It seems like everything under the sun is getting a 90’s nostalgia reboot, and where feminism has become as much a marketing term as it is an ideology, it’s not that surprising that Little Women has found its way back onto our screens.
So many people grow up with Louisa May Alcott’s book and love it, yet it’s hard to know what yet another reboot could possibly tell us about life in 2020. It seemed like a risky endeavour, and all too easy for an updated version to have been as drippy and pandering as a ‘woke Disney’ live action.
But Sony made the wise decision of putting the project in the hands of Greta Gerwig, who proved with Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) that she was an exquisite writer, and in her first feature Lady Bird (2017), that she was also a hell of a director. Because of this, I was quietly confident that we’d get something that was fresh, original and brilliant.
And we did, for many reasons, including radical structural revisions, beautifully warm, grainy cinematography, and a much greater effort to flesh out the other sisters (by means of a fantastic cast, Florence Pugh is electrifying as Amy).
Each of these elements and more deserve discussion, but there’s a particular feature of Gerwigs’ style which made the film so brilliant; Her exquisite ability to collapse the boundaries between biography and fiction.
Her vision for Little Women, suffused with biographical details from Alcott’s own life, shows a sensitivity to where we are now. It looks beyond the bland optimism of the ‘girls can do anything boys can’ mantra and asks what happens next. After women prove, as they do time and time again, their ability to make great work, how do we make sure they get what they’re worth for it?
Gerwig finds her answers in the details of Louisa May Alcott’s life, which the film blends seamlessly with the lives of her characters. For instance, when Jo Negotiates the terms of her book deal, she gains the same deal as Alcott did herself; 6.6 percent of the royalties and an insistence on keeping the copyright. There is a lively and considered debate between Jo and her editor about whether she should sell the rights to her work for 500 dollars upfront.
Eventually she decides, after much deliberation, that she wants to own her work. The moment is a wink and a nudge at the audience, a shade away from a Fleabag side-eye.
As well as very funny and clever, it’s a poignant moment, one that gets to the heart of what makes Gerwig’s version of little Women brilliant, how she’s has done the near impossible task of making a four-time Remake feel fresh.
The feeling of pressure to sell their work is a dilemma artists still face today. Taylor Swift is perhaps the most well publicised recent case of a woman who gave up their masters when they were young and aspiring, and found themselves stripped of artistic agency as they gained success. Last year Swift wrote an open letter to her fans, detailing her prolonged battle with Big Machine records, revealing that they owned much of her early work and had forbid her from performing it. Though Swift has done a remarkable service in lamp shading one of the music industry’s most long-standing issues, she was not able to do more than let her story be a cautionary tale.
Women do not, thankfully, have to defy such odds as Alcott did to gain recognition for great work. But they still, at every level have to fight to be paid what they’re worth, and to own their own work.
The more estranged we become from ethics of the time period the books were written; the more creative filmmakers need to get bring them up to date. Gerwig tells us a story that is both faithful to the books and resonant to the audience, by weaving a story not just from the text but from the fabric its author’s life, and in doing so making Louisa May Alcott the heroine of her own story.