Greta Gerwig’s Little Women Gives Amy March Her Due

The youngest sister from Louisa May Alcott’s novel remains as spoiled as ever in the latest film adaptation. But she’s finally afforded the depth that’s missing from previous movies.

Amy’s arc represents a subversive approach to oppressive societal expectations for women, wherein she embraces femininity and uses it to her advantage. (Illustration by Paul Spella; photographs by Wilson Webb / Sony / Bettman / Getty /  United Archives / Moviestore Collection / Alamy)

Greta Gerwig had just encountered a problem that the characters in her film Little Women never would have: a deluge of messages on her iPhone. As we sat inside the Boxwood restaurant in West Hollywood in November, Gerwig struggled to sort past the new ones. Swipe. Swipe. Swipe. Pause. Tap. Swipe. “Oh God,” the writer-director groaned. “I have inbox a million.”

There was an email she wanted to show me, Gerwig explained as she scrolled. It contained an argument that dovetailed nicely with what we were discussing: the underrated appeal of Amy March, perhaps the most divisive character in Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic. Gerwig, who has adapted the novel about four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War, adored the youngest sibling and thought previous onscreen takes on her didn’t give the character her due. “When I read [the novel] as an adult, Amy was the one who struck me as having some of the most interesting things to say and having the most utterly clear-eyed view of the world,” she said. “I think I started seeing her as this …” she paused. “This equally potent character to [the protagonist] Jo.”

Amy, though, has long been maligned by Little Women readers. As a child, she’s spoiled, bratty, and self-obsessed—qualities that especially grate on her older sister (and Alcott’s proxy) Jo. The rivalry between Amy and Jo grows as they get older. Amy becomes the family’s golden child, heading to Europe to study art and eventually becoming wife to Laurie, Jo’s best friend and the man everyone—the characters in the novel and readers poring over the text—thought Jo would marry.

But Gerwig recently read a piece about how both women, in making choices about whether to marry Laurie, exercise their power in similar ways. She’d emailed the article to the film’s producer, Amy Pascal, except that email and the essay’s exact wording remained elusive. “I wish I could find it!” Gerwig said, adding that she’d saved the piece because, to her, “you never really stop making a film; you just keep thinking about it.”

Gerwig is a Little Women scholar who grew up reading and rereading the novel. While defending Amy, Gerwig recited the character’s quotes as if invisible subtitles were appearing in front of her eyes. She recalled several of them in rapid succession as we spoke, offering quick takes on each: “I want to be great, or nothing.” (“A fabulous line,” Gerwig gushed.) “The world is hard on ambitious girls.” (“I mean, the world is still hard on ambitious girls.”) “I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am observant.” (“That is the key. She really sees everything.”)

These essential Amy lines make it into Gerwig’s adaptation, out Christmas Day. Unlike previous chronological takes on the source material, it reframes the story from the women’s adult perspectives and flashes back to their girlhood adventures. In other films, Amy—whether brought to life by Joan Bennett in 1933, Elizabeth Taylor in 1949, or Kirsten Dunst in 1994—often serves as comic relief, her youthful antics overshadowing her arc from the novel. By mining the book’s thorough depictions of its titular figures and toying with the timeline, Gerwig paints a portrait of Amy (played by the Midsommar star Florence Pugh) that allows her to develop as a character in her own right.

Of course, plot-wise, Amy still gets what Jo does not in the end: the boy next door, the trip to Europe, and the approval of stern Aunt March (Meryl Streep). That may continue to produce Amy naysayers, I pointed out. “Yeah,” Gerwig said, nodding and chuckling as I listed the grievances readers have with the character that haven’t changed from page to screen. “But that’s because they’re not seeing it right.”

Gerwig knew Pugh had to play Amy as soon as she Google-image-searched her. The director had liked the actor’s performance in Lady Macbeth and looked her up, and saw the youngest March daughter staring back at her from her computer screen. “I felt like every picture I could find of her, she was standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips and her little nose in the air,” Gerwig said, mimicking the pose as she spoke. “She just looked like a little, confident cherub. And I just thought, That’s her!”

