In an age of reboot and sequel fatigue in Hollywood, genuinely new spins on beloved tales feel rare.
But despite the fact that Louisa May Alcott's classic American novel Little Women has been made into a film no fewer than seven times, Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig (whose 2017 debut Lady Bird was one of the most acclaimed films of that year) knew exactly what she needed to do to make the beloved story feel fresh again.
Alcott's novel, published in 1868 and in print ever since, is in two parts; first following the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy) as girls, and second, as adults.
But Gerwig's adaptation makes the bold, technically challenging, but ultimately brilliant choice to collapse the timelines together. She darts seamlessly back and forth between interlinked senses and emotions, creating a dialogue between the wide-eyed dreams of girlhood and the societal limitations of womanhood.
"I wanted to explode the narrative and put it back together," she says. "I wanted to ground it in adulthood, so that everything about it has this ache of childhood being gone — that it's just not there anymore."
The result is astonishing. The scrambled timelines not only crack open the nostalgia and beauty of childhood, allowing for the film to swell with untold emotion, but bring to life the harsh reality of life for ambitious, creative women in the 19th century, reflecting that against a 21st century context with sharp clarity.
"When I was revisiting the book when I was 30 and I hadn't read it for 15 years, I was astonished by how pressing and modern and fresh and urgent it was," says Gerwig.
"Underneath the text and shining out from it were these themes that I felt like I was dealing with every day, about art and women and ambition and money, and authorship and ownership."
In the lead role of the fiery, headstrong Jo — an aspiring writer loosely based on Alcott herself — is Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan, while Florence Pugh plays Amy, the precocious younger sister who frequently aggravates Jo. The fraught relationship between the two is brought into focus in Gerwig's film, with high emotions erupting into raging rows throughout their upbringing.
"(Jo and Amy) are just in such close proximity with one another all the time, and when you're with someone and you spend that much time with them, you're going to go through stages where you almost feel like you do hate them a little bit, because you love them so much," says Ronan.
While preparing for the role, Ronan found her body language become more alive, more kinetic. "It was interesting, the more I knew the dialogue and the rhythm of the dialogue, how movement started to come out of that, and my hands started to move a lot. It was like I was reaching out for something — there was something that I needed that I wasn't quite getting yet, there was like a yearning or a frustration or something like that."
Gerwig and Pugh's rendition of Amy updates the often-maligned character with empathy. While she acts out and makes hurtful choices as a child, Gerwig focuses on her wit and intelligence, understanding the impact of living in the shadow of three talented older sisters.
"Amy is constantly trying to be as big and as wonderful and as intelligent as her sisters, but she still can't shake off that childishness about her," says Pugh.
"Everything about how she talks is very daydreamy and airy fairy, and she walks into a room almost like everybody should be looking at her. Then when I'm older Amy, everything is calmer; she's at peace, I suppose, with herself."
While Jo pursues writing in New York, Amy, who we find as an aspiring painter in Paris in the latter timeline, is facing a painfully practical dilemma: the choice between committing herself to the pursuit of artistic greatness, or finding a man to marry in order to grant herself financial security.
"Louisa May Alcott wrote two very similar but very different women with ambition," says Pugh. "The arts is incredibly important, as it was to these four girls back in that era, and I think through Amy March in this version, we're able to see ... through that era, women didn't have any choices, and Louisa May Alcott was the first to do something like this, and women are still trying to fight similar battles today."
Under Gerwig's fluid, almost musical direction, the creative expression of the March sisters is allowed to run wild. And while the four women find the glass ceiling threatens to limit their creative ambition, the enormous emotions of their inner lives are given the time and space to unfold in Gerwig's gorgeous, lived-in film.
"I always thought of Little Women as a title as being, in a way, a joke from Louisa [May Alcott]," says Gerwig. "I think [she] knew that it sounded diminutive and dismissive, and yet she wrote a sprawling novel about the lives of girls and women and how they moved from girlhood into adulthood and the choices they made."I think calling that Little Women is in a way a wink — I've decided she's winking at me through time."
Oscar buzz for Little Women's breakout star
While Little Women stars Hollywood heavyweights such as Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson, the film is likely to introduce new audiences to the seemingly boundless talents of 23-year-old British actress, Florence Pugh.
Pugh made her debut in the 2014 drama The Falling , and broke into Hollywood after her chilling turn as a stifled housewife who turns to murder in 2016's Lady Macbeth.
2019 was a whopper year for Pugh, with lead roles in the wrestling comedy Fighting With My Family and the emotionally devastating horror Midsommar . Her role as Amy March in Little Women is earning her early Oscar buzz, and she's just wrapped a role as Scarlett Johansson's rival, comrade and sister in Marvel's next major blockbuster, Black Widow.
Pugh filmed her polar-opposite roles in Midsommar and Little Women literally back-to-back, which allowed her to shake off the dark, visceral emotions from the former film.
"In all honesty, I think I would have been very sad, and probably a bit shocked if I had stopped and done nothing (after Midsommar )," says Pugh.
"The fact that I got to go somewhere else, and be this wonderful free child was genuinely the best thing for me to have done during that time," she says. "If I'd done the other way round I think I probably would have been very lost by the end. Amy gave me a lot of energy, and I really do thank her every day for being able to play that."
While Pugh is embracing the challenge of moving into the public eye, she has enjoyed being a supporting player over the past few years.
"I've had some really wonderful moments where I've been able to still be me and unknown amongst big amazing actors, and that's been a really special thing, because I can just sit there and learn, and I don't have to be any specific name," she says.
"Every single film I've done up until this year (has) been waiting to come out at different times, and so I have been able to do that, and I have been able to be still little old me with Meryl Streep — and I can't tell you how relieving that is; to just be able to meet them as a person before you are known for your work."