Readers Write In #189: A look at Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (on Prime) through the prism of the book it is based on

Posted on May 23, 2020

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(by Aparna Namboodiripad, who comments here as tonks)

I’ve often asked myself why I am so fond of 19th century novels. I never get tired of re- reading them, and find myself repeatedly moved when I do. One reason probably is that classics are stories that have withstood the test of time, so there are qualities in such books that make them ever entertaining. Another reason is that for me, personally, more than plot, or even quality of writing, what makes a book worth reading are the depth, and the believability of its characters. And these century old stories are mostly very strong on their characterisations ( be it Darcy, Tess, or Heathcliff) unlike most modern books. One more reason, I think, is that these books were written before the sexual revolution came to the West, so the prudishness in the society described is similar to that in the middle class South Indian society I belong to. So these stories are perhaps more identifiable (for me) than modern Western books, whose characters’ thoughts and behaviour sometimes feel a little alien. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother plotting schemes for a suitable groom for her daughters could easily be someone I know in real life. I enjoy the romances depicted in these books that are mostly in the mind, and do not/cannot for social reasons become physical, much like the ones seen in our conservative Indian middle class society.

“Little women”  is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott that was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. I have however read it as one novel, once when I was a teen, and once later in life. Though I did really enjoy the tale of these four young women, I remember being just a little put off by some of the book’s moralising or preaching, the bits where the girls are told to be self- sacrificing. I was looking forward to watching the movie when it released, especially on learning about all its awards and nominations, and was finally able to watch it on Prime some days back.

The million dollar question asked whenever one watches a movie after reading a book is : does the movie live up to the book? Even though I understand how certain situations and events in the book need to be modified to suit visual representation, and how many characters may need to be trimmed or left out altogether to fit the story into the shorter frame of a movie, non withstanding all that, it leaves me traumatized when major changes are brought to the plot in the movie version. This is because the story in the book has happened in my mind already, and showing a slightly different story on screen, is akin to lying (for me). So even though my last reading of the book was many years back, and my memory rusty for a detailed recall, I was happy to see that the movie seemed to be more or less true to the book, in almost all the major plot details. Jo’s character in the book was that of a tomboy, and though that has been well brought out in the movie too, Saoirse Ronan is altogether a lot more pretty than the Jo March I had made up in my mind’s eye, but she got into the character so much that I could forget that after a while. And I belong to one of the majority who likes their leads to be easy on the eye, so that was easily forgivable. The movie goes back and forth through two different time frames, until they merge in the end, and because the characters do not change much in looks between frames, I found this a little confusing at times when scenes changed, not knowing which was the present and which the past. Perhaps it is because this is a modern day retelling of the story, but the element of women’s empowerment in the story that Jo’s character’s behaviour and ultimate fate gives us, to me seemed very much emphasised in the movie. I do not recall that in the book, though the original story is admittedly that of achieving equality, that of a girl frustrated by the fact that there were then so few options open to a girl other than marriage. I suspect the movie has been modified a little to suit modern sensibilities of equality. Jo March is a character who is truly ahead of her times as is evident from some of her dialogues :

“Women have minds and souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty. And I’m sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for.”

“I intend to make my own way in this world.”

And the cynically witty observation when her editor tries to sell her short after suggesting changes to her story :

“If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.”

While Saoirse Ronan excels as Jo, Timothée Chalamet gives a convincing performance as the rich, but purposeless Laurie. He had played a similar shallow character opposite Saoirse Ronan in Ladybird, a movie that is streaming on Netflix. Emma Watson is perfect as Meg March, the less ambitious of the sisters who prefers marriage and family to ambitions, and when Jo questions this, she tells her, “Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.”

The heart of the story is about how Jo successfully overcomes her hurdles after a few years of frustration, but it is also a coming of age tale, of the sisters growing up into young adults and of the ways in which they achieve their very different expectations in life . The direction is skillful, and almost all the major details of the book are smoothly incorporated into the much shorter duration of the film, which made it one of those rare movies that live up to the standards of the book it is based on.