Little Women – A story of being an artist and becoming fiercely independent

Across disparate countries and radically different eras, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has come to life in a million different ways.  Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life.

In Gerwig’s poignant and heartfelt adaptation, the beloved story of the March sisters—four young women each determined to live life on her own terms—is both timeless and timely.

Little Women is a book that is unsparing in its depiction of the way the world is hard on ambitious girls, but also offers a comfort: that ambition – a vibrant inner life that breaks the bonds of the world – is its own reward.  It is a book that we first encounter as children, when the world’s possibilities are wide open and there is nothing in the world that can hold us back; we return as young adults, when the constraints of adulthood and society begin to shape who we are; and we return again, as older readers, with the bittersweet nostalgia of what it meant to be young and bold, joined with the exciting joy of seeing a new generation experience that daring for themselves.  The insistent power of the book is its distinctly individual call to grapple with life’s many clashing lures—with family, art, money, love, freedom, and the hope of being 100% who you are, creating your own unique story. 

This deeply personal, fiercely alive idea of Little Women is the one writer-director Greta Gerwig wanted to transport to the screen. 

Gerwig approached the material with a determination to capture the sweeping, epic nature of the story that captures the enormity of what Alcott created, but also an honest, disarming emotional intimacy that brings the characters to life.   

As every reader brings their own personal interpretation and meaning to the story, Gerwig puts her own stamp on the story. 

The novel was originally published in two halves, the first focusing on the March sisters in auspicious girlhood, and the second covering the stark realities of adulthood. Gerwig pulls apart the novel, switch-backing between the two halves, with Jo’s story of determination and spirit providing the natural through-line and reconstruction between its parts. With its fluid approach to time, the film immerses the audience in the memories, moments, accidents of fate and acts of will that form the March sisters—ink-stained, defiantly independent writer Jo; nurturing, principled, would-be actor Meg; fragile, open-hearted musician Beth; clever, aspirational painter Amy—into their full, complicated adult selves, each so different but united in an unswerving sisterhood. 

Louisa May Alcott

The picture that emerges is of four women looking back with affection at how they became who they are.  It is also one of a world where the dailiness of women’s lives—their discoveries, sacrifices and anger, their financial, artistic and domestic concerns—deeply matters.  What does it mean to take the reins of your life when so much that happens, from a crack in the ice to a mistimed letter, is out of your control?  And how does that look to four sisters with four divergent dreams? 

These are the questions Gerwig brings to the fore in a visually ravishing film with a look inspired by the bold artists who were changing the way people saw the world in Alcott’s time.  The questions feel modern, yet it was Alcott who latched onto these oppositions that still stop us in our tracks:  money vs. art, love vs. personal satisfaction, ideals vs. real life, caring for family vs. finding your own voice.

Even before Gerwig demonstrated her powerful voice with Lady Bird, she told producer Amy Pascal she believed she was the right person to adapt Little Women.  “I flung myself at it with everything I had,” says Gerwig.  “I had a very specific idea of what it was about:  it’s about women as artists and it’s about women and money.  That is all there in the text, but it’s an aspect of the story that hasn’t been delved into before.  For me, it was something that felt really, really close to the surface and even now, this movie feels more autobiographical than anything I’ve made.” 

Gerwig read Little Women so many times as a child, she doesn’t remember the first time.  Like a long list of fellow writers and artists, she felt such an intense identification with Jo March—tomboy, misfit and would-be novelist struggling against the status quo to become the woman she imagines—that Jo felt less like a made-up person and more like a charismatic mentor.  She was the girl who knew what she wanted.  To be freer.  To create.  To transcend all that was not allowed and yet to give of herself fully to her loved ones.  That’s part of why Gerwig wanted to plunge audiences into the fabric of Jo’s world—its emotional oscillations and personal dynamics—in the most visceral way she could. 

Little Women has been part of who I am for as long as I can remember,” Gerwig notes.  “There was never a time when I didn’t know who Jo March was, and she was always my girl, the person I wanted to be and the person who I hoped I was.” 

