Greta Gerwig’s fresh take on Little Women won’t win Best Picture, but it should
Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Greta Gerwig’s beautiful adaptation of a beloved old story.
Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard-bearer for the current moment.
So the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.
Each year’s slate of nominees roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.
The most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.
In the runup to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, The Goods deputy editor Meredith Haggerty, Vox culture reporter Constance Grady, and Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson discuss Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s celebrated adaptation of the 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel.
Alissa: I have all faith in Greta Gerwig, but even I was a little worried when this project was announced! I grew up reading the Little Womennovels and watching the film adaptations, especially the 1994 version, which was one of maybe six VHS films I owned growing up.
But the new adaptationdelivered even better than I could have imagined. The cast is marvelous, but it’s Gerwig herself who really made it sing, finding a uniqueway into the story that preserved the joy of the earlier adaptationswhile also teasing out elements that were there all along but hadn’t been emphasized before.
What for you were the film’s biggest revelations or realizations? What was the moment at which you realized what she was doing?
Meredith: I’m a Little Women diehard — I grew going to Orchard House (I’m from the next town over), and I’ve seen almost every adaptation of the novel (including the very terrible modern version with the kid from High School Musical) — so when I heard about this one, it sounded like an incredibly promising addition to what I basically consider a genre. My biggest fear was my own high expectations, but it seriously delivered.
For me, the biggest revelations were 1) Florence Pugh’s Amy (Constance, I know you identify as an Amy too; we will be getting into that), finally bringing justice to a misunderstood sister, and 2) the way Gerwig dealt with the role of money in the March family’s lives. I’ve seen arguments that the family March’s poverty wasn’t explored as much as it could have been, but I did feel like the incredibly limited choices for women and the pressure to save the family came across more than in other versions of the story. I felt their constraints in a way that, for whatever reason, seemed easy to ignore in previous takes on Little Women. It felt like this version was more about the little women making their ways in the world, as best they could, and a little less about that fantasy of home and family. I was in favor of it.
Constance: For me, the point at which I started to “get” the movie was early on, the first time we cut between the washed-out light of the future — Jo living her bohemian life in New York, Meg in her drab poverty, Beth convalescing, Amy in Paris — and the warm, golden light of the past, with all the sisters talking over one another in eager, affectionate bursts while Jo burns Meg’s hair.
One of the big problems with Little Women the novel is that everyone loves the first half, the part that Alcott wrote in a white-hot rush when she didn’t think it was ever going to become anything, and which seems to have been where she felt most creatively free. It’s the part where all the emotions are at their richest and strongest, and you get this sense of deep coziness combined with paralyzing constraint, and fury at that constraint, and that tension is what gives the book its power. But then you get to the next few sections, where everyone starts marrying off and dying and failing to live out their ambitious girlhood dreams. Those parts of the book are so bleak and unpleasant that generally, most Little Women adaptations will gloss over them as quickly as possible.
But Gerwig weaponized that structural split. By starting the story in medias res, she heightened the nostalgia all Little Women fans feel for the novel’s first half, and she gave herself the space to explore all the sad conflicted feelings that the second half generates in ways that I have never seen anyone do before.
Meredith: I know that as a kid watching the 1994 version, I didn’t really understand the stakes of womanhood in the 1860s. And I didn’t care — I was too busy being mad Jo didn’t end up with Laurie! I mostly tuned out after his confession of love. Jo’s life in New York was such an afterthought to me; Meg’s a mom and therefore super other to me, a child; Beth’s dead; and the Samantha Mathis version of Amy feels like barely more than a cameo. Grown-ups were boring, and thus the ending bored me.
Now, watching this super-familiar text as an adult, in a version that cares more about their adulthoods, the characters just feel full to me. Their growth — especially Amy’s — feels real and earned and not like this mysterious thing that happens because time passes and you got a new nose. It makes me want to reread the novel, which I haven’t done since I was small.
I felt like I “got” the time jumps right away, but I did wonder if that would come across to people who weren’t well-versed in the story. (Pugh’s bangs were incredibly helpful as well.) I admit I am still not sure I “got” the ending in the way many people do.
