The choice between following cookie-cutter societal standards and chasing one’s passions has been plaguing women for hundreds of years. And for some, there was never a choice at all. Author Louisa May Alcott ended her two volumes of “Little Women” in a manner that satisfied the masses, betraying her own wishes. Approximately 150 years after their release, director Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) takes on a new interpretation of the 1868 novel and its dissatisfying ending. “Little Women” is a coming-of-age tale that unfolds a heart-wrenching story of four sisters’ struggles in a misogynistic world. Gerwig interweaves the main adult narrative with childhood flashbacks to emphasize the crushing reality of a woman trying to pave her way through society and a powerful story of conquering life.
The movie opens with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan, “The French Dispatch”), a fierce, free-spirited writer, living in New York with no desire to be tied down. Jo sits inside of a publishing office, discussing the outcome of her novel. The aspiring writer is saddled with the requirement to write love stories, feeding her readers the same oblivion of a perfect household without the option for a woman’s independence. Her publisher demands that Jo end her story with the leading lady getting tied down, much to her dismay. Gerwig emphasizes the same grim energy in Jo’s sisters. Amy March (Florence Pugh, “Black Widow”) is a failing artist ready to give up on her lifelong dream and settle for marrying rich. The oldest March sister, Meg (Emma Watson, “The Circle”) loves her husband and two children but ultimately holds an unwavering lust for the idea of a grander life. It seems as though the sisters will inevitably be forced to disregard their passions and succumb to undesired lifestyles, a sad commonality among most women. But it wasn’t always this way.
The movie pulls the viewers back in time to a beautiful scene of the March sisters seven years earlier. The sequence fosters their sacred sisterly bond and the perfect chaos they invoke in their quaint house. Meg, an anchor of responsibility and grace; Jo, fiercely family-oriented with a boyish charm and an affinity for action; Amy, a rambunctious spirit with a mischievous personality and Beth, a do-no-wrong pianist with love and generosity for all. They were the spitting image of hope: hope of having grandiose lives for small-town women. Gerwig’s deviations from the main plot with the flashbacks are a dynamic rendition of the novel, forcing the viewers to contrast their charismatic childhoods with their restless realities. She intentionally emphasizes these flashbacks to show the amount of potential all of the March sisters had. Gerwig proceeds to draw a startling comparison between their huge hopes and disappointing realities, paralleling the reality of most women in the 1800s. But Gerwig provides the young girls with justice and ensures it doesn’t end here for the Little Women.
In the movie, Gerwig beautifully intertwines the original ending of the novel with new, revolutionary developments in society. Alcott’s “Little Women” novels regrettably ended with Jo marrying Professor Friedrich (Louis Garrel, “Rifkin’s Festival”), a man she worked with in New York, to satisfy the public. Alcott’s publishers advised her that the book wouldn’t sell if Jo remained unmarried. “Girls write to ask who the little women will marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” Alcott complained in a letter to a friend in 1869. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, “Don’t Look Up”), the charming boy who lived next door to the March sisters, seemed to be the inevitable choice. He was intensely spellbound by Jo and utterly heartbroken when she rejected his hand in marriage. But instead of satisfying the readers’ desired ending and marrying the pair, Alcott introduced a new, less impactful character for her to marry: Freidrich.
Gerwig brings up this same issue in the movie with Jo’s publisher forcing her to marry off her book’s main character. The director skillfully mirrors Jo with Alcott herself, both of them facing the same disputes with their novels’ endings. However, Gerwig’s revolutionary movie ending allows Jo herself to stand by her morals and remain a single, independent woman. Gerwig’s interpretation left a substantially empowering statement and gave “Little Women” the ending Alcott wanted — and the ending it needed.
While most people love beautifully romantic tales, these fantasies fail to consider the deeper complexities of real societal desires. And in today’s society, people are much more open about acknowledging controversial issues and giving women a voice of opinion. Marrying Jo off to Laurie would have been ideal, but the story itself would not have had as profound of an impact on society. Alcott ensured that “Little Women” wasn’t cast off as another idealized love story and began playing with the idea that women might want more than marriage. Maybe Jo didn’t have to love Laurie to have an enriching life. Alcott’s desired ending for Jo was unfortunately ahead of her time, and Gerwig saw the opportunity to follow through on Alcott’s wishes, now in a time where being a working woman is a normality. Through all of the March sisters’ successes and failures, “Little Women” is a perfect tale describing the closeness of family and, most importantly, fighting for what you rightfully deserve.
Daily Arts Contributor Zara Manna can be reached at email@example.com.