Director/Writer Greta Gerwig and DP Yorick LeSaux on the set of LITTLE WOMEN.

While Gerwig stays true to Alcott’s original voice, she reconstructs the novel in an inherently cinematic way, unmooring the story from linear time, transforming the March’s most unforgettable events into the stuff of memories and creative inspiration.  This invites audiences to engage with the March sisters as something new:  as adults looking back, and as the living source for Jo’s writing. 

“Every time I read the book, it became something different,” observes Gerwig.  “I first knew it in the coziness of childhood, and then as I got older, new parts of it jumped out at me.  As I began writing the screenplay, the part of it that was in clear relief was how the sisters’ lives as adults are so poignant and fascinating, because they’re trying to figure out how to honor the fearless youth they had as grown-ups.”

Gerwig also went deep into research, reading Alcott’s letters and papers, to draw on aspects of Alcott’s real life to give her adaptation a formidable, modern voice.  For example, the real Alcott wrote, “I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales”; in the film, Marmee says, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”

In drawing early inspiration from Little Women, Gerwig has a lot of company.  The late sci-fi master Ursula K. Le Guin called Alcott “close as a sister.”

Novelist Erica Jong said Little Women sparked a belief that “women could become writers, intellects—and still have rich personal lives.”  The heroines of Elena Ferrante’s masterwork My Brilliant Friend bond over a tattered copy of Alcott’s book, vowing to write their own. 

Poet Gail Mazur thanked Alcott for helping writers “to live with, knowing we’re not alone, the conflict between the writer’s need for solitude and self-absorption and the yearning for the warmth of love.”  Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling said of Jo March:  “It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

For women, carving out any individualistic path, particularly an artistic life, has been perilous in any era.  But that’s also why Jo hit home so hard with Gerwig.  “There’s a rebel spirit contained in Jo, and a hope for a life beyond what your gender dictates that is completely exciting to us still,” says Gerwig.  “She’s this girl with a boy’s name who wants to write, and she’s ambitious and she’s angry and she’s so many different things that we identify with.  It’s like she allowed us to be free.”   

Gerwig also wanted to pay homage to Alcott’s unsung story of financial success. She wanted to highlight how Alcott’s time, rife as they were with war and inequality, were also lit up with new ideas, free-thinkers and the energy of change.  In this atmosphere, Alcott crashed through social barriers and carved her own path to thriving self-sufficiency, taking control of her copyrights like the J.K. Rowling of her day and building then largely unheard-of name recognition outside of marriage or inheritance. 

“These are things that are still coming up right now,” observes Gerwig, “which you see in Taylor Swift deciding to re-record her back catalogue so that she can own it.” 

To Gerwig, Alcott clearly chose the scarcity of money and freedom as the unavoidable organizing fact of the March sister’s lives.  At the same time, she wanted to celebrate the unapologetic domesticity of this story of four sisters and a devoted mother transforming a household into an indelible world unto itself.  “An interesting analysis I read is that Little Women is one of the few books about childhood that isn’t about escape.  There is bravery, but it’s a hero’s journey contained inside the home,” Gerwig says. 

All of this magnetized an extraordinary group of women who shepherded the film to the screen, including Gerwig, producers Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord and an ensemble led by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep. 

Laura Dern. Meryl Streep and Florence Pugh

For the film’s multi-generational cast, the draw to this Little Women went beyond their private experiences with the book.  What made it special was how of-this-moment Gerwig’s loving approach felt.

 “I think the story feels more relevant than ever right now,” says Ronan, who plays Jo, “because it explores young women finding the confidence to take their own paths.  It also is a story that changes depending on where you  are in life.  You could be an Amy for a few years, then suddenly you’re a Jo, then a Meg, then you’re a Marmee and maybe back to a Beth.  You can find yourself in each one.” 

“It’s a story about identity and there’s nothing more modern than that,” adds Dern, who plays Marmee.  “We still struggle today with how to ask, ‘who am I, and how, despite everyone else’s opinion, am I going to stand true to that in my life?’—yet that’s what Louisa May Alcott wrote about 150 years ago.  Part of the beauty of what Alcott did is that she established strength as independence, as art, as ambition but also as marriage and parenting, and Greta invites the audience to engage with all of that.” 

