To begin with, my friend Diane was right. If I hadn’t just re-read Little Women, I wouldn’t have followed the sequence of events in the movie, which frequently shifts from present adulthood back to the past and forward again to the present, and not always with clarifying captions.
So, it is important to know the synopsis of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women before going to this movie version. Nevertheless, what stands out in the movie is not time-bound (for instance, marriage as an economic proposition). Amy March (played by Florence Pugh) is right about this. Marriage in the 19th century definitely was an economic proposition (and to some extent it still is). This scene made me think of the sensation novels by Wilkie Collins at that time, in which the disenfranchisement of women is often a major theme. In the movie, it’s a showstopper that Amy March outright speaks of marriage as an economic proposition. It’s an exciting moment…but it doesn’t feel real. Amy might have thought of marriage as an economic proposition, but it’s unlikely that she would ever have said so. Even Jo March (played by Saoirse Ronan), the most socially non-conforming of the March sisters, would probably not have said that marriage is an economic proposition.
Likewise, it’s exciting to watch Jo March’s negotiation over her percentage of royalties with editor/publisher Mr. Dashwood (played by Tracy Letts). It makes excellent drama. It doesn’t, however, feel true to life. It put me in mind of Agatha Christie’s meeting with the publisher at the Bodley Head:
Then he went on to the business aspect, pointing out what a risk a publisher took if he published a novel by a new and unknown writer, and how little money he was likely to make out of it. Finally, he produced from his desk drawer an agreement which he suggested I should sign. I was in no frame of mind to study agreements…I would have signed anything. (Christie, 327)
Granted, at that point, in 1920, Agatha Christie was a first-time writer, and Jo March is not. Jo has already had stories published. Still, she is not a best-seller. While Jo has nerve, she would’ve had little to no leverage in negotiations about royalties with a man of the Victorian period, who is not inclined to take a woman seriously. The scene ends up feeling like fantasy: thrilling but not what would happen.
It could really have happened that Jo wrote Little Women for her dying sister Beth (played by Eliza Scanlen). Jo has confidence in her writing skill—one of her stories got a prize—and particular attentiveness to her younger sister to take Beth to the seaside. Beth, meanwhile, would have been interested in a narrative about the doings of the youthful March sisters. It’s only this movie’s claim that Jo wrote Little Women, but it feels like a plausible claim. This is something Jo could have done and would have done.
As to Jo—her romantic life has been unaccountably altered in this movie that has an apparently feminist slant. In the book, Jo never changes her decision to refuse to marry young, handsome, and wealthy friend and neighbor, Laurie (Theodore Laurence, played by Timothee Chalamet). Instead, Jo marries a middle-aged expatriate German, Friedrich Bhaer, whom she describes as “rather stout…and he hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face…” (Alcott, 343). This is hardly a typical choice for a mate; it seems that author Alcott is sidestepping the marriage plot. For a movie with a feminist slant, this is a desirable storyline as is. But none of this is present in this movie, in which, for starters, Jo does change her decision to refuse Laurie, and so she is deeply disappointed that Laurie has married Amy. Meanwhile, the Friedrich Bhaer of the movie is not middle-aged, stout, and unattractive (or German). The actor who plays Bhaer (played by Louis Garrel) is young, tall, and handsome (and French). He is a typical choice for a mate; it seems that the movie is not at all sidestepping the marriage plot.
Overall, the book Little Women is pointedly moralistic. Reading the book is a bit like reading Aesop’s fables one after the other. Indeed, at the end of Chapter 4, Marmee (the March girls’ mother) inserts a moral into a story—
So they asked an old woman what spell they could use to make them happy, and she said, “When you feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful.” (Alcott, 50)
And, where there isn’t a moral, there’s a learning and growing experience in most of the chapters. This important aspect of the book is largely absent from this movie. True, I don’t see how a moral could be filmed—maybe relayed in dialogue or demonstrated by an action—but this could not be readily done. Still, I wish it had been done, in part to refute publisher Mr. Dashwood’s firmly stated belief, aimed at Jo, that “Morals don’t sell.” Since Little Women did sell, it seems that Dashwood is in error, surely an error that this movie would want to accentuate…but it doesn’t.
All in all, a puzzlement!
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.