When the hype for Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women (2019) started to get going, I felt a bit confused. The film was being hailed as a modern take on the classic novel that finally drew out its feminist themes, foregrounded the real, human relationships between the women of the family, and gave both Jo and Amy the credit they deserve. But for me, all of this had already been done – by the stellar BBC television adaptation of the novel in 2017.
Before anyone gets cross, I really liked Greta Gerwig’s film – but I think Vanessa Caswill’s very different adaptation has been unfairly sidelined. So I thought it would be fun to pitch these two against each other. I will only compare things that I care about, so don’t expect this to be in any way fair.
Warning, this post probably won’t make much sense unless you are already familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives!
Let’s start with an easy one. Meg from 2017 (Willa Fitzgerald) is streets ahead of Meg from 2019 (Emma Watson), and because No-One Likes Meg, it’s so important to get her right. This is down to the acting, but – even though I’m not a Watson fan – I think the script is the crucial factor here. The longer runtime of the BBC mini-series allows Meg to come into her own. Fitzgerald portrays her with a quiet serenity that makes her affectations at the Moffats’ party feel genuinely out of character, and giving her time to talk about her work as a governess – and be snubbed by an English snob, as she is in the novel – means that her desire for pretty things feels less shallow and more understandable. As she moves into adulthood, the harrowing birth scene added in 2017 makes her life feel real and hard rather than merely a heteronormative fantasy that’s there to taunt Jo.
I think that the 2019 film had its heart in the right place with Meg. For example, her line to Jo – ‘just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – indicates that we are meant to see her as a person worthy of respect in her own right, and that Gerwig wants us to recognise that women who choose a traditional path of marriage and child-bearing are not inherently inferior. But I think that the way that 2019 chooses to value Meg is a bit of a misstep, emphasising the need for both sisters to understand each other rather than the true, inherent conflict between their dreams. Meg wants her own home and family; Jo wants her ‘first family’ to remain together forever. Both films are really good at portraying Jo’s anguish at the prospect of losing Meg, but only 2017 actually presents it as the insoluble problem that it is. But because 2017 takes Jo so seriously, it also allows us to feel the pressure that Jo’s expectations put on Meg, with Jo looming in the background of John’s proposal like a forbidding, virtuous angel. Meg is sometimes seen as moralistic, but Jo shows us that she’s actually the sister who holds others to viciously high standards. +1 to 2017.
Let’s move on to a more difficult one. Yes, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo in 2019 is, I think, better than Maya Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jo in 2017. But, again, this isn’t just down to the two actors, but about the choices made by script and direction. 2019 is the Jo Show, and the character is totally captivating. Gerwig draws out the queer undertones of Jo’s character much more effectively than any other adaptation I’ve seen, and she gets a huge amount of screen time to explore the central tension in her life: that, as she puts it in the most memorable scene of the 2019 film, she doesn’t want to get married but nor does she want to live her life alone. ‘Jo’s Dark Days’ is one of my favourite chapters of Little Women and Good Wives, and 2019 gets that so well. However, if Jo is less striking in the 2017 adaptation, it’s partly because the script has made a deliberate choice to give more time to Marmee and to the other sisters, which strengthens the story as a whole. So 2019 wins, but at a cost. +1 to 2019.
Maybe nobody likes Meg, but the character I found most difficult in the novel was always Beth – I still find her death totally unmoving except in terms of how it affects Jo. Annes Elwy in 2017 and Eliza Scanlen in 2019 both do an admirable job of making her a little less dull. Both adaptations play up her social anxiety, which helps us to understand the character a little more, but on balance, I preferred the deliberate weirdness of 2019’s Beth, who constructs elaborate tableaux with her dolls at the table and uses the fact of her impending death to get Jo to write her the stories she wants. +1 to 2019.
Everyone’s supposed to hate Amy, but I always liked her, and both 2017 and 2019 bring Justice for Amy. Both adaptations make the choice to have Amy played by the same actor throughout, which means they both make certain sacrifices. Kathryn Newton (2017) is much more convincing as Young Amy, partly because she gets more screen-time, so although neither version really helps us understand why Amy burns Jo’s book, 2017 gives us more space to explore Amy’s character development after the terrible deed. For example, we get the scene where Amy writes a will, with Laurie’s help, when Beth is sick with scarlet fever, and makes a specific bequest to Jo because she’s sorry about her book and wants to be a better person.
On that note, I really disliked the fact that the 2019 adaptation chose to have Amy in love with Laurie all along, rather than being the self-centred, creative, clever, irritating person she actually is in the first volume. 2019 really wants us to buy into Amy and Laurie, a pairing that a lot of fans find difficult to accept, but because I never had a problem with them in the first place, I never found this to be such a plot hurdle. 2017 handles the pairing more subtly by showing us how Amy and Laurie interact while she’s still a child and he’s still in love with Jo, while 2019 uses its non-chronological structure to intercut shots of the young Amy pining after Laurie while older Amy realises that he’s finally falling for her. Not a fan, bring back selfish Amy please.
However, having said that, Florence Pugh (2019) is so good as the older Amy, and one of the stand-out moments of the film is when she explains to Laurie that while marriage might not be a financial transaction for him, it surely is for her. Some of the assumed modernity of 2019 grated on me, but I can completely believe that this is something that Amy might say to the dissipated and ‘lazy’ Laurie. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.
2019 did not get Marmee. She’s one of the key casualties of its meta approach to the source text, with Gerwig unable to play her deeply held moral beliefs – based on a life of repression and self-sacrifice – straight and instead retconning in feminist statements. As Sarah Blackwood writes in the New Yorker:
Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling.
