That’s So Metatextual: Jo, Louisa, and Layers in Little Women

Saoirse Ronan in Little Women (2019) | Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures
In fifth grade, my class created a wax museum. We would each pick a famous person to learn about and dress up as; younger students would file in throughout the day, press “buttons” on the tops of our hands, and listen to us as we’d present as our respective famous figures.

I chose Louisa May Alcott, having just read Little Women (though in hindsight, I probably did something a little looser than “read”); it was the quintessential story for a tomboy who wanted to be a writer. I stole my brother’s red button-up shirt and tied my hair back for the big day, but I was a horrible procrastinator, and only half-managed to write and memorize a presentation. It started out okay, but as the “museum hours” waned on, I ditched the script and winged it. Tired of my own monotony, I took on a more conversational tone with the unwitting first graders who would tap my hand: “Do you like to read? Welllll, me too! My name is Louisa May Alcott, and I wrote a book about my family growing up. I proved that girls can be great writers, and…”

I struggle (and cringe) to remember the exact details of my presentation, and what watered-down wisdom I spat out, but I’m sure it boiled down to something along the lines of Wow, what a feminist! Look at this successful writer who wasn’t afraid to stand out and do what she always loved. I didn’t wing it because I thought Alcott was uninteresting, but because I felt like I knew her so well, so intimately, that I was fully equipped to tell her story without much preparation or research. She was an independent, girl-power trailblazer and her book an open-and-shut success. I got it.

Actually, no, not really. In my haphazard first time reading, without giving any thought to the historical context, or the fact that Alcott’s great success was not unmarred by sexist meddling, I didn’t get it. And from interviews I’ve read, I don’t think I was alone in this. Greta Gerwig maybe didn’t quite get it either when she was a kid—which makes her telling of Little Women so sweet and fulfilling. It feels like visiting an old friend, but actually seeing her for the first time. Gerwig’s film is the answer to any well-meaning little woman who ever took Alcott’s feminist story at face value and left it at that, a gentle nudge that implores the viewer to look a little closer. It goes beyond adaptation to analysis, to appreciation on another level—not just out of reverence for the story told, but for the woman who wrote it and the things she didn’t—couldn’t—write, too.

***

Sony Pictures

The beauty of Gerwig’s Little Women lies in the imperfection, the gap between a writer’s life and her story, old and new, girlhood and womanhood and the messy road between. Gerwig has an affection for this duality, and the ways our favorite stories can grow with us. As she told The New York Times: “As a child, my hero was Jo March. But as an adult, it’s Louisa May Alcott.” She has grown up, so her—and, as a result, our—understanding of the story has changed. 

But Gerwig is gracious with her illustration of that change, allowing her audience to revel in the cozy, warm, sumptuous costumes and set pieces that feel familiar to Little Women. She also lets viewers feel the all-too-known frustration of Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan) life plans getting away from her and all the external pressures pushing in on her carefully constructed view of herself. This duality is most clearly expressed through the lens of time. Gerwig’s decision to split her story between the girls’ adolescence at home and their more fractured adulthood provides a commentary on the distance between our stories and the way we tell them. Writer or not, everyone has to make sense of that schism, often having to contend with the romantic, rose-tinted past and how far the mundanity of today diverges from it. Are we being true to ourselves? Did the potential that the past had for us in droves truly exist the way we remember it? Gerwig opts to separate the two timelines by painting the former bright and warm, the latter stark and cold, not just a handy delineative device but a poignant representation of the way we can feel disillusioned with our current selves and surroundings, especially when the past was so promising and felt so easy.

There are scenes that demonstrate this reconciling of before and after to devastating effect, like when Jo sees a sick Beth’s (Eliza Scanlen) bed empty and rushes down to find out what’s happened, only to see that her sister is up and feeling well, versus the moment, years later, when she sees the same empty bed and drags herself downstairs to confront the inevitable and a heartbroken Marmee (Laura Dern). Past-to-present pangs echo throughout: When a gold key to a post office in the forest, first seen during Laurie’s (Timothée Chalamet) uproarious initiation into the girls’ club, opens an empty mailbox on a gray future’s day. Or, when Laurie sees Jo through her window, writing purely for the joy of it as she’s warmed by the commotion of her family downstairs—alone, but not really alone in a house filled with muffled laughter—followed by the vision of Jo writing in another window, in another, bluer city, this time scribbling not to entertain her loved ones but to earn a living for them.

But of all the differences Gerwig explores—between now and then, girls and boys, love and free-willed independence—the most thought-provoking is her choice to dig deeper at differences between Jo and Louisa. Or, rather, the lack thereof. At several points throughout the film, I found myself excited and confused at the person Ronan was meant to be depicting on screen. It was a Chinatown-style whiplash: She’s Jo…she’s Louisa…she’s Jo…she’s Louisa?…She’s Jo and Louisa! That last is what I settled on: that though this is not a biopic, Gerwig chose to infuse her heroine with pieces of the woman who wrote her into existence.

