A good book is re-readable. A great book gets better with every re-reading.
The director of the newly released film adaptation of Little Women has read and re-read Louisa May Alcott’s novel many times, as both a child and also an adult. Greta Gerwig’s love for and understanding of the novel is gloriously evident in this new film, which does more than mechanically translate the dialogues and scenes from text to screen. With her film, Gerwig (best known for her directorial debut: the warm and quirky 2017 comedy-drama Lady Bird) offers not merely an adaptation but a rich, skillful re-reading of the classic story.
Reading and Re-reading
In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov compares the process of reading and re-reading a book to looking at a painting:
When we read a book for the first time, the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page—this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about—stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave toward a book as we do toward a painting.
Of course, adapting a book to the medium of film naturally lends itself to the experience of eyeing a painting. In the case of Little Women, the visuals are faithful to the text both literally and luxuriously, plumping up the descriptive bones of the original narrative with rich costumes, sets, and scenery. Its sweeping camera work provides a satisfying balance between lingering close-ups and stunning panoramic takes. These lovely visuals, combined with the well-paced dialogue, make the film go much faster than its more than two hours would suggest.
But the particular sense of Nabokov’s take on re-reading is achieved through the way Little Women plays with chronology, turning the experience of the story into something that transcends linear time.
Alcott’s original Little Women is narrated chronologically. Most first-time readers, typically youthful ones, feel the emotional effects of the tragic, unexpected events in the way they unfold over time in the lives of the four March girls. The heartbreak and disappointment I felt so vividly (spoiler alert) at Jo’s rejection of her friend Laurie’s marriage proposal is as fresh today upon revisiting the story as it was in my first encounter. This typical response to the original narrative will differ dramatically for someone encountering the story for the first time in Gerwig’s film, however, where this outcome is revealed almost immediately. By re-ordering the plot, weaving back and forth between the girls’ adulthood and childhood, the film re-reads the story, changing not only the emotional effect of major plot events, but more importantly, their meanings within the story as a whole.
With this nonlinear structure, the film is more than a mere re-telling, becoming instead a re-envisioning of the original text—imbuing events, dialogue, and items that seem incidental in a first reading with the weight and significance they accumulate in retrospect.
The reordering of the plot also subtly dismantles the story’s romantic elements, gently nudging viewers toward the realism that exists in tension with the original story’s romanticism. Such realism is seen, for example, in how poverty and the Civil War are ever-present realities for the family. Foregrounded even more are the constraints of being a woman in this age. Idyllic scenes of childhood play, the sentimental tropes of Christmas, and, of course, romantic love counterbalance these elements of realism.
Realism vs. Romanticism
Indeed, the novel seems at times to be warring between these two contrasting worldviews. This is a strength, not a flaw. Inferior art advocates; good art wrestles. Little Women wrestles. It wrestles with various aspects of the human condition—and of being a woman in particular—that transcend its characters and its time. In recognizing the novel’s timelessness, Gerwig’s re-reading remains faithful to the spirit and sense of the original.
Inferior art advocates; good art wrestles. Little Women wrestles.
The temptation the novel dangles before readers—to deem Jo (played in the film by Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) as “soulmates”—is hard for most readers to resist. But by tidily putting away that notion early on, the film encourages us to pay attention to why such a seemingly perfect match is not so. On the other hand, in evening out the novel’s jarring disparities between Jo and Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), the film takes one step back to romanticism.
The most realistic element the film highlights—through both the story’s re-ordering and also some historically and biographically accurate extratextual framing—is the bind all women of the day found themselves in: financial dependence that turned marriage into a mercenary transaction. To marry for love, to marry a man of little means, or to not marry at all were, for women then, acts of minor revolution. The companionate view of marriage most of us adhere to today was just emerging at this time, and in fact, would prove revolutionary.
As an abolitionist, suffragist, and advocate for women’s rights, Alcott, in writing Little Women, was offering much more than a romantic tale of four girls. She was writing the stories of four little women—stories both descriptive of reality for women at the time and visionary for the future of women.
Moving Forward by Remembering
The way we move forward depends on whether (and how) we remember the past, an idea the film draws out by pivoting the plot on remembering. Remembering is a kind of re-reading. The Bible emphasizes remembering because without it—without remembering his laws, his promises, his covenants, our history, our identity in Christ—we lose our way forward. Every story—the story of creation, fall, and redemption; the stories of our own salvation and sanctification—is understood through remembering. (And the film’s ambiguous ending emphasizes even more the centrality of memory.)
The recognition that we own our stories (to echo an important line in the film)—and our testimonies—through remembering is the driving vision that makes this adaptation of Little Women so good. The film doesn’t attempt to re-write the story, but to do the harder, more fruitful work of re-reading it—and encouraging us to do the same.