little women remake

What makes a story timeless? It’s a loaded question, with infinite answers, but there are certain through-lines when you take a monocled look. The stories that get retold, over and over ad nauseum, are elemental: hero’s journeys, love stories, arch enemies. Easily adaptable, impressionable by nature; no matter how they are told, how closely they adhere to origin, they feel new. Jesus, Hamlet, Jane Eyre. They are fables ripe with possibility.

When it was announced last week that Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Lady Bird – her first solo feature as a writer and director, which earned her dual Oscar nods as a result – would be an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel Little Women, there was a bit of a backlash. There are, to date, six film adaptations of Little Women, with a seventh – a modern retelling starring Lea Thompson – due later this year. Additionally, there have been four BBC miniseries based on the book – including one that came out just last year – a made-for-TV musical in 1958, a 2012 Lifetime movie, and several anime spinoffs. Why, some wondered, do we need another?

Yes, We Always Need Another Little Women Remake

Little Women doesn’t seem like the typical timeless story, because it is lighter in fare. Alcott’s novel follows the March family of Concord, Massachusetts at the height of the Civil War. As their father fights for the Union army, the women he’s left behind – wife “Marmee,” and daughters Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth – face poverty and social dissolution, and watch their status crumble around them. And yet their inherent goodness helps them persevere as a unit; the sisters assist the less fortunate, and one another, and find their voices and romantic love along the way.

It would feel less pertinent were it not for the “hero” of the story, Jo March, the second eldest daughter whose plucky spirit and hard-worn attitude transcends era and disposition. Jo is feisty, ruthless, but also noble and warm. She wins the affection of her neighbor, Theodore Lawrence, and their will-they-won’t-they gives the story a sense of urgency, though is never its true purpose. Little Women is not a romance, but rather a coming-of-age, and it’s Jo that keeps it relevant, for she bucks tradition, and gender norms, and paves her way through a male-dominate industry, facing personal and professional setbacks along the way. Every generation needs a Jo or two. Because she’s fighting the seemingly un-winnable fight women face to this day.

Why this casting is so promising

Saoirse Ronan is set to play Jo in Gerwig’s adaptation, which is about as exciting as it gets. Ronan was fantastic in Lady Bird; at just 24 years old, she’s already a three-time Oscar nominee, and has proven herself a titan of her craft. And if any character feels like a Jo March prototype, its Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Both Jo and Lady Bird dream of cityscapes and writing careers, and wax poetic about their ambitions and desires, to the annoyance of everyone in their orbit. Jo furthers what Christine sets in motion – and actually sees her dreams through, to some variation – and seeing Saoirse’s growth from one role to the next is a thrilling prospect.

The rest of the cast makes sense, too. Meryl Streep is set to play Aunt March (not Marmee, as previously reported) – the wealthy March relative that the family has to appease, and who Jo actively detests – with Emma Stone as eldest sister Meg, Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh as the rebellious Amy, and Timothée Chalamet as Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, Jo’s boy-next-door boyfriend. Like Christine is to Jo, so is Chalamet’s Lady Bird character, Kyle, to Laurie; an anti-establishment heartthrob whose glib confidence doesn’t age well into adulthood.

All of these actors have a lot to live up to. Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder tackled Jo March to great esteem in the past. (Ryder earned an Oscar nomination for her 1994 portrayal.) Elizabeth Taylor has played Amy, Janet Leigh has played Meg, and Christian Bale made Laurie the detestable but desirable fictional cad that he is. But the new actors bring the strengths of their own cinematic era to these roles, and are the best defense yet for why it should exist. We deserve a film with Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep barbing, Timothée Chalamet pouting through a window, Florence Pugh chewing scenery like Eve Harrington, and Emma Stone applying her doe-eyed servitude to a perennially trapped sister-matriarch.

The early backlash has a good point

One complaint I’ve seen make the rounds is just how white this cast is, and how that’s a disappointment given the white-dominant cultural landscape. I don’t disagree with that at all; Little Women’s timelessness, by the standards set forth above, means that it is prone to adaptation. The March family story sits neatly into any timeline – any war – and doesn’t need to be so of-its-era.

From what I can tell, Gerwig’s Little Women looks to be a straight adaptation of Alcott’s novel, and so the all-white casting falls in line with what it’s telling. I also don’t know, given the admittedly limited perspective I have of Gerwig, that she would be the best at adjusting this story to a new era or cultural experience.

That doesn’t beget the complaints, but it does call to front the question of why, exactly, all-white stories get to wear the “timeless” badge. It’s not so much a controversy that Gerwig’s historical adaptation will exist, but that we don’t get more diverse adaptations or original material along with it. Hollywood is sure to greenlight whatever Gerwig wanted to do next after the success of Lady Bird, but there are non-white – and non cis-woman – storytellers equally deserving of the platform that allows her that privilege. I hope, at the very least, that Gerwig’s Little Women serves as a catalyst for those discussions.

Jo March has a story to tell

No matter her incarnation, the reason Little Women forges forward is the story of Jo, and the stories she herself has to tell. She is a woman writer, who is told she’s not good enough by male writers, and that is – sadly – as relevant as ever. Cