely necessary.
Greta is NOT a hopeless romantic. It was a neat little feminist trope to have Jo’s editor, Mr. Dashwood, convince the author to pair up “Jo” the character with Prof. Baer at the end of her book, when Jo the author was determined that she would not marry. The romantic declaration of love between Frederich and Jo at the Concord train station is but a bit of literary fiction to appeal to Mr. Dashwood’s romantic and silly daughters.
Again, ideologically, I get it.
But the hopeless romantic in me wasn’t keen on that denouement. I also wasn’t sure why this Frederich was French and not German. And why he wasn’t Gabriel Byrne, the perfect Prof. Baer. (When he takes Winona Ryder to watch the opera from behind the stage, sigh.)
See, isn’t this hopelessly romantic and so much better?
As an aside, I am a Hopeless Romantic. I publicly declared myself as such at my second attendance at the off-Broadway show In and Of Itself. (Every theatre-goer has to select a card with a word or two that best describes them, from a display of about 500 cards? Play #1 was Problem Solver – with my law partner MJ. Play #2 was Hopeless Romantic with hubby. Clearly my choices were influenced by my companion at the play.)
Greta can’t change Jo’s arc just like that. Why can’t Jo be a successful author AND fall in love? What does Greta have against Jo having it ALL? Why is it better and more purely feminist that she end up alone? Why are love and marriage so easily dismissed ?
This is such a marked deviation from the author’s story – and Jo’s well-known history – that I do take exception to it.
All in all, I’d give it a B-.