By Pui Kuan Cheah
Based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, the new adaptation of Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig has been applauded by critics and audiences alike. It landed six nominations and one win at the 92nd Academy Awards for best costume design, amidst a competitive nominee selection. Prior to the movie’s theatrical release, many were questioning the need for yet another adaptation of Alcott’s novel, given that plenty onscreen adaptations of it already exist. Fortunately, Gerwig manages to distinguish her film from these and make it her own, and I believe the film has been deserving of the nominations it has received the whole of awards season.
The most distinct aspect of Gerwig’s adaptation is its non-linear timeline. Instead of following the March sisters’ lives chronologically, there is a constant switch between past and present. This adds emotional and historical background to scenes in the present, giving reason to character dialogue or actions. The timelines are differentiated through colour filters, meant to reflect the moods associated with them – a “golden glow” for the past, as Gerwig describes it in Vanity Fair’s Notes on a Scene, and a gloomier tone for the present. We observe this change through characters too, especially Amy who starts off childish and bratty, and ends up a sophisticated young woman. This role is executed brilliantly by Florence Pugh, who was recognised with an Oscar nomination. Together with Gerwig’s screenplay, the movie has led to a common consensus among audiences that Amy March is no longer a hated character like in the novel. Saoirse Ronan also does marvellous work playing Jo, earning her an Oscar nomination too.
Another noticeable way Little Women alters from its source material is its ending. It is important to first note that Alcott based the character of Jo on herself, but unlike herself, she had to end the book with Jo being married due to the pressures by her publisher and audiences at the time. For the 2019 film, instead of having Jo marry Professor Bhaer, we last see Jo as unmarried. Gerwig has stated her intention of writing this ending in an interview with The Oprah Magazine, mentioning that she “wanted to give Louisa May Alcott an ending she might have liked”. As can be gathered from other interviews Gerwig has done for this film, this statement is a testament to how passionate she was about this project. She has mentioned loving the book since she was young, and this love is present in her treatment of this adaptation.
However, Little Women would not be complete without the work of costume designer, Jacqueline Durran. Working closely alongside Gerwig and the ensemble cast, Durran told CNN that she aimed to create a wardrobe that all the actors would be comfortable in rather than a strict Victorian style one would expect. This was to help make their portrayals more natural and their characters be more relatable to the audience, through a more subtle way than speech or behaviour. She also decided that each of the March sisters had a colour associated to them, which were weaved into their outfits worn, and this took a step further where Marmee’s outfits would sometimes have all four colours weaved into hers to show how her spirit is present in each of her four daughters. Such detail may not be spotted on first viewing but is a fun thing to pick up on subsequent ones.
Gerwig has managed to catapult her way into the Hollywood awards circuit as a director, transitioning from an actor to behind the camera. Her last film Lady Bird was her solo directorial debut, which came out in 2017 and was met with critical acclaim. With just 2 successful films being released within 3 years of each other, she has cemented her position as one of the biggest female directors today. Telling stories that people of all ages can relate to, no matter what time period they may take place in, is one of the hallmarks of her films. With her recent adaptation of Little Women, she has managed to adapt the story to film for a 21st century audience to call their own, without losing the essence of the 19th century novel. I am definitely eager to see her future works as she continues her career in the director’s chair!