Little Women (2019) | Sony Pictures

This device is most clear—and thrilling—toward the end of the film, when Jo and her family are having dinner with Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who’s quickly won them over on an unexpected visit. As he leaves, seemingly dejected by Jo’s oblivion that he loves her, the Marches work themselves into a frenzy, imploring Jo to chase after him to the train station and confess her love. What follows is, well, exactly that. It’s an exciting scene, and a happy one—certainly welcome, after Beth’s death and Jo’s heartbreak—but it’s the first and only one in the film that rings somewhat false. It’s too glossy, too easy. Much to my relief (I think I laughed out loud), Jo’s mad dash and reunion with Bhaer are soon interspersed with scenes in her editor’s office as Jo haggles with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) over the integrity of her story. She explains why her character—a stand-in for Alcott—would not get married, but Dashwood doesn’t care. Ultimately, she’s faced with the decision to either marry her off or go unpublished, and Jo (or Louisa—I still can’t tell) chooses the former, and the scene we’ve been watching unfold is suddenly interpreted with new context and clarity. We have no other option than to consider that we’ve been watching Ronan as Alcott, at least for some of the time, in some way—and that Gerwig has purposefully kept it less than crystal clear. 

It’s a stunning nod to the role of the artist, a metatextual treat that alone warrants the entire film. This isn’t just Gerwig’s turn at retelling a beloved story. It’s her commitment, as a writer herself, to depicting the hard work of an artist and the treaties she has to make with herself to survive. Would Alcott—would the world—be better off if she’d been more precious with her life story and refused to marry off Jo, potentially preventing the release and success of her novel? Probably not. But still, Gerwig’s choice here invites us to consider the historical context in which Little Women was written, to not overlook the very real and not ignoble need of an artist to sell her work. Though Alcott’s ultimate decision to make that concession was born from misogynistic pressures, the real-life story told with help of Gerwig—that of a woman taking charge of her future and electing not to be a starving artist if she could help it—is a feminist one. The connectedness of Jo and Alcott (down to small Easter egg references like when Jo switches ink-covered writing hands when one gets tired, just like her author) is emblematic of the idea that every creation carries a piece of its creator, whether that be big or small or subtle or sneaky.

Of course, seeing Little Women through a historical lens helps us make sense of the pressures Jo and Alcott both faced. But we don’t actually need to look that far to understand that the choice on how to create and sell one’s art—especially for a woman—is never made lightly. In the same New York Times interview, Gerwig herself revealed that she, too, was asked to marry off her heroine at the end of the movie, some 150 years later, and refused, saying the ending just wasn’t in her “at all.” (In this one, Jo gets married, but with a wink—the audience isn’t led to believe that marriage to Bhaer is part of her true, essential story.)

Recently, Gerwig sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for their annual Director’s Roundtable; she was one of only two women at the table, the other being The Farewell’s insightful, compassionate writer-director, Lulu Wang, who told of her own artistic conflict. In Wang’s case, she was tasked with deciding to sell her film to a streaming service or to an independent studio, the latter offering significantly less money. Wang chose the second, so that her story might reach as many people as possible, as easily as possible, and not get lost in the streaming shuffle. Of course, it would be impossible to fault either option. But her acknowledgement, and Gerwig’s, too, that there is nevertheless a choice that must be made, is a welcome, refreshing look at the artist’s conundrum, a reality Little Women makes mainstream.

Of course, if this were a straight retelling of Little Women, it would still be beautiful. From her actors’ playful performances—“I have lovely small feet, the best in my family” by Florence Pugh’s Amy comes to mind—to the warm glow of fuzzy, familiar scenes, Gerwig’s Little Women would be pure fun even without the reconfiguring and she should be invited to adapt many more literary mainstays. Gerwig could retell Clifford, the Big Red Dog with warmth and nuance and I’d pay to see it and cry many times.

***

Little Women (2019) | Sony Pictures

Both Jo and Alcott are parts of the same person, but Gerwig’s work opts to explore the spirit behind the former’s creation to arrive at a more thorough, empathetic understanding of the latter. After all, the movie is bookended by shots of novels authored by L.M. Alcott and J.L. March, respectively, signifying the infusion of our author’s unsung perspective (read: all those meetings with Mr. Dashwood) into the complete work.

During the final scene, as Jo—but sort of Alcott, too—proudly watches her book being printed and bound in beautiful red, I listened closely to hear what I knew I wouldn’t: David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” In a talk with Variety, Gerwig said she played the song for Ronan during that pivotal, eyes-full-of-future moment:

I’m an alligator
I’m a mama-papa coming for you
I’m a space invader
I’ll be a rock-‘n’-rollin’ bitch for you
Keep your mouth shut
You’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words

It sounds like a writer feeling like an impostor of herself, maybe, trying to find the right way to say what she needs to while feeling silenced and alienated by the task at hand. But more than that, it sounds like the time, thought, and care of an auteur who just really, truly loves art.

In her version of Little Women, Gerwig doesn’t always achieve a precisely true-to-the-book retelling, but does accomplish something that feels most true. True to the author, to the creative process and frustrations of her day and ours: It’s hard to not want to hug and learn from Laura Dern—er, Marmee after she tells you she’s angry nearly every day of her life (a timely line pulled straight from the novel). This Little Women is a case of literary adaptation as service to the original author; Alcott couldn’t have written her own heroine out of marriage, but Gerwig could. I think this version would make Alcott smile, which has to be some kind of gauge of an adaptation’s merit, right? Gerwig has talked about finding inspiration in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf concedes that “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” Not for lack of talent, but agency.

As more women’s stories are helmed by women who know them and live them, the idea that anything is impossible may seem smaller and weirder every year, but it’s not gone. Today, a work like Gerwig’s, one that so carefully and playfully explores the art of making art—and money, too—feels contemporary, culturally necessary, and cathartic. 

As Jo tells Marmee, things would be so much easier if she were a girl in a book. Easier, yes—but as Gerwig proves, life on the outside of that beautifully bound book is a whole lot more interesting.