Greta Gerwig's Vibrant, Ambitious 'Little Women' Reinvents Itself

“I want to be great, or nothing.” This defining line from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women has become a catchphrase of American literary feminism, repeated out of context, embroidered onto pillows, and championed nearly to the point of losing all meaning. 

The sentiment, first delivered by Alcott’s Amy March in regards to her skills at a painter, rings particularly hollow when you consider its place in the countless film, television, and stage adaptations of Little Women that have come since its first publication. These retellings, like so many adaptations of classic novels, have rarely striven for that artistic greatness Amy speaks of—they’ve by and large been pale, sentimental imitations of what a great story looks like, designed to print cash and appease the period piece crowd, i.e. women. Aside from Gillian Armstrong’s hit 1994 film, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Little Women as vital as the original.

That is, until Greta Gerwig came along. The writer-director behind Lady Bird and Frances Ha has been emphasizing the value in quotidian stories about young women throughout her short filmmaking career, and her talents and interests have found a perfect home in Little Women. Lively, ambitious, and deftly directed, Gerwig’s adaptation takes both its subjects and audience seriously, building its own kind of greatness that extends far beyond the power of the original text. It doesn’t attempt to overwrite Alcott’s story with modern feminism, but rather highlight how the joys and struggles of her characters have persisted across time. Filled out by an exhilarating ensemble cast, Gerwig’s Little Women is the best we’ve ever seen this story—and it’s one of the best films of the year.

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