DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor—Louisa May Alcott’s perennial novel “Little Women” has been adapted countless times; the latest case, helmed by director Greta Gerwig, released last year and this past week was screened here by the Denison Film Society. I’ll confess my experience with the story beforehand was slight (I’ll level with you – it was just last year that I learned “The Simpsons” line “And then they realized they were no longer little girls, they were little women,” isn’t actually the closing note of the novel). Now, it could be the fundamental power of the story, or Gerwig’s filmmaking prowess, or both, but I was captivated by “Little Women” (2019) from the opening minutes.
My main praise has to fall on the film’s presentation of its narrative- “Little Women” isn’t an adaptation for adaptation’s sake, Gerwig discovered how to make the story cinematic by telling it in a way only possible on film, reframing Alcott’s words through the power of color and light.
Albeit only having second-hand information about the original novel, I understand it follows a chronological structure, tagging along on the March sisters’ shared journeys to adulthood in a straightforward coming-of-age tale. Gerwig and editor Nick Houy play mix-and-match with the novel’s narrative, switching back and forth between present and past, reinterpreting the novel’s opening chapters as the Marchs’ memories of years past.
One of my favorite films is Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), a fantasy film that uses cool and warm tones in its cinematography to differentiate between reality and the imaginary (respectively). “Little Women” employs a similar technique but to mark temporal differentiation. The scenes which portray memories of childhood are imbued with golden shades while the present are bathed in cool, grey-blue tones; the color has literally and metaphorically evaporated from the March sisters’ lives, ripped away by the realities of adulthood.
Despite the intricate structure, the film flows easily – even if you can’t catch on to the color-coding, there are clear moments of transition between past and present (one of the most emotional is when Jo (Saoirse Ronan) wakes to discover her terminally ill sister Beth (Eliza Scanlon) missing, rushes downstairs and finds her conversing with their mother (Laura Dern). The film soon cuts to Jo waking again, this time in the present, to again discover Beth missing. When she rushes to her mother this time, Beth is nowhere to be found). While this back-and-forth structure would be achievable on the page, the juxtaposition of images have a blunter, greater impact than they would’ve had they remained in the abstract form of language.
Loving this most recent “Little Women” has naturally wtempted me to finally seek out the past interpretations of the story, Alcott’s original text most of all, yet also reluctant to do so. By rearranging of the plot structure, Gerwig transformed the story at its core; her “Little Women” is not a journey from adolescence to adulthood but a meditation on the inherent bittersweetness of leaving the coddled innocence of youth behind, and I’m not sure that I could have it any other way.