There are already far too many divisions between people. In all honesty, there need only be one: whether or not you believe that Little Women’s Jo March should have ended up with Laurie.
In Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation, the love triangle between Laurie, Jo, and her sister Amy (who Laurie eventually marries) is reexamined from every angle. The two sisters separately dominate the film, and rightly so. They are and always have been the most interesting and compelling of the four, and Gerwig sets out to challenge our expectations.
Throughout Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel, loosely based on herself and her own siblings, we follow the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – whose lives are changed when a handsome, rich young man named Laurie moves in to the neighbouring house and falls in love with aspiring writer Jo — before she rejects him, and instead he later marries the youngest and most spoilt March sister, Amy.
Jo is, supposedly, completely fine with it, unlike generations of Alcott’s readers, for whom the disappointment is doubled; the underlying subtext has always been: anyone but Amy.
Gerwig’s Little Women plays with the chronology of Alcott’s novel, and with it our prejudices about certain characters. The four sisters (Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth) are introduced as adults. Past and present is revealed side-by-side, the two timelines interwoven as we witness four women grapple with how best to honour their childhood dreams.
Amy is introduced as she travels in Europe with her cantankerous Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Adult Amy is elegant, well-dressed, and an aspiring painter, whose composure slips when she spots Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) from her carriage. Meanwhile Jo is living in a boarding house in New York, attempting to sell her short stories — and lighting up every time Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) enters a room. Introduced in this way, the two sisters’ similarities — their artistic aspirations, their wanderlust, their passion and capacity for love — are highlighted, rather than their differences.
Even as children and young adults, Amy and Jo were never polar opposites. Amy committed the cardinal sin as a child of burning Jo’s book, but viewed in the context of Jo’s heart-to-heart with their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), about her attempts to control her outbursts, the moment reveals the sisters’ shared temper.
Amy and Jo are mirrors of one another; both stubborn, headstrong, artistic. Jo was originally meant to go to Europe, and she was also expected to marry Laurie. The reason Amy achieves both of those things instead is (despite the many qualities she shares with Jo) because she possesses one quality that everyone else in the March family seems to lack: pragmatism. She is willing to charm her rich Aunt, and she recognises that she must marry well (although hopefully happily) to help support her family.
“I believe we have some power over who we love,” she tells a sulky Laurie, whose vain and immature nature she challenges. In Gerwig’s retelling, it’s no longer a rushed or sudden surprise that Laurie should choose Amy instead of pining over Jo.
In the film, Jo points out that Amy has a talent at avoiding the harder things in life, but for Amy, the hardest aspect of her existence has been living in Jo’s shadow. Although the pair share many characteristics, it is the vibrant Jo whose name will be remembered, who will not settle, who refuses to compromise or give up her artistic ambitions as Amy does. Jo is steadfast where her younger sister is adaptable.
Yet even the most constant of natures (“too noble to curb and too lofty to bend,” as Marmee describes it) can experience regret. And Saoirse Ronan’s Jo does feel regret when Laurie returns to New England, newly married to Amy (it always seemed so unrealistic that she should not). She is still unconvinced that she could ever have loved him the way he wanted her to, but as she recalls their once easy, playful relationship, we watch her contemplate: what if?
Of course, we are meant to believe that any residual regret or resentment that Jo might feel is washed away the moment she realises that she’s in love with Friedrich (no longer a stuffy, older German as in the book, but instead a handsome young Frenchman).
But Gerwig’s Little Women leaves viewers uncertain as to whether Jo gets her happily-ever-after ending or not. Is the moment Jo and Friedrich reconcile under the umbrella real, or an imagined scene that Jo inserts into her novel to help it sell? At her publisher’s request, Jo marries off her heroine she so obviously based on herself, just as Alcott (who never married) did.
The lines between writer and creation blur, and the publisher questions once again “Why she didn’t end up with the neighbour?” – Jo doesn’t say that they weren’t suited, or that she and Laurie didn’t love one another. All she says is: “Because he married her sister.”
Little Women is in UK cinemas on Boxing Day 2019