Big debut for “Little Women”

New feature film draws new attention to a classic novel

Hollywood’s latest remake of Little Women promises to make a big splash.

In advance of its December 25th opening, the film is garnering lots of headlines. Director Greta Gerwig and the film’s cast have been walking the red carpet at premieres and parties. Critics are raving about the film. And Concord, the hometown of the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott and the site for some of the filming, is planning a weeklong celebration (December 15 to 22) of its favorite daughter and the adaptation of her book.

Professor of English Beverly Lyon Clark, who studies and writes about the novel and its author, is watching the hubbub with appreciation.

“I’m excited by the increased attention to Little Women,” Clark said. “I’m also excited by the buzz I’ve been hearing about the film among students, who have generally been less interested in, or at least less familiar with, the book than they were a couple of decades ago.”

The forthcoming film adaptation benefits from a star-powered cast—Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep—and a director fresh off the critical and box office success of her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird.

Alcott’s classic possesses broad appeal, too, Clark said. “It’s a rich text that can speak to different people in different ways. It’s used by people who want to celebrate what they think of as a traditional family … but it also speaks to people who are concerned about the empowerment of young women. It’s rich enough so that these radically different kinds of readings can be supported.”

Clark is uniquely well suited to take the long view. Her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, published in 2014 by Johns Hopkins University Press, examines the various remixes of the novel and how those interpretations of the story reflect American culture over the past 150 years. Gerwig’s interpretation marks the sixth feature film adaptation of the book, not to mention the television and opera works, graphic novels and more.

By all accounts, early reviews of the new film, as well as interviews with the director and cast members, indicate that the 2019 version of Little Women adopts a feminist perspective.

“The novel was progressive for its time, but not as progressive as Alcott herself was. I think she would approve of the feminist reading,” Clark said. “She supported suffrage for women, for instance, and was one of the first women to vote in a local election in Concord.”

The author  also resisted fan pressure after publication of part 1 of the novel—published three months before the second part—to marry off Jo to Laurie, Clark  said.

“Ultimately she decided to let Jo marry but to give her a ‘perverse’ choice, Professor Bhaer, less conventionally attractive than Laurie,” Clark said. “And, indeed, that choice has, I’d argue, contributed to the longevity of the novel, as many readers resist it, puzzle over it, and are provoked to contemplate their resistance and the implications of this and other marriages.”