There’s a list a mile long of world-class authors who have been inspired to take up the pen by Little Women, among them Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote of how Louisa May Alcott and her alter ego Jo March made a writer’s life seem viable.
“This passion of work, and this happiness which blessed her in doing it are fitted without fuss into a girl’s commonplace life at home,” wrote Le Guin, explaining how the book provided for many women an accessible “validation” of the idea of working, writing, and earning your keep.
The most recent admirer is Greta Gerwig, 36, who has fitted Little Women (opening here Christmas Day) for its umpteenth adaptation for the screen.
Gerwig was besotted by the novel as a child, and fell for it again as a grown-up — so much so that she looked deeply into the life of its author, and found striking parallels between Alcott’s anachronistic determination to make a living as a 19th-century novelist and her own efforts to break through as a female filmmaker.
“I like to say that Jo March was the heroine of my childhood, and Louisa May Alcott is the heroine of my adulthood,” said Gerwig, who was struck by how “modern” Alcott’s struggles were — writing professionally during the Civil War era (also volunteering as a nurse), supporting her struggling family in doing so.
“She was an incredible, revolutionary woman, way ahead of her time in so many things. She was utterly unconventional, and she had to be, in order to make the most of her talents, given the times,” said Gerwig.
Of particular interest to Gerwig was the way Alcott understood that money was linked to power and independence and freedom, especially for women. Alcott was criticized throughout her life by those who looked down on the lurid thrillers (before and after Little Women) she wrote for cash, but she didn’t much care.
Alcott made this dynamic a feature of Little Women: Jo is rebuked by her father (“you could do better”), but lets it roll off her back: “She fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful cheques. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of her pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all.”
Gerwig laughs at how Alcott responded when accused — by male authors — of being “mercenary.”
“ ‘I can’t afford to starve on praise.’ That’s something that Alcott actually said, and it becomes a line in the movie,” said Gerwig, who incorporates some of Alcott’s actual biography (and writing) into the movie, and fiddles with the book’s chronology to tell the story in flashback form.
“She was really delicious. Just so funny and so mean and so witty and so swift with a comeback,” said Gerwig. Alcott took shots from literary heavyweights, including Henry James (pardon the pun), but took a “consider-the-source” attitude toward much of it. These men didn’t understand the life she’d lived, Gerwig said — working in a factory at age 16, making extra money sewing at home.
“When she says she can’t afford to starve on praise, she’s saying that to someone [James] who was basically a trust-fund kid.”
Like Jo, Alcott stepped up to earn when her father was called away by the Civil War. Alcott’s own father served in the war, but even before that was not much of a provider. He was a transcendentalist (he hung out with Thoreau and Emerson) and abolitionist who started an ill-fated “vegan commune” called Fruitlands in Massachusetts (where Gerwig was determined to film, and where she shot many of the exteriors).
Like many fervent idealists, he was penniless, and Alcott’s writing kept the family afloat. All of this informed the way she wrote, the stories she chose to write, her attitude toward her craft and her calling.
When the autobiographical story of Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her sisters (Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen) became a monster hit, Alcott was happy to write sequels, and happy to return to writing thrillers and gothic entertainments.
“One of the fascinating undercurrents of the book, to me, is this interplay between art and money. So much of what this book is about is about lack of money and resources, how if you are a woman there is no clear path for how to get them,” she said.
Then, and sometimes now.
Gerwig worked the indie world as an actress, writer, and director, eventually making her Oscar-nominated hit Lady Bird, still unreleased when she made her deal for Little Women, which had four times the budget of the $10 million Lady Bird.
“This question of how art interacts with money is still pretty profound. Who gets the resources to make what films? How do we view them? I wanted to do something, that, to be perfectly honest, would have all the bells and whistles of an epic story about four brothers. We wanted to be given the same advantages, we wanted these girls to have the same playground.”
She was able to get them through producer Amy Pascal at Sony, with a budget big enough for location shooting, a first-rate cast (including Laura Dern as Marmee March, Meryl Streep as Aunt March), and a prized holiday release date during awards season — Little Women has earned a Golden Globe nomination for Ronan, and has been named one of the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of 2019.
So, art and commerce in this case could yield a happy marriage. Speaking of a marriage — for Gerwig the movie is about money and power, but for many readers it’s about Jo and Laurie, the rich kid (Timothée Chalamet) next door who loves Jo, and the suitor she turns down.
“Readers didn’t want it, the publisher didn’t want it, nobody wanted it. But it showed that [Jo] had agency, she made a choice, and the choice was I’m not going to get married. You have to think about how huge that was, to have a female character in a narrative say no," Gerwig said.
Alcott never married, never wanted Jo to get married, but deferred to a deluge of letters from tens of thousands of readers (Little Women was written in two parts, the second urged on by popular demand) who wanted all the March sisters married off, including Jo, who famously says in the book she would have been happy to be “a literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse and a family of stories for children." (When Jo’s first book is published, Ronan’s Jo hugs it to her bosom as if it were an infant.)
Gerwig plays around with the ending, coming up with something that she believes honors the official version as well as the spirit of Alcott.
Who, if she’s looking down, is probably doing so approvingly, enjoying another interpretation of her work. Through one iteration after another, it has achieved immortality.
Take that, Henry James.