“JO MARCH, our heroine, hesitates,” is how Greta Gerwig begins her Oscar-nominated Little Women screenplay, coiling so many tensions—between head and heart, momentum and fear, art and money, past and future—into that one cliffhanger of a verb. “In the half-light of a dim hallway,” the screenplay continues, “she exhales and prepares, her head bowed like a boxer about to go into the ring.” Combative and tomboyish as her character may be, Jo March isn’t actually a boxer. She’s an aspiring 19th-century writer about to go into a room with an industry gatekeeper to pitch her work, much like Gerwig herself did in 2016 when she met with Hollywood executives about her vision for an adaptation of Little Women. Her vision for another adaptation of Little Women, that is.
When Louisa May Alcott’s beloved, enduring original story of four sisters living and loving and laughing and languishing in Civil War–era Massachusetts was initially published in 1868, it came in two volumes, the first of which concluded with something between a plea and a threat: “So,” Alcott wrote then, “the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given the first act of the domestic drama called Little Women.” Suffice to say the curtain has risen again in the century and a half since. Alcott wrote a second act, then a sequel, then turned the franchise into a trilogy. Girls like Gerwig read and reread Little Women, dog-earing the pages and daydreaming about sisterhood, decade after decade. And new interpretations on the old text have regularly bloomed in the culture like daisies.
There have been silent film adaptations of Little Women, never to be seen again, their reels lost to time, and “talkies” starring Katharine Hepburn (1933, won an Oscar for its screenplay) and Elizabeth Taylor (1949). In Japan, the story took anime form, twice. There has been a Little Women British miniseries and a Little Women televised musical and a Little Women Broadway show. A 1994 feature film starred everyone who was anyone at the time—Sarandon! Bale! Dunst! Danes! Winona!—and was overseen in part by a then-midcareer film producer named Amy Pascal, who herself could be viewed as a small extension of Alcott’s original work, having been named Amy Beth in honor of two characters from Little Women. (Her father, Pascal told the Hollywood Reporter, read the book aloud while she was in utero in the ’50s.)
Four years ago, Pascal sought to revive the story for a new generation, and Gerwig implored her agent to get her and her ideas in the door. She spoke of the things she felt Little Women was really about: not just girls gatherin’ round the hearth to read letters from Father (though those iconic scenes were vital), but bigger, messier realms, like money and power and art. Ultimately Gerwig wrote the screenplay for the film and also directed it, and the resulting project is satisfying and rich, ambitious in its approach and urgent in its message. It assembles rising stars like Florence Pugh, legends like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, and members of Gerwig’s now-recurring troupe of muses: Saoirse Ronan, Tracy Letts, and Timothée Chalamet all formerly worked with the writer and director on her 2018 movie Lady Bird. Little Women received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Score, but perhaps the most deserved is Gerwig for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Gerwig’s script is at once meticulous and chaotic, like the front and back sides of an embroidery project—or, as she has frequently explained during her Little Women press tour, like cubist art. Through obsessive research into Alcott’s other writings and personal papers (and obsessive visits to Alcott’s home and native New England environs), Gerwig patches together not only a 19th-century narrative about the March family but also a whole world beyond that, one as bustling and layered and briskly stitched as a bunch of petticoats. Abandoning the chronological trappings of Alcott’s original book, Gerwig’s screenplay doesn’t so much time-hop as it time-waltzes, keeping a precise rhythm while floating through space, its characters engaged in highly choreographed conversation yet still given room to beckon the viewer to come dance.
“I do think of screenplays,” Gerwig recently told John August on his Scriptnotes podcast, “as pieces of writing that should be able to stand on their own.” Her Little Women work proudly does. Almost every line of dialogue comes either directly from the source text, or from something Alcott wrote in a journal or letter to a pal, or from another of her many stories. But it’s the little bits of Gerwig’s own remarks and observations that elevate the work. Reading the screenplay feels like sitting at the fringes of a party or a high school cafeteria with a friend and getting the dish on what’s been going down.
“She’s a hippie before they existed,” is how Gerwig efficiently describes Marmee, the bleeding-heart matriarch of the March family. A foreign professor who fancies Jo “speaks with a French accent and, like all Europeans, seems to know something that we Americans don’t.” Tough but fair. Everyone is on to the rude, rich aunt: At one point, she “feigns even MORE hatred,” Gerwig writes, “to cover her epic delight.”
Even the brief parentheticals contain multitudes: Anyone who has ever been to therapy or waited in line for the women’s bathroom in a nightclub can immediately relate to stage directions like: “JO (crying, trying to explain herself to herself).” Alcott would certainly approve of all this; her own prose always had a similarly blithe, blunt thrust, my favorite example being the way she remarked upon dear, sweet, doomed Beth March treating her dollies with dignity: “No pins were ever stuck into their cotton vitals,” Alcott wrote, the implication being that her sisters’ playthings may not have been so lucky.
