How LITTLE WOMEN (2019) foreshadowed Greta Gerwig's creative evolution

All this happened, and more, as I found myself sniffing in moments of nothingness, wondering if I was more of a Jo or a Meg. However, in the wake of Barbie-mania, I left the cinema with a thought I wasn’t expecting. I couldn’t help but wonder how Little Women foreshadowed Gerwig’s move into the IP adaptation style of filmmaking unfolding before us.


Little Women: A Foreshadowing of what was to come. 

In preparing to watch Little Women (2019) as part of ACMI’s Focus on Greta Gerwig, I expected a few things to happen in my viewing.

As supported by precedent, I knew I would sob ten minutes in, triggered by the first Christmas dinner when they responded to seeing Marmee enter through the door, in what would be the audience’s introduction to Laura Dern’s character. I knew this sobbing would continue, and perhaps never stop, just crescendoing at specific moments, much to the dismay of fellow cinemagoers. 

I also knew what moments these tears would occur. Moments like Amy’s (Florence Pugh) fall into the lake, causing Jo (Saoirse Ronan) to regret ever expressing anger towards her. Moments like every interaction with Beth (Eliza Scanlen), with her goodness and musical brilliance on display, knowing about her timely death. Moments like Jo expressing her loneliness and unhappiness with herself even though she understands women are worth more than just love, as she navigates these inconsistencies in her mind. And, of course, moments like Amy’s resignation in her lack of genius, as she explains that “I am just a woman”. Even scenes of the March sisters doing mundane things, like Meg (Emma Watson) giving Amy money, the four playing dress up or even fighting, would signal a further flood of tears. 

I also knew that as soon as the screening would end, I would message my three sisters, expressing my deep adoration and love for them, to which one would reply, “love you too”, one would not read because she never checks their phone, and one would just ask “did you watch Little Women again?”

All this happened, and more, as I found myself sniffing in moments of nothingness, wondering if I was more of a Jo or a Meg. However, in the wake of Barbie-mania, I left the cinema with a thought I wasn’t expecting. I couldn’t help but wonder how Little Women foreshadowed Gerwig’s move into the IP adaptation style of filmmaking unfolding before us. 

In many interviews, Gerwig regularly spoke about how her life was framed through the existence of Jo March. “I don't remember when I first encountered [the book Little Women]”, she shares in an interview with NPR’s Michael Martin.  

“I don't remember a time when I didn't know who Jo March was. She's always been with me. So, in some ways, it's hard to know whether I was like Jo March, which is why I loved her, or Jo March moulded me because I was trying to make myself like her.”

This act of the personal isn’t rare or unseen in Gerwig’s work. Whilst not wholly autobiographical, Lady Bird (2017) was inspired by Gerwig’s upbringing in Sacramento and her nostalgia for the early 2000s in her hometown. The movie, starring Saoirse Ronan, follows the titular character in her senior year of high school, as she prepares to move to New York as her relationship with her mother grows more tense.

Gerwig co-wrote and starred in Frances Ha (2012), where it is hard not to wonder how much of Gerwig is poured into the character–a twenty-something woman who feels directionless in life, watching her best friend grow up without her. The themes of girlhood and insecurity are common threads throughout her work, with Little Women being no exception. But what made Little Women different from these seminal Gerwig works was the use of a pre-existing story to project onto, rather than her own. And, of course, a stronger studio backing.  

In a book club with Teen Vogue, Gerwig discussed what stood out in re-reading Alcott’s classic and what specifically carried with her in the book. “I had remembered it because the question of authorship, ownership, women, art, money, and ambition is all on the surface in the book”.

I say this to argue that it is the dissection of particular themes Gerwig seems to be drawn to in her filmmaking rather than the specific indie styles, as different discourses on Twitter seem to believe. You can see these themes that Gerwig discusses in the lead-up promotion cycle to Barbie (2023).

In an interview with The Guardian about her 2023 film, in which the interviewer saw the first twenty minutes, Gerwig spoke to the writer about what makes Barbie so “crazy”.

“[It is] the idea of Barbie herself being constrained in multitudes. The idea that self is dispersed among many people, that all of these women are Barbie and Barbie is all of these women. That’s pretty trippy to begin with. And the sense that she is continuous with her environment. That there really is no internal life, at all. Because there is just no need to have an internal life.”

She goes on to say that the plot of Barbie, to her, is inspired by the journey into cliched womanhood. “Gerwig has said that Barbie’s story mimics a girl’s journey from childhood to adolescence.” It is here that captures what Gerwig’s films can be defined by.

The journey from childhood to adulthood is well documented in Gerweig’s career, and her two previous films with her as a director are more explicit. Nothing illustrates this more than Little Women, which is, quite literally, about little women and their journey from childhood to adulthood.

According to her sisters, Meg could have been a great actor. She longed for financial stability in her childhood, but she marries a penniless tutor for love, and her lack of money continues to plague her desires. Jo moves to New York as a teacher, where she questions her ability to be an adult, and although she does publish her story, the film ends on her opening a school. Amy longs to be a great painter, claiming “I want to be great or nothing”. However, she doubts whether her talent can translate into genius when given the opportunity. Beth, a kind-hearted and brilliant pianist, dies before her life can truly start, in what one can argue is a result of giving too much of herself away.

 “Childhood is over'', Jo cries into Meg’s lap on the dawn of her wedding. This, to Jo, is the greatest tragedy of all, and the post-childhood sequences are drenched in a darker and cooler colour scheme, in direct contrast to the yellows and light of the childhood scenes. Afterall, can their life ever truly compare to the memories of their youth? Each sister must cope with the realities of growing up in all their specific ways, as their dreams are never quite fulfilled as their childhood self-hoped. It is quintessential Gerwig, similar to Lady Bird and even Frances Ha, where there is a recognition of failure as a part of growing up, where relationships with other women define critical areas of our life. In Little Women’s case, this is the March sisters and Marmie.

There were reports recently, much to the shock of some of Twitter, that Gerwig is in talks to direct the new Narnia films for Netflix. This news resulted in dismay from some Gerwig fans, who were shocked at this departure from her indie roots. However, I’d argue in watching Little Women, Gerwig hasn’t been an indie director since her debut Lady Bird. Even regarding Lady Bird, it is essential to remember it was distributed by A24, which, while still technically “indie”, suggests it was never a struggling film. At Barbie’s release, Gerwig would have directed more movies based on IP for big studios than smaller Indie films. 

However, this isn’t to discredit Gerwig’s work but to marvel at the authenticity she brings to her projects. If Gerwig wants to make films for the masses, then there isn’t anything inherently evil and malicious in it; it's not like she has signed on to direct a superhero film (knock on wood). What makes Gerwig special is her ability to tell a story about the intimate with intense relatability for everyone to understand.

Little Women was not only a sign of Gerwig’s studio-inclined projects to come but a sign of the magic that Gerwig could breathe into these familiar stories. Nor should we be surprised, as Amy March said in Gerwig’s Little Women, “I want to be great, or nothing”. 

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