Eliza Scanlen, who plays Beth, offers another take on the story’s continued resonance.   “It affirms that the emotions you experience in childhood are just as complicated and important as the ones you experience later on in life, which has not often been done.” 

Indeed, Gerwig approached the film as both a faithful retelling, drawing as much from the text as possible, and a postmodern one.  She shakes up the story, telling it in two separate timelines, with the characters’ lives as adults living alongside the story of their childhoods.  “I structured the film to begin the narrative when they are adults, and to enter into the story of childhood as we all do, which is as memory, as a yearning, as a key to understanding who you are and where you are going,” says Gerwig. “We are always walking beside our younger selves. I wanted there to be a tension – is that what happened, or is that how you remember it? Is that what happened, or is that how you wrote it?”

Perhaps what most exhilarated the women participating the film was that this Little Women is unabashedly a story in which boys and men are certainly part of the picture—at times alluring, at times enervating to the sisters—but never at the center of the world.  “What is so wonderful about what Alcott did is that these girls aren’t there to serve anyone’s stories other than their own and each other’s, and that idea comes through so strongly in Greta’s script,” say producer Amy Pascal. 

“It’s the perfect time for this movie because women are talking more than ever about choices, about how to be, about money, about what power is and about how we get along with men,” Pascal continues.  “Greta bring all this into the film by staying true to Alcott.  She said, ‘I want to make a movie unlike any other.  I want to make a movie from the book and if you go back to the book, it’s more controversial, funnier and darker than you think, and I want to make a movie that feels that real.’” 

Director/Writer Greta Gerwig and DP Yorick LeSaux on the set of LITTLE WOMEN.

Adapting Alcott

 One of the fundamental truths of Little Women is that Louisa May Alcott almost didn’t write the book at all.  She never saw herself as a writer of “girl’s stories,” at the time almost entirely dismissed as unimportant and certainly not economically viable.  But when it was posed to her by her publisher, she could not resist the idea of attempting to rival the adventure tales for boys that were often significant bestsellers–and also considerable influences on their searching young readers. 

Alcott noted that she never really knew any girls except her three sisters and mother.  As it turned out, her own family held out incredible raw material.  And in re-envisioning her family life as fiction, Alcott found herself expressing things about growing up as a girl with limited options but ceaseless aspiration that no one had said so clearly or with such relatability before. 

Like the March family she would create, the Alcotts were a close-knit group.  Their parents, the educator Bronson Alcott and the activist and social worker Abigail May, were idealists and Transcendentalists—members of the 19th Century movement that became the forerunner of the counterculture with its calls for self-reliance, civil disobedience, deep engagement with the arts, respect for the natural world, and being true to oneself as the basis of a happy life.  Believers in equality and learning, the elder Alcotts encouraged Louisa and her siblings to pursue the things that mattered to them. 

For Louisa, it was always writing.   Coming of an age in an intellectually stimulating, if monetarily strapped, environment—her schoolteacher was Henry David Thoreau and her neighbor was Ralph Waldo Emerson—Louisa began writing at a young age.  Yet, economics forced Alcott to work as a teacher, seamstress and governess even as she was writing her first book, Flower Fables, published when she was just 17.  She would go on to write for The Atlantic Monthly, to publish a memoir of her time as a Civil War nurse (Hospital Sketches) and to pen action-packed spy stories under the pseudonym A.M. Bernard (which she sold for $50 a piece, money it might take a year to earn doing seamstress work.) 

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet

There was a presumption when Little Women was published that men alone wrote enduring works of literature.  With rare exceptions, books by women, and books about women, were light and passing entertainment, or so the theory went.  But from the day it hit the shelves, Little Women was an instant smash hit, selling out its initial run in days.  It soon became clear that women and girls had been thirsting for authentic, honest, emotional stories about their everyday lives.  The first 23 chapters were so popular that Alcott’s publisher implored her to write more, which led to the 47-chapter book that became the beloved classic.  Since its release, Little Women has never been out of print and has been translated into at least 55 languages.  It’s been adapted for stage, television and movies, even as an opera and an anime. 

