Still from Little Women
By Sapna Khajuria
You know there are classics that live on, timeless, ageless, always relevant, always holding on to a realm of memory in your heart. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a childhood favourite for many of us, mostly for women, in spite of the mild preachy element in the book. Every little girl wanted to be Jo, the tomboyish, spirited sister. There have been five film adaptations of the book before this, including the ones with Katherine Hepburn as Jo in 1933 and Winona Ryder as Jo in 1994. How is Greta Gerwig's version different? Will your child enjoy the film?
My boys liked the 1994 version when they watched it on TV a year ago. With both my teenagers unwell, I didn't have their company for this movie. My junior critics-in-chief were an adorable seven-year-old girl and a 10-year-old seated next to me.
The March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy live in a middle-class home with their mother, Marmee while their father is away as part of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Meg is quiet but fond of pretty things, Jo is the fiery, tomboyish budding writer, musically talented Beth keeps poor health but is the kindest of the lot, and the youngest Amy has a mind of her own, and wants to lead a good life.
The film wastes no time in getting down to the grim reality of women's status. When Jo presents a manuscript to an editor, he tells her to make sure the female protagonist is either married or dead at the end, because that's the only ending for a woman that was acceptable to readers in an extremely patriarchal social milieu. The only way to be an unmarried woman is to be stinking rich, as propounded by the girls' Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Jo can't get over her disappointment of being a girl, because she couldn't join the army and fight in the Civil War. "That's not fair," remarked the seven-year-old. So far, so good - the young ones seemed to be following the script.
The story is presented in a non-chronological format and jumps backward and forward from the present where the four are adults, to a few years ago during their adolescent years. Interspersed with the story is also the story of the characters from Jo's book, so at times there are three stories to keep track of. This back and forth got a bit tough for the seven-year-old to follow, and her mother had to explain to her which parts were current and which were flashbacks. If your child has not read the book, it would be helpful to brief them about the main characters, and how the story is expected to progress.
Saoirse Ronan breathes and lives Jo's character - with the dishevelled hair, the perpetual nervous energy, ink stained fingers, and ambidexterity (as Alcott herself was). She is sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for, refuses her friend Laurie's proposal, and sets off to find her own place in the world.
Emma Watson as Meg was miscast. Meg was always the sober, adjusting eldest sister, but here her character is plain dull. Florence Pugh was absolutely fantastic as Amy - it's interesting how Amy was always portrayed as the petulant, bratty younger sister; and Greta Gerwig gives Amy her due. The reason she and Jo clash as much as they do, is that they are both the strongest willed of the four sisters, and are more alike than they would care to accept. Pugh stole the scene in her scene with Timothee Chalamet's Laurie when she tells him that marriage is nothing but an economic proposition. Amy may be vain and selfish, but she is never short on confidence, and perhaps the only sister who unapologetically knows what she wants from her life.
My 10-year-old advisor informed me that the sibling rivalry between Amy and Jo was the best part of the film, because it was true even today. Amy declaring that she was sick of being second to Jo her whole life, or Marmee's sadness at seeing one of the two siblings heartbroken, was handled so well. The ending is just brilliant. I cannot reveal more for fear of handing over a major spoiler, but the way Jo's character finds her place at the end is nothing short of creative genius.
The children's verdict
Yay or nay:
The young ones found the non-linear format a bit tough to follow. The older child whose parents had given her a background of the story felt it was easier to follow than the seven-year-old. I'd say 10 is probably a good starting age for children to watch this version, as younger children might find the film a bit confusing. My boys who enjoyed the 1994 version informed me sagely that they doubt most boys their age would want to be caught watching this film, unless they were blackmailed or tricked into it. Seeing as all the adult men friends in my group that day spent the better part of the movie texting each other on ideas to escape from the movie, I don't doubt my boys' words.
If you have younger boys, please do take them to watch this movie. It's so essential that stories like these find a place in their movie watching genres as much as it is important for girls to watch the film.
What does not work
The non-chronological format is the only part of the movie that younger children may struggle with. Everything else is refreshingly real, and makes this version my favourite of all the versions released as movies so far.
Humour quotient and swear-o-metre
This is squeaky clean as can be, and there's a lot of banter among the March sisters to amuse children of all ages. The plays that Jo writes and the girls act in, enthralled my young movie viewing buddies.
Positives to take away from the film / talk to your children about
As a background, tell them about the time period during which the story is set - a time where women had a limited future, were not expected to do much beyond get married and bear children, and did not have a right to vote.
A big positive to speak about is Jo's tenacity at negotiating her publishing contract, not willing to give up on her copyright - in the backdrop of the continued struggle women face at the workplace every day, whether it is over equal pay, or their perceived unwillingness to fight for their dues.
Go for it?
For those who think this is a girly story, think again - by setting the film largely in an adolescent and adult phase of the March sisters' lives, Gerwig takes away any "juvenile" element of the film. For those who think the film takes too many liberties with Alcott's novel, I'd say, look closely at the book again. Most of the "liberties" are hidden in the text. As for the ending, watch carefully, and you'll realise that this is probably the best ending Louisa May Alcott had in mind, but could not create because of the times she lived in.
The cherry on top was the seven- year-old's declaration that Jo was her absolute favourite character from the film. Note to my childhood self - Jo will always remain every young girl's favourite, whatever the decade a girl grows up in. It's the best possible tribute to the legacy of a writer who was way ahead of her times, and Gerwig takes the story where Alcott would have, had she not lived in the era she did.
(The writer is a lawyer by training, who would rather be a full-time globetrotter, and mom to 12-year-old twin boys who share her love for all things filmy.)