But Gerwig wasn’t just looking for someone cherubic. As the foil to Saoirse Ronan’s formidable Jo, Amy required an actor who could match Ronan’s ferocity, which Gerwig had witnessed firsthand as Ronan’s director on Lady Bird. In Pugh, Gerwig said, she found someone with a “groundedness” who wouldn’t wither in scenes opposite Jo.

Those scenes include the most dramatic one from Amy and Jo’s childhood. In the novel, Amy burns a manuscript by Jo—“the loving work of several years,” as Alcott put it—in retaliation for Jo’s dismissive behavior toward her earlier that night. (The elder sister had impatiently fended off a crying Amy when Amy had wanted to accompany her to the theater.) After the crime is exposed, Amy apologizes, but not because she’s actually sorry, Alcott noted. Rather, “Amy felt that no one would love her till she had asked pardon for the act which she now regretted more than any of them.”

In the previous major film adaptation of Little Women, the apology is delivered, well, apologetically, with Dunst’s Amy humbly expressing remorse. But in Gerwig’s version, Pugh’s Amy is defiant, arguing that she truly wanted to hurt Jo—a move that retains Amy’s cheekiness from the book.

Laughing, Pugh told me she’d only ever interpreted the scene as amusing rather than tragic, because Amy was apologizing out of an obligation to smooth things over. “Saying sorry as a kid is the hardest thing,” the actor explained to me over the phone. “It’s the hardest thing because you feel embarrassed, and everybody’s watching you say sorry, and everybody’s telling you, ‘You need to say sorry,’ and you still don’t know why you need to say sorry, because you’re not sorry, but if you say sorry, everything will be better now … I’ve always found that scene so funny, because it’s so insincere!”

Pugh would know: For seven years, she was the youngest member of her family—until a baby sister arrived. “I just remember being so baffled that she would literally get anything that she would want,” Pugh said. “When I was younger, I wanted a trampoline, and we weren’t allowed a trampoline. My younger sister says she wants a trampoline once, and she gets a trampoline! Little sisters or little brothers are always annoying, because they’ve always had a different type of parenting.”

By imbuing Amy with this younger-sibling indignation, defiance, and self-importance, Pugh transforms the apology scene into less of a confession and more of a frustrated, forced détente between the sisters. It’s a move that makes their relationship richer and truer to the novel, as well as to real life. Siblings naturally compare themselves to one another—Jo, for instance, takes pride in not being as ladylike as Amy, while Amy judges Jo for her lack of elegance—and neither sister “wins” the dispute over whether Jo should have let Amy go to the theater. In fact, both had just wanted things their own way. Jo wished to attend a play without having to babysit her sister, while Amy sought Jo’s attention. “In that moment, Amy sees Jo as just so much bigger than she is,” Gerwig said. “She’s like, ‘But you’re Jo; you’re magical.’ Like, ‘What could even me burning your novel [do to you]?’”

Pugh leaned in to Amy’s messiness as a younger sibling, asking to wear fairy wings for the manuscript-burning scene to enhance her immaturity. Together with Ronan, Pugh came up with a way to capture Jo and Amy’s unique, intense dynamic. Before a take during the scene, Pugh asked Ronan to slap her, to get them both riled up. “I was so worried and so terrified, and I just, like, smacked her so hard across the face,” Ronan marveled when we spoke on the phone in early December. “There was a single tear that came out of her eye! But it was great.”

Jo’s story represents the total rejection of traditional femininity as a path to achieving one’s goals: She not only adopts a male-sounding nickname, but she also opposes marriage and pursues her own career. Amy’s arc, on the other hand, represents a more nuanced and subversive approach to the same stifling societal expectations for women—she embraces femininity and uses it to her advantage.

In the film, Pugh’s adult Amy outlines this philosophy in a monologue that illustrates her maturity. “I’m just a woman,” she tells Laurie (played by Timothée Chalamet, another Lady Bird alum) while both are in Europe. She continues:

And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

Gerwig didn’t have the speech in her script initially. Streep convinced her to include it, pointing out to the writer-director that she had to make clear to the audience why there’s so much pressure on Amy to marry, and to marry well. Amy is the one tasked with keeping the March family afloat, given Meg’s marriage to a poor teacher, Jo’s refusal to be engaged to Laurie—a man she considers more of a brother than a lover—and Beth’s illness.

Amy is the sister with the greatest understanding of how her femininity could work for her. “There’s something about Amy,” Gerwig said. “Jo can’t put her ego aside long enough to get what she needs to get, but Amy can. It’s just, I loved that [Europe] section of the book … I wanted that feeling in it, of Amy’s utter practicality when it comes to how to get ahead.”

The time the film does spend with Amy in Europe also helps grow her romance with Laurie. Gerwig wanted to ensure that the relationship felt organic, and less like a disheartening plot twist. (Most screen adaptations focus so heavily on Jo that the fact that Laurie winds up choosing another March sister tends to come off as impulsive.) Gerwig’s film develops Amy and Laurie’s love story gradually, hinting at Amy’s crush in their childhood days and building up to their conversation about their goals. The scene plays out in stark contrast to the one in which Laurie proposes to Jo, Gerwig said. Jo rejects Laurie and the two fight like siblings, the former refusing to grow up. But when Amy admonishes Laurie for his lazy ways, for instance, he listens, both of them speaking to each other like adults.

“When [Laurie] asks [Jo] to marry him, what’s so wonderful and heartbreaking about it is it’s not just that he’s saying ‘I love you’ and she’s saying ‘I don’t love you,’” Gerwig explained. “It’s that he’s stepping out of childhood. He’s stepping out of androgyny and he’s saying, ‘I’m a man, and I’d like you to come be a woman, for me, as my wife.’ It’s like he’s claiming his adult role and he’s asking her to claim hers, and she doesn’t want to. Amy wants to.”

But aside from all that, Gerwig pointed out, the two simply have such a great rapport in the book, she didn’t want to lose that on-screen. “I mean, just to be a little less highfalutin about it ...” She trailed off and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I think Amy and Laurie have a lot of sexual chemistry.” She laughed. “They want to fuck!”

Indeed, Pugh’s Amy gazes at Chalamet’s Laurie in a way Ronan’s Jo never does. (“She looks at Laurie like he’s Bo Derek in 10,” Gerwig joked of Pugh’s ogling.) But perhaps most impressive, in Gerwig’s take, neither relationship diminishes the importance of the other. Amy and Laurie’s romance doesn’t replace Jo and Laurie’s love, because the proposal defines Jo and Laurie’s relationship as friendly. Sure, it’s heated—Laurie chases Jo around while confessing his feelings—but Gerwig doesn’t frame it as unrequited love the way other adaptations did. Instead, they’re friends who care deeply for each other having a disagreement because one of them has confused platonic intimacy for romantic love.

In 1994, after the release of Gillian Armstrong’s film adaptation of Little Women, The New York Times ran an essay defending Amy’s behavior and arguing that her worst traits made her the best of the March bunch. “Was there ever a more passive-aggressive trio than those whiny little March sisters, Meg, Jo, and Beth?” asked the writer Caryn James. “Only Amy, the spoiled baby of the family, refuses to beg for attention. She simply accepts it as her due.”

Jo, in the book, eventually admits to admiring Amy’s ambition when both reach adulthood. “I’ll never laugh at you again,” she tells Amy, shortly before Amy departs for Europe. “You are getting on faster than you think, and I’ll take lessons of you in true politeness, for you’ve learned the secret, I believe.”

Gerwig’s Little Women doesn’t include such a tidy revelation scene for Jo. But in reframing the lens through which the story’s told, deepening the dynamic between Jo and Amy, and drawing pivotal elements from the novel for Amy to voice, her film recontextualizes Amy’s role. She’s not just the adorably funny sister cluelessly delivering malapropisms, or the brat running around in an outfit made up of hand-me-downs, or the young woman flirting her way into the heart of Jo’s best friend. In Gerwig’s hands, Amy March is like any younger sibling who grows up to become a complicated, sympathetic figure.

“Greta’s filmmaking is very much about little moments to find the character,” Ronan said, adding that just as siblings take a while to understand one another, fully grasping someone like Amy requires the same effort. “I suppose,” she continued, “it’s all about spending time with her.” Gerwig has, and would happily spend even more time thinking about Amy’s relationships. If only she could find that email.