Gerwig paid little attention to all that has come before and aimed to get back to the breathing soul of the book as she saw it.  Re-reading the novel as an adult, she was especially struck by the very modern way Alcott so deftly captured the free-form, informal language of family. 

“It was so clear that the language was fresh and exciting and needed almost nothing from me. I tried to make the script have as much word-for-word from the book as possible.”

She could hear it unspooling in her head, which led in turn to her directorial approach.  “I wanted the actors to say it all at the speed of life. I wanted them to run through the dialogue quickly and irreverently because that’s how I heard it,” Gerwig explains.   

Gerwig continues:  “So that’s why I had the idea to start with them as adults, and then allow their childhoods to live alongside them not as flashbacks but as two separate timelines. It captures the reality that when we walk down the street, we’re always walking with the younger versions of ourselves.  We’re always integrating the person we thought we were going to be with the person we are now.  I was looking at constructing a narrative that incorporates what a whole life is.” 

Part of that narrative of a life is certainly romance, always a factor in Little Women’s appeal.  But here, Gerwig explores the idea that each March sister aims not just for love but her own version of love among equals.  Readers have debated long and hard over Jo’s choice of husband—or if it was right for her to have chosen a husband at all.  Making things more complicated is that fact that Alcott, otherwise so much like Jo, took the opposite path of her character, remaining unmarried even after attaining fame.  Gerwig took an unusual approach to the question in the climactic moments of Little Women

“If Jo was the hero of my girlhood, Louisa May Alcott is the hero of my womanhood.  So, it was important to me that she did not want to have Jo get married but did it because her publisher told her Jo had to marry.  There’s a letter she wrote where she said, ‘I have made Jo a funny match out of spite.’  So, I wanted to give her an ending she would like, the ending maybe she wanted, that celebrates the choice she wanted to make.  I wanted to give us that rom-com moment at the end that Louisa gave us. But as it’s happening, I also wanted to ask, ‘Why do we want that? Why do we need Jo to have that moment?’”

Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, and Eliza Scanlen

Gerwig’s naturalistic, overlapping dialogue especially excited the cast.  “Greta allows the girls to talk over one another and bounce off each other, so it truly feels like four or five people in a room together,” says Saoirse Ronan.  “We had to work extra hard to make the dialogue really, really tight in these scenes.  But I haven’t worked with another director who works like Greta does.  She always knows when something is right by how it sounds.  The rhythm and pace of the scenes makes the feeling so unique in her films.  It feels like Greta is inviting you into the secret inner world of the March family.” 

Gerwig explains: “I didn’t want the overlapping dialogue to feel like a cacophony, I wanted it to be very specifically overlapped, so it was almost like conducting an orchestra. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and, which was pretty essential because the script was so precise.   I wanted it to feel like they were tumbling over each other with excitement, and I wanted it to sound like how sisters talk. I didn’t want it sound like everybody waiting their turn, because that’s not my experience of how a bunch of sisters are when they’re together.  Having such great actors, I could trust them because they make the language even more alive and deeper.”  

Capturing that full breadth of sisterhood—its beauty and unity but also its driving tensions—was key to Gerwig.  “I saw each of the sisters as artists and I wanted to take each of their artistic pursuits seriously because they do.  Between them is a lot of love and a deep bond, but they’re also really competitive and can get under each other’s skin.  They can be mean and cutting and they can be loving and kind, and I just wanted to get all of that in the soup because to me that is what makes what happens to them that much more powerful.  They are real people whose relationships are messy and wild.” 

The script also brought the book into fresh focus for Pascal, another accomplished woman who has had a lifelong relationship with Little Women, which even ties back to her given name, Amy Beth.   “It’s a film about the way you remember childhood, it’s about the passage of time, it’s about being an artist,” she says.  “But it’s also a movie about becoming fiercely independent.”