Alissa: When I was in my early teens, I was also mad about Jo and Laurie not ending up together (as I know Alcott’s readers were!), but by my late teens, I was proud of Jo for not ending up with the nice boy who was in love with her, which might say something about me. I never totally bought Professor Bhaer and Jo together, but I could certainly see his appeal over Laurie; he liked reading books, for one, and seemed interested in Jo for who she was and not who he thought she ought to be, and also he took her to the theater. (I am aggressively a Jo, for the record.)
I saw the movie asecond time with my husband, who is a very good movie watcher but had not seen or read the book before, and thus was not ready for, say, Beth to die, and screamed when Amy burned Jo’s novel. He didn’t have any issues with the time jumps, so I think some of the issue comes with people not being used to visual cues for that sort of thing. (I’ve also heard people say they didn’t understand that Beth was sick in both timelines, but that is sort of the point; present and past are meant to blur together, and the resonances between them are the point of this film entirely!) I also don’t think a little confusion is bad for an audience member, if it makes them sit up straighter and pay more attention to a movie that’s sometimes considered “just” a costume drama for girls.
I think the ending and the economic aspect of the book go hand in hand, because the ending is all about Jo finding a way to dwell in the tension between artistic integrity and Making a Living, which sure feels relevant today. I started saying “oh, wow” about 20 minutes from the end, when I started to get a feel for what was happening, though I still can’t pinpoint the exact moment the narratives “split” from one another. What do you have to say about the ending, Constance?
Constance: I’ve been excited about how Gerwig would handle Alcott’s notorious problem ending since well before I actually saw the movie — starting with when you saw it, Alissa, and I asked you how she did, and you told me that you thought I’d love it so much that you didn’t want to spoil it for me by saying anything about it. You were correct: I did love it with all my heart. (So much so that I wrote a whole explainer on it!)
Part of what’s so interesting about the ending is that nearly everyone I talk to thinks it was very clear and straightforward, and also everyone understood it to mean something else. The first time I watched it, I immediately took it to mean that “our” Jo wasn’t truly marrying Bhaer, but that the entire umbrella scene was the edited climax of the novel she was writing, and that the two timelines split off as soon as we saw Jo get out of that carriage. (In the “real” timeline, I vaguely thought, probably she went and talked to Bhaer and they set up some sort of 19th-century free love situation so that Jo could have the romantic companionship she clearly craves without losing her freedom to marriage. Marmee probably has a birth control source, right?)
I also thought that the distance between Jo the character and Alcott the author had entirely collapsed in that final sequence, and they had become one person for us. The movie, then, was about the act of writing Little Women and the act of adapting Little Women all at once, and about finding a way to do both commercially without completely sacrificing your artistic integrity.
And then I started talking to other people about the ending, and learned that a lot of themhad taken the ending to mean that our Jo was marrying Bhaer — because why else would the movie’s structure foreground him so strongly? — but that she was choosing to give her character a different kind of ending. Or they took it to mean that Jo wasn’t marrying Bhaer, but that the entire movie was a fiction that the frame-Jo was writing for us. And all of them thought that their personal interpretation was very clear and straightforward and intuitive.
Now, I think the ambiguity of the ending and how many possibilities it holds is one of my favorite things about it, and part of what lets the ending be so many things to all people. But what I love most about it is how it reframes Alcott’s decision to “sell out” by marrying off her heroine. Traditionally, that’s one of the things people dinged her for: I’m haunted by this line in that great arbiter of culture, Dawson’s Creek, in which a snooty elitist college student proves her snooty elitist bona fides by declaring Alcott a “minor writer,” because “most of what she wrote, she wrote purely for money.” That was what people took for granted about Alcott as recently as 1999: that she was a commercial and feminine writer, and as such, she was “minor.”
Gerwig refuses to take that as read! Her take on Little Women insists that yes, it is commercial and yes, it is feminine — and that is part of what is so exciting and subversive about it. It’s such a risky, valuable take on this book.
