“A Love Story About A Girl And Her Book” Greta Gerwig Talks ‘Little Women’
Little Women has been a remarkably enduring story of four ambitious sisters, based on the Louisa May Alcott novel of 1868. Despite a TV mini-series which graced our screens in 2017, writer/director Greta Gerwig saw fit to give this material a ‘Gerwig’ do-over via parallel timelines. Greta spoke with Creative Screenwriting about her journey to get her film on the screen.
Little Women is more than a project for Gerwig. It shaped her writing voice. The novel gave Greta Gerwig the confidence and desire to become a writer. “Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) was the character that I most identified with and most wanted to be like.” Gerwig re-read the novel when she was fifteen years old and again at thirty. Louise May Alcott’s words still resonated with her many years later. The story of female writers is both timeless and timely.
“Jo March allowed me to be ambitious and write things down. She gave me permission to be myself. It’s impossible to imagine who I am today without her. The meaning of Louisa May Alcott’s text has transformed me as I grew up into an adult.” Jo March’s rebellious spirit and determination to become a successful writer is something that is still relevant in the lives of women the world over.
Interestingly, Greta Gerwig doesn’t define herself as an avid book reader with a voracious appetite to read as many novels as she can until she finds one that can potentially be her next film.”Little Women was a particular book for me,” she declared.
Little Women isn’t a book you read once or twice according to Greta. It’s more of a guide to life. “It’s one of those stories you can revisit throughout your life. Every time you revisit it, you found yourself identifying with something new. Each reading allows you to connect with some historical perspective in a new way. Ultimately, every good story stands the test of time because “it tells us something about what it means to be human.”
Greta Gerwig was determined to create another film incarnation of Little Women after re-reading it when she was thirty. “I was shocked at how modern and urgent the themes were.”
Turning thirty was a pivotal time in Gerwig’s career because at that time she knew exactly how she was going to write and direct her version of the film. She wrote her draft of Little Women during the pre-production period of Ladybird. She pleaded her case to the production powers that be that the novel was worthy of another treatment and she was a safe bet. Her case clearly went in her favor.
We asked Gerwig about her unique take on Little Women and how close she kept her film to the novel. “I wanted to treat the text as sacred as well as incorporate other writing journals by Louisa May Alcott. I wanted to collapse the space between the author and Jo March, her fictional avatar.” Gerwig strived to be faithful to both the book and the writer.
Louisa May Alcott wrote her novel in two halves. The first centered on the March sisters’ childhood and the second on their adulthood.
Greta Gerwig chose to tell her version of the story via split timeline narratives. “I wanted to begin with the March sisters’ adulthood and have their childhoods visited as a memory, as a fiction, and way for them to understand who they are as adults.” The screenwriter/director decided on this style of execution early on in her adaptation because the two are intextricably linked. “We always walk with the childhood version of ourselves.”
She has received some criticism on her choice of time travel storytelling, but Gerwig defends her creative choices. “I was exploding the narrative and putting it back together. It didn’t feel disrespectful to the original work. It felt like it honored the work.” This parallelled the life of Louisa May Alcott who was in mid-thirties when she wrote the book, and in a sense, looked back to her childhood. “One sister was married with children, another was in Europe studying painting, and one had died.”
Gerwig was intrigued by Little Women from its opening lines by Jo March. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and “It’s so dreadful being poor.” In Greta’s mind, Little Women was about women and money. She excavated this concept to explore how women had little, if any, economic power in the mid-nineteenth century. This is still an issue today. After all, is marriage still an economic proposition for many women today. “Women had little possibility of becoming successful writers because they had no economic existence,” Gerwig expounded. The screenwriter did extensive research into Alcott’s life and discovered how important financial considerations were in her writing.
Writing was as much a part of Louisa May Alcott’s identity as it is Greta Gerwig’s. On a deeper level, Little Women has a personal message for Gerwig. “It’s about externally manifesting what’s inside of you in your soul.” This contrasts sharply with Jo March’s journey in the novel. Jo abandons her inkstand, gets married, and opens a school. Greta defends her position to make Jo a writer.. “That’s not the message that I got from the book. I felt Jo became a writer despite these detours. I know what fictional Jo March does, but I know that’s not true because I’m holding the book she wrote in her adulthood.”
“The physical presence of the book in the world is the message young girls receive about it. That’s why it’s such an influential novel for women across the world for over one hundred and fifty years.”
A feminist story
There is no denying that Little Women is a coming of age story about girls becoming women.
“Louisa May Alcott’s feminism in Little Women is non-exclusionary. The father is away and Marmee March (Laura Dern) is raising the family of four girls in a matriarchy.” However, the “feminism” is beneficial to the family as a whole – to both men and women. “It’s not based on a hierarchy. It’s based on humanism.” Gerwig elaborates that many characters contain both “masculine and feminine traits.” It is no co-incidence that Laurie is a boy with a girl’s name and Jo is a girl with a boy’s name. The novel explored the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats in the absence of a hierarchy.
Despite Little Women being a film about strong women, Gerwig hopes male audiences experience “imaginative empathy” and imagine a story about the “March brothers.” Men can also relate to concepts of poverty, family, heartbreak, love, and becoming a successful writer and being recognized and compensated fairly for their work.
Little Women is undoubtedly a story about… “women.” Gerwig makes no apology for the majority of characters being female. The female characters are there to serve womens’ stories, but not at the expense of the male characters. The male characters are three-dimensional in their own right. They just don’t occupy as much real estate because they’re not the focus.
Greta Gerwig regards Louisa May Alcott as “her spirit animal.” After all, she kept the copyright to her book and negotiated a better rate when she changed publishers after her novel sold out. The writer/director also experienced an awakening while making Little Women. “I realized how much of myself is mutable. Finding myself in both a historical figure and fictional character both awakened and suppressed different parts of my personality. Self is a complex idea. So unmute yourself!“
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