I remember borrowing the DVD of the 1994 adaptation of Little Women from the library when I was maybe ten and then watching that film probably about ten times. I suppose in retrospect it wasn’t really surprising that I became so enamoured with a film that had a predominantly female cast as well as a protagonist whose biggest aspiration was to be a writer. This year, I decided to rewatch the film after seeing the latest reiteration of Little Women in the cinema. I revisited it for nostalgic reasons but I also thought it would be interesting to compare these two recent adaptations of the novel. They are not entirely dissimilar: both have modern, feminist perspectives, impressive casts, female directors and writers at the helm and they are quite faithful to their literary source. They are both good films but admittedly I do have to say Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation does outshine its predecessor – nostalgia could not win me over.
Comparing these two movies was also a gratifying exercise because I noticed the progress that has been made for the portrayal of women on screen. Take Jo, for example. The bookish and ambitious heroine is played capably by Winona Ryder in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation but nonetheless I did find the portrayal of the character frustrating. In the film Jo declares that she is awkward and that she “always says the wrong thing,” but what the viewer actually witnesses is a character who is nearly always cheerful and pleasant. I really relished how flawed Saoirse Ronan’s Jo was allowed to be; she demonstrates her tendency to be stubborn, arrogant and insensitive.
Amy is a much more fully fleshed character in the latest adaptation too. In the Armstrong film we are first of all introduced to a young, bratty Amy played by Kirsten Dunst and then her bland grown up version, played by Samantha Mathis. Florence Pugh’s Amy is actually interesting and endearing. In particular, the character really won me over during her moving speech to Laurie in which she highlighted how there was no way for a woman to make her own money thus justifying her desire to marry a rich man.
The female characters are allowed to be more complex and transgressive in Gerwig’s film. It is promising that progress has been made which has allowed for this. I do believe that the author of the literary source, Louisa May Alcott, would be happy with this execution of her vision.
Brigid Molloy – Film & TV Editor