One of my favourite scenes in the novel is the scene when Marmee talks to Jo after Amy falls through the ice; partly because it’s one of the few scenes that gives us a glimpse of Marmee as a person. Both 2017 and 2019, unusually, adapt this scene, but I don’t think either of them quite get it right. In the book, Marmee tells Jo: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.” Jo can’t believe it: “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” Marmee explains: “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”
In an age where we are told – and rightly so – that rage becomes her, that anger is a positive emotion, that the criticism and belittling of women’s anger, particularly the anger of women of colour, is a tool of the patriarchy, Marmee’s words may feel too anti-feminist to screen, and it’s noticeable that neither adaptation lets her say the full quotation. However, I think that we need to know this about Marmee if we are going to understand her character. Marmee isn’t sweetness and light; she is a mother who cares deeply about her daughters but is still deeply embedded in the society in which she lives. 2019 sees her offering her daughters ‘outs’, suggesting to Jo that her life can be different from the one that Marmee herself has lived. The harsher, less forgiving Marmee in 2017 (Emily Watson) is much more accurate, and much more interesting, and as a bonus, unlike Laura Dern, she doesn’t look like she’s dressed up for a day at the office. +1 to 2017.
Mr March is literally missing in action in 2019 even after he comes home from war, with Bob Odenkirk only appearing in a couple of shots (none of which I could find to use for this post). While I slightly admire Gerwig’s determination to make the patriarch of the family ‘not seen and not heard’, this choice undermines the reality of the sisters’ worry about him, and further diminishes Marmee as an independent individual. While Mr March (Dylan Baker) doesn’t have a great deal more to do in 2017, he’s there enough to address these issues. +1 to 2017.
I don’t really care about Laurie as a character, except insofar as the way he is presented affects the characterisation of Jo and Amy. 2019’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is much more engaging, but I think 2017’s Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) does a better job of getting across why the essentially conventional Laurie is not right for Jo. Both films handle the proposal scene heartbreakingly well, but 2019 leans harder on the idea that Jo never wants to get married, whereas 2017 is more focused on Jo’s assertion that she does not love Laurie romantically, but may love somebody else in the future. I like 2019’s interpretation more, but I actually found the 2017 version of the scene more convincing. As I’ve suggested, both adaptations also do a pretty good job of setting up Amy and Laurie as a romantic pairing. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.
I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it? Alcott was cross about having to marry Jo off at the end of Good Wives, so she invented Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older German intellectual who is not conventionally attractive (Mark Stanley, 2017); the pair team up to open a school for boys. Making Bhaer into a hottie (Louis Garrel, 2019) totally undermines that, whatever the meta intentions of Gerwig’s choice, and I’m not sure about the more conventional feminist resolution of having Jo and Friedrich open a mixed-sex school instead of a boys’ school either.
Rewatching the 2017 adaptation, in contrast, made me see why Friedrich is a good match for the Jo presented in this version of Little Women. Jo, as I suggested above, is an idealist who holds other people to her scarily high moral standards, and the person she’s hardest upon is herself. Modern readers find the scene where Professor Bhaer paternalistically criticises Jo’s stories hard to swallow – and this scene isn’t adapted fully in either 2017 or 2019 – but the intention behind his criticism is to show that he believes that these stories don’t represent the moral or emotional truth Jo is capable of writing. The 2017 adaptation gets how important it is for Jo to have someone who believes in her, not as a writer (I never got the sense that Jo was lacking in self-confidence where her writing is concerned) but as a good person. +1 to 2017.
The Civil War
Neither film lingers on the realities of the Civil War or its legacies of white supremacy, but 2019 gives a couple of black characters speaking parts, whereas the only black person in 2017 is a corpse on a stretcher. (If you want to read more about the whiteness of Little Women, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in The New York Times is a good place to start). +1 to 2019.
2017 tells the story in strict chronological order. 2019 intercuts between Little Women and Good Wives, so, for example, both of Beth’s sickbed scenes are juxtaposed together, and Jo is trying to sell her stories at the start of the film. I admire the idea behind 2019’s out-of-order storytelling, but I don’t think it really works. It makes the film feel even more rushed and choppy, and I’m not sure a viewer who wasn’t very familiar with these two volumes could easily follow it. +1 to 2017.
Modern Little Women adaptations are always a little bit meta, something that some of the reviews of the 2019 film have missed. (Even the 1994 adaptation shows Jo writing her life story). However, 2019 goes a step further, presenting two potential endings to Jo’s story – one in which she marries Professor Bhaer and runs her school, and one in which, like her creator, she becomes a ‘literary spinster’. This pulls out a lot of the thematic material that is latent in Little Women and Good Wives and gets at some of the ideas raised above about how all of the sisters are stuck in the system, but it does also feed into the suggestion that exceptional women are able to escape. For me personally, the straightforward 2017 adaptation feels more useful to think with, but I have to admit that 2019 has probably brought the tensions at the heart of Little Women to a bigger audience. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.
2017: 8 points
2019: 6 points
To be honest, we’re lucky to have two such great adaptations of this great novel. However, 2017 wins out for me because I think it’s willing to present the viewer with more difficult material, because it doesn’t aim to wrap everything up with a feminist bow, and because it acknowledges that Marmee, not Jo, is the centre of the story.
Has anyone else seen both these adaptations? What did you think? Or are any of the earlier adaptations closer to your heart?