Little women: delving into the old and new

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I read the novel Little Women for the first time when I was almost eight years old. It was an old, abridged copy, rather a children’s version of the classics that my Dad had brought along with a copy of David Copperfield. Little Women however had beautiful illustrations of the different incidents in the story, and I could picture Jo and the March sisters in my mind even before I saw the 1994 movie.

As I grew up, I read and re-read the original novel, watched and re-watched the original film, till every scene, every dialogue, the smallest of details were lodged in my memory irreversibly. If I took up writing, it was because Jo March made me believe so. Every time Beth approached her death, I cried. It felt like losing a loved one in my own life, and coming to terms with its quiet grace and acceptance. “The ones that love us, never really leave us”, writes a writer, years later, who was also inspired by Lousia May Alcott.

Needless to say, the novel and the movie both had a huge impact on my life. So, when it was announced that a new version was being re-created by Greta Gerwig, and with a stellar star cast nonetheless, I was determined not to watch it. I couldn’t believe that an attempt to replicate the novel would be possible with the same tenderness and finesse as that of the 1994 movie. It was a silly block in my mind of course, but I was quite firm not to betray the old version. Until peer pressure made me do otherwise.

A comparison with the old version and the book followed naturally after watching the new one. I do not endorse the new one, for sure. However, before I delve into the reasons on why it’s best to stick to the book and the 1994 movie, a few things that the new movie did manage to show differently also merits discussion. After all, if it is a critique that I want to offer to my readers, I should not let my bias get the better of me.

First off, the new movie is more vocal about its feminist views. Of course, Louisa May Alcott was herself a feminist, far ahead of her times, and in the novel, the March’s unusual way of raising their daughters, Jo and Amy chasing their dreams in foreign lands, the girls making their own choices about marriage were all the makings of a strong statement towards women empowerment. The old movie follows that. The new movie however takes it a step forward and actually gives dialogues to the sisters who defiantly endorse the particular choices they make as young women in their deeply patriarchal world. “I just want to enjoy this one night”, Meg tells Laurie, when he censures her choice of decking up for the party. Again, in the later half, Amy says, “Marriage is an economic proposition”, to Laurie and vents out about the unfairness of the legal system that leaves little choice for women to marry for love.

Secondly, Meg’s character is given more justice in the new version. In the 1994 movie she seemed to be overshadowed by Jo’s strong personality. The trials of her domestic life with John Brook that feature in the book do not find a place in the movie. Here, just like the novel, she is the most beautiful of all the sisters, virtuous but somewhat demure and commonplace. In the new movie she is more confident and at ease with the choices she makes. Her dilemma of wanting to own ‘all the pretty things’ and dealing with the paltry income generated by her husband is also given its space. I do believe Emma Watson, who plays Meg in the movie has something to do with it. Even when Jo is cajoling her to run away from the marriage she says, “just because my dreams are different from yours, that doesn’t mean they are unimportant”.

Aunt March is given more shades (again, how can they not when Meryl Streep steps into her shoes). Her wish that her nieces should marry into a wealthy family stems from pragmatism, however misplaced, Jo feels it to be so. Watching her sister in law struggle to raise four daughters in the absence of her idealistic husband has convinced her of the consequence of marrying in a ‘morally different’ family like the March’s. In both the above examples, the new movie inches closer to the novel than the old one by picking up the essence of the women’s struggles that Louisa May Alcott tried to highlight.

The new movie also addresses the issue of slavery on which the civil war (where Mr March had gone) was fought, and a tiny glimpse of the March’s standing for equal rights for all at a small cost of being different in their social circles is given.

Finally, the scene in the book in which Jo and Beth go off to the seaside for their little holiday is beautifully captured by the new film. This one thing they have nailed (or rather sketched for the use of a better word) to perfection.

Can I safely turn to bashing the new movie for everything it took away from the loyal readers now? Facts first.

The Lawarence and the March houses were not miles apart as shown in the new movie, but so close that Laurie knew the name of each of the sisters by heart even before he met Jo at the ball.

Again, in the novel and the old movie Mr Bhaer was 15 years senior to Jo, a fact that had much to do with Jo falling in love with ‘a man who has seen the world’ rather than a young lad of her own age and station.

In the book, Jo did  express to her mother that she wanted to say yes to Laurie’s proposal, but never proceeded to write a letter to him. She always held to her reasons in rejecting him, even if she was sad about losing a friend (as she thought she would) when he married Amy. This part in the new movie was perhaps based on the popular sentiment among a lot of Little Women’s fans of shipping Laurie and Jo together (against the writer’s will, of course).

In fact, the whole part in the new movie where Amy rants at being second fiddle to Jo was also added on. There was plenty that the sisters disagreed on and consequently took opposite paths, but the disagreement translating into jealousy and resentment between them was simply forced.

The 1994 movie sticks to these facts, as given in the book, and there is a sense of comfort in not losing the Alcott’s thoughts in the interpretations of the director.

Going ahead, I also felt that more space should have been given to the development of Laurie and Mr Bhaer in the film, especially introspecting the reasons why Amy and Jo fell in love with them, respectively. Greta Gerwig took great liberties in trying to bring the thought process of Jo as she re-considered Laurie’s proposal in the aftermath of Beth’s death. She could have taken the same liberty in bringing to the audience her own interpretation of why the men fell in love — and out of — with the sisters.

In the book (as per my own analysis) Jo was something of an idealist (like her father) and headstrong (like her mother). Mr Bhaer’s company allows her to live an unconventional life and chase her dreams like she always desired. On the contrary, Laurie was always worldly and a connoisseur of all the beautiful things, just as his privilege allowed him, and Amy was the one who could complement both his social position and appreciation of art. I do feel that something of this is attempted to be showcased in the 1994 movie. However, in Greta’s version, both the male protagonists appear to be lacklustre, serving only as an object of the love interests of Jo and Amy.

I was also not in the favour of the disrupted timeline, somewhere in the back and forth of the story, things got rushed and we missed the evolution of the girls into little women.

Finally, the end. I gave a lot of thought, measuring the pros and cons till I decided it is best to confess that it left me disappointed. It is a known fact that the novel is based on Lousia May Alcott’s own life, and that she remained a good old spinster until the end. In the book however, Jo finds a perfect match and settles down to matrimonial bliss with Mr Bhaer. Greta Gerwig explores one such possibility of why the writer took the decision to let her beloved character, in which she embodies her own self, marry. According to her interpretation, in the end Jo (who is representing Alcott now) decides to make the final edit after her editor convinces her that the masses would never accept an unmarried female protagonist.

Now, it is possible that this happened.

Or it is also possible that Alcott wanted Jo to have what she herself could never find, true love and an equal partner. Who are we to say either? The novel though based on her own story is but a piece of fiction. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to create a biopic of Alcott and merge the story of how she was inspired to write Little women? Something like the film Shakespeare In Love?

I personally recall the minutest detail when Jo chases after Mr Bhaer in the rain in the 1994 film. “My hands are empty”, he says. “Now they are not”, Jo says by placing her hands into his before they steal a kiss under the umbrella. The old romantic in me wants to believe this fairy tale and wants the movie to end just like the writer chose it to end.

It will be bad for those who only saw the latest version and may not consider reading or watching the original Little women. The incarnate detailing of the story of each sister’s life, their desires and their dreams in the book will be lost to them. Something of the magic, something of the beauty, something of the charm of Winona Ryder and Christian Bale will also be lost to them. I would say, like a die-hard fan would, reading and watching all the three will also leave you wanting for more. Every version after all opens a new window of thought in mind, and once again we are lost in the lives of the March sisters.

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