Meredith: I like the idea that the ending can be many things for many people! I loved it during the first viewing; I thought everything was real and that Jo-as-writer had skirted the need for a traditional marriage proposal with a highly romantic declaration in the rain — an important innovation in form that, in my reading, was also true to life. I did not think they married, necessarily, and I was happy with her cleverness.
But on the second viewing, having read other takes about what was and was not happening, I was actually a little less satisfied. For that narrative split to really land, I wish that it came earlier, specifically right after Jo shut the door on Baehr. The whole family, Laurie included, encouraging her to go after him is such classic rom-com wish fulfillment that it makes sense it would be an invention. It’s Alcott creating the “sprint to the airport” scene. As much as I enjoy your interpretation, Constance (transcendentalist free love, why not!), it feels like what happens after that mad dash is sort of inevitable. If it’s fiction, it doesn’t even do explicitly do what Tracy Letts’s publisher Dashwood wanted. In real life, I’d imagine she wouldn’t chase him at all (in part because I do buy into queer readings of Jo!).
It does, however, make sense that the absurdly idealized final family shots — including Jo’s fantastically modern pink smock dress — aren’t real in the same way that Jo watching her book come to life is, and the collapsing of Jo and Louisa was really interesting to me. Starting the film with Louisa’s name on the cover and ending it with Jo’s was an interesting choice ... one that I almost wish they had swapped around.
Alissa: I’m so fascinated — I didn’t realize there were multiple interpretations of the ending, but frankly, I love that they all work! I don’t think it’s clear-cut. I like that. Cool!
Can we talk about the character of Marmee? I read an interesting piece in the New Yorker about her, and I continue to have a lot of complicated feelings about Marmee. In this version, it became more clear to me that Marmee and Jo (like Jo and Amy!) are in a way meant to be versions of one another, two sides of a coin. What did you think about Marmee?
Meredith: The new take on Marmee and her admission of anger was so fascinating to me. It’s a shame those lines have been left out of other adaptations! Seeing her onscreen as a whole person was a revelation; I wanted to know even more. I want a Marmee origin story, to see how she met and put up with Mr. March (*cough* Bronson Alcott *cough*). But my other thought — which should come couched in heaps of praise for America’s angel Laura Dern — is that no one has ever had a less New England energy. As one of my Little Women-loving friends said, she had California cool mom energy! Concord could never! Sorry to all my friends’ moms!
Constance: I have … so many thoughts, y’all. First of all: Meredith is correct, Laura Dern is a national treasure and also slightly too glam for this role. Second of all: Marmee’s anger is so important, because Little Women is a book about not wanting to be a woman, and Marmee is our model of what being a woman looks like.
I mean that in a few different ways. Little Women is most obviously about Jo’s frustrations with the limitations of femininity (as Meredith mentioned above, there’s a lot of space for a queer reading of Jo, and especially to read her as a trans man), but it’s also about her horror at the idea of growing up and ending childhood, at the idea of no longer being a “little woman” and becoming just … a woman. That’s part of why the nostalgia of Gerwig’s structure works so well: because it shows us how much Jo loves her childhood, and how cold and bleak adulthood can look by comparison.
Within that structure, Marmee is both an ideal and a cautionary tale. She is the woman that Jo and all of the March sisters aspire to be, and she is also what they fear they will become. Because Marmee is good and kind and giving, and Marmee is also constrained and constraining. She is bound up by the world in which she lives, one in which her husband can lose all the family’s money and then leave her to raise four children on her own while he goes off to fight in a war. And she, in turn, passes those bindings along to her children, telling them over and over to be selfless, to smother their anger, to be good. No wonder Marmee is angry all the time, as bound up as she is — and no wonder Jo is terrified of growing up to be angry too.
Meredith: If anything, I’d say Dern’s Marmee, while explicitly expressing her anger, felt less plausibly angry than other, more reserved Marmees. The lightest Marmee on record! But because of the excellent script, I do think you get so much of this. Marmee’s life really is what Jo is so desperately trying not just to avoid, but to talk Meg out of.