Beneath Gerwig’s (and Alcott’s) colorful writing is a fascinating blueprint for the shape of the film. On a micro level, Gerwig has engineered, down to the syllable, exactly when she wants the squabbling, chirping flocks of characters to be interrupting one another, marking the script with precise slashes the way playwrights like Tony Kushner do. (“I know it when I hear it,” Gerwig told Film Comment about getting the rhythm right, “and when it’s wrong, it’s like someone I don’t know is touching my belly button.”) But more broadly, the screenplay’s most conspicuous attribute is that it is written in two different colors, black and red, to distinguish between scenes taking place around 1861 or in 1868. (On screen, “the past” is shot in warm, homey, golden tones, while scenes of the girls striving to get by as adults are rendered in a harsher blue.) But don’t call it a flashback: Gerwig has insisted in interviews that everything in her film is always moving forward, it’s just that sometimes it’s moving forward in the past. “I actually did look at them like a graph,” Gerwig said on the Scriptnotes podcast about putting together the scenes, “like [Christopher] Nolan had made during Dunkirk.”
i love how greta gerwig broke my heart with this sequence pic.twitter.com/PP4V4JZIAQ— muriel (@ptanderstan) January 31, 2020
A different Nolan movie, Inception, has something important in common with Little Women. Both toy with the constructs of memory and time and perception; both have endings that leave blanks to fill in. Does the top stop spinning? Does Jo settle down? What does your answer say about you? Even Gerwig leaves all of this purposefully gauzy in her screenplay: “THE PRESENT IS NOW THE PAST. OR MAYBE FICTION,” she writes in red on one of the final pages, helpfully setting the scene. “THE PAST, OR MAYBE FICTION, OR MAYBE BOTH,” she adds later. Gerwig told Scriptnotes that early on, when she sent around a script, “Someone said, ‘Oh, you sent the wrong thing. There’s question marks all over the end. This can’t possibly be the final draft.’” Oh, but it was.
The question of whether Jo gets or should get married may actually be less of a big deal than Gerwig’s bold, persuasive argument that Amy—little annoying book-burning Amy—might actually be … good, a generous possibility that rattled many longtime Little Women fans to their core but that Gerwig backed up with her research. When Gerwig first met with Pascal to talk about Little Women, she was being considered just for the script. In the interim, she wrote and directed the critical and commercial hit Lady Bird, which earned her an Oscar nomination for best director and suddenly put her in a position to also direct Little Women. Gerwig’s reaction to leveling up this way was to go off in search of more treasure. She insisted on shooting on real film, as Tarantino recently had done for Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood with the same studio. She ordered big, cinematic scenes with many extras. She had an entire replica of Alcott’s childhood home constructed. She even went full-meta.
Between her focus on timelines and Nolan films, her desire to get to the murky bottom of all her characters’ lives and motivations, and her (righteous!) demands of the studio, it tracks when Gerwig says that she sees Little Women as a superhero origin story. By empowering herself to treat Little Women like the blockbuster it would become, Gerwig not only bettered her movie, she made herself an implicit character in it. Each one of Jo’s negotiations was also one of Alcott’s, or one of Gerwig’s, all of them having fought the same fights in their lives: for recognition, for creative freedom, and for the money, honey.
The real Louisa May Alcott grew up babysitting for Ralph Waldo Emerson; spent time as a child living on a Transcendentalist commune; and even shipped off, restless and resolute, to join the Union effort in the Civil War as a nurse, an experience she chronicled, of course, in a series of semifictional dispatches called Hospital Sketches that were published in the abolitionist magazine Boston Commonwealth in 1863 under the name “Tribulation Periwinkle.” She was Gerwig’s age, 36, when she published Little Women, Gerwig pointed out on PBS News Hour while talking about how she’d also had both of their astrological charts read together. (Emma Thompson was, incidentally, also 36 when she won a 1996 Golden Globe for her Sense and Sensibility adapted screenplay and delivered her speech in the voice of Jane Austen.) It’s easy to see why Gerwig became fascinated with Alcott, whose writing featured both the gonzo confidence of a dude tossing off problematic mostly-truths in midcentury Esquire but also the accessible breeziness of a latter-day Instagram influencer.
After solving some logistical challenges in Hospital Sketches, Alcott shared her relief to no longer be a “Martha Struggles,” some ancestral iteration of Debbie Downer or Liz Lemon. Her description of leaning in to her decision to join the war effort was both self-deprecating and savage, and would make one hell of a *goes sailing once* tweet, 150 years later:
As boys going to sea immediately become nautical in speech, walk as if they already had their “sea legs” on, and shiver their timbers on all possible occasions, so I turned military at once, called my dinner my rations, saluted all new comers, and ordered a dress parade that very afternoon.
“Shiver their timbers on all possible occasions” is an incredible 19th-century burn, and to think I might never have come to know about if it weren’t for Gerwig’s sly screenplay, an adaptation that is more like an evolution—a rendering that doesn’t just add to the lengthy list of existing Little Women interpretations but instead interrogates the usual assumptions underpinning their history.
Little Women the book ends with Marmee embracing her growing family on her birthday, telling everyone to bask in their present happiness. A nice sentiment, but no way to properly wrap a movie like Gerwig’s, one so otherwise powered by its restless propulsion. And so instead, the last thing we see in the movie is Jo March back in that publishing house, watching as her first book is bound. When it is finally handed to her, the reunion feels almost romantic. “Jo turns it over in her hands,” Gerwig writes in her screenplay, “touching it like the holy object it is, her inchoate desire made manifest.” Then, “Jo looks up, and sees the future—”
It ends there. This time, our heroine doesn’t hesitate.