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Film Critic: Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' Is 'An Absorbing Experience'

Wilson Webb
© 2019 CTMG, Inc.
(From left) Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen play the March sisters in the latest adaptation of "Little Women."

Louisa May Alcott released the first part of her novel Little Women in 1868, with the second volume published in 1869. The story follows the lives of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and their journeys from childhood to adulthood.

The novel — and it’s now eight film adaptations — address themes of domesticity, work, love, and women’s longing for independence and greater meaning during a time where little opportunity was given to them. The novel was an immediate success when it was first published, and the story still captures our attention today.

The first film adaptation of Little Women was made in 1917. The first “talkie” of it was in 1933 with Katherine Hepburn playing Jo March. Winona Ryder last portrayed the famous, mischievous, and ambitious Jo in 1994. The latest to take on the role of Jo is Saoirse Ronan, under the direction of Greta Gerwig — who also wrote the film's screenplay.


Ronan joins an all-star cast that includes Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen and more.

"You can't go wrong with this [cast]," says film contributor Dave Luhrssen. "[Gerwig] was able to call from a real good A and B list of talented people for this film. And I suppose, first of all, because Greta Gerwig is a rising talent and it's a story that has a lot of familiarity and appeal."

The latest Little Women goes back and forth from the March sisters' childhood and their lives as adults. Moving back and forth in time isn't a bad idea with a familiar story, but Luhrssen says there was too much of this element, which can confuse audiences.

"There wasn't enough distinction between eras of time, sometimes even places," he notes.

However, the film is filled with beautiful settings, costume design, cinematography and a score that ties all of the elements together. Luhrssen notes that Gerwig was also able to write the story in a way that modern audiences could digest, especially with the dialogue.

"The tone began in kind of 19th century and then it shifted without being too abrupt into something that sounds more like the way that contemporary people today would speak without sounding anachronistic," he explains. "So, I think it was a trick that [Gerwig] wanted to do — kind of like retaining the flavor of Shakespeare without confusing the audience. I think she was able to pull that off."

Luhrssen admits that the 1994 adaptation of Little Women is still his favorite. But this film is one to see, especially if you have enjoyed the book and its many versions of films.

"It's an absorbing experience in a pleasant kind of way, which is something that I think more and more I want," he says. "If I'm going to go into a movie for two hours, I want to be in a beautiful place that makes me think."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.