Constance: Agreed. Susan Sarandon’s Marmee (in the 1994 movie) never talked about her anger, but she was very clearly feeling it. Dern’s Marmee is sprightly by comparison.
Alissa: I (unfortunately) think we need to talk about something frustrating about this movie’s Oscar chances, which is its many Oscar nominations (including for screenplay, actresses, and Best Picture) that somehow omit Gerwig as director. There are a lot of weird factors going into who gets nominated for director, of course, and many worthy candidates — as well as many worthy women who directed outstanding films this year. Should we be mad for Greta?
Meredith: I think it’s impossible not to be mad for Greta in a year when Todd Phillips is nominated. I’m not going to pretend I fully understand what a director does, versus a cinematographer, or an editor, etc., but the look and feel of this film worked so well for me — nostalgic enough to evoke warm feelings, but fresh for a very familiar story. If a director can be judged on successful vibes (can a director be judged on successful vibes?) and also on not, say, boring me to tears by being overlong and indulgent (ahem, The Irishman), she was robbed.
Constance: I am absolutely mad for Greta, especially since only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director. (Gerwig is one of them, for 2017’s Lady Bird.) The Academy seems to pretty consistently treat movies directed by women as if they just sprang into the world fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus’s head, without any women around to birth them.
That’s especially galling given the history of Little Women being treated as a lesser story because it’s for women and about women. I have discussed this history at more length before, but when Little Women first came out, just as children’s publishing was beginning to divide itself into “books for girls” and “books for boys,” it was considered to be the rare book to bridge the gender gap. It was so good that it transcended boundaries, and boys could read it without fear of being considered effeminate. Even Teddy Roosevelt, paragon of masculinity, read and loved Little Women.
But as the lines between “girl books” and “boy books” ossified, “girl books” started to fall out of the canon: The general theory was that girls would be willing to read boy books, but boys wouldn’t be willing to read girl books. This theory is still largely held among children’s publishers, children’s librarians, and children’s teachers, but what goes unsaid was that it’s because femininity is considered degrading for boys while masculinity is considered aspirational to girls. And as girl books disappeared, Little Women disappeared, too, so now it’s considered a book that girls can read at home on their own and boys can safely ignore. And when it gets turned into a movie, boys can ignore that film — and the craft that went into creating it — as well.
Alissa: Possibly the best thing for Greta in all this — and maybe the worst, I’m not sure — is that she’s become the poster girl for women directors who got snubbed, and luckily, it seems she has the wisdom, smarts, and grace to handle that position.
Last question, and a short one: So with all this said, if there are one or two lessons that future book adaptations can learn from this Little Women adaptation, what would you say they’d be?
Meredith: I think you should almost definitely cast Florence Pugh. (I’m only slightly kidding.) A book that’s beloved by audiences but was also complicated for the author is a tricky thing. Louisa reportedly hated the book! But the love and respect for the source material is just so evident here; you can better impose a new and interesting structure if it comes from deep and close reading of the book and its author and its time. Greta knew which strings she could pull, and she was able to bring in the reality of this book, the reality and frustrations of publishing as a woman, in a way that illuminated the original — while still bringing fans the moments and the family that they love. Also, stop adapting Little Women, probably. We’re good now.
Constance: I think that what’s most successful about this adaptation is that it’s very much in dialogue with all the previous interpretations of Little Women that came before it. As you put it in your review, Alissa, it’s adaptation as (loving, respectful) criticism. I think that’s the smartest and sharpest way to approach source material that’s already been adapted a million times before, and I’d love to see the next, say, Pride and Prejudice take a similar approach: Rather than trying to overwrite everything that’s come before you, have a dialogue with it.
Alissa: Agreed with you all. I also think that scrambling the structure of the story (which has been controversial, but to good effect, I think!) is a great way to keep people who are deeply immersed in the story before they even get to the theater engaged, unable to zone out. I have hope for the future of adaptations!