In 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women was published and was considered a critical and commercial hit. Since its publication, the book has been adapted for the stage and screen, having seven film adaptations as of currently. The first was a silent film released in 1917, which has been lost as with most films of the time. After a 1918 silent version, the first sound adaptation was made in 1933 starring Katherine Hepburn and Joan Bennett. This was followed by the first color adaptation in 1949, which featured then relatively unknown Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh. 45 years later, another adaptation was made, this one starring Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, and Claire Danes. There was also a 2018 adaptation that mostly flew under the radar before actress/director Greta Gerwig stepped in. So, her adaptation of Little Women was finally released in 2019.
Taking place between 1861 and 1868, the film follows four women from their childhoods to their adult years. There’s Josephine aka Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Margaret aka Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Elizabeth aka Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Each has their talents: Jo writes, Amy paints and draws, Beth plays piano, and Meg cares for the family. They live with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who does her best while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is at war. The film goes back and forth between their childhoods and the present, where Jo is working on a novel. They have their disputes, they find love, they develop their talents further, and they get into mischief during their upbringing. Eventually, things change for them, including getting married, one of them falling ill, wanting to abandon their dreams, etc. Despite all the obstacles, these sisters remain close to each other and stay strong.
At the time of writing this, I have not read the book or seen any of the previous adaptations. That said, while it’s not my go-to type of film, Little Women is still enjoyable enough for its target audience. The performances are solid, the four main actresses feeling like a close-knit group that has grown up together. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh (Midsommar) are at the heart of the film and deliver the strongest performances. The supporting cast, including Scanlen, Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep also stand out even with limited screentime. Directing-wise, Greta Gerwig manages to capture the look and feel of the mid 19th century while adding some contemporary references. The gorgeous set design, elaborate costumes, and Alexandre Desplat’s score further help to cement the film’s historical setting. From a visual and acting standpoint, Little Women mostly succeeds at that.
However, my biggest issue with the film is that there isn’t much of a central plot to speak of. Little Women feels more like a collection of scenes that are strung together rather than having a cohesive narrative. The film jumps back and forth between the present and seven years prior, but it often feels jumbled and disjointed. Because of this, it can be difficult to follow along with and discern when everything is supposed to be happening. Also, the film has a strong feminist message, which I’m all for, but it felt somewhat on the nose here. Much of the dialogue is either trying to hammer in its feminist angle or criticize anyone who criticizes someone’s work. Some of it may be from the book or invented by Gerwig, but it still hindered my enjoyment slightly. Overall, Little Women, though disjointed and preachy, is still an enjoyably heartwarming film.