This can make for cloying storytelling. In Alcott’s book, the March parents set the bar absurdly high. Mr. March—who is volunteering as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War—writes to his daughters that they are, as Alcott puts it, to “do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully.” In essence, they are to aspire to sainthood.
Generally, young people, or readers of any age, don’t go for this kind of sanctimony. But as a fourth grader, I fell for it in a big way, poring over the book’s pages as if they were holy writ. I was sufficiently concerned that my daughter might not know to consume Little Women with a heaping of salt that I insisted on reading it aloud to her, even after she asked me to just “hand it over” so that she could tear through it on her own.
During these read-alouds, I’ve come to realize that the moralizing wasn’t what drew me in as a kid. It was the fact that Little Women’s protagonists are complex girls with rich inner lives. The boys, for once, are in supportive roles.
It’s hard to overstate how unusual that was in the literature I grew up on in the 1980s. The other novels I swooned for—such as Watership Down, The Chosen, The Once and Future King, etc.—had male protagonists. To the extent that girls made an appearance, it was generally as love interests. That formula is turned on its head in Little Women. The March sisters are the central figures, and they pursue different paths. Meg, the eldest, becomes a wife and mother. Jo, who can be mercurial and impolitic, burns to be a great writer. Beth is painfully shy and virtuous. Amy, the youngest, has artistic ambitions; she is more manipulative and vain than the others.
I, like virtually every other girl who wanted to become an author, found a patron saint in Jo March. Gerwig has spoken about the debt she owes to that fictional heroine. It seems apropos that she’s followed Lady Bird, her triumphant debut as a screenwriter and solo director, with Little Women. Both films examine the experience of girls who yearn for more than what they have and document the sacrifices they make to be true to who they are.
Gerwig is open-eyed about her characters’ foibles, but she doesn’t treat them harshly. Those who know the book well will spot several sly slap-downs of Alcott’s more didactic passages. In addition to the four March sisters, the principal protagonist is their neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, a handsome, rich young man who loves Jo passionately. On her wedding day, Meg March asks Laurie to promise to abstain from ever again consuming alcohol, and he accedes. In the film, in contrast, during the nuptial festivities, he spirits away a glass of wine and shares it with Jo.
Another Alcott scene dripping with sanctimony concerns Meg’s visit with wealthy friends while she is still single. At a ball they host, she commits the sins of wearing an off-the-shoulder dress, drinking champagne, and flirting. In the book, she feels sufficiently guilty that she goes down on her knees in front of her mother to “’fess.” In Gerwig’s version, when Laurie warns her that Jo would disapprove of her transformation, Meg asks him not to judge her: “Let me have my fun tonight. I will be desperately good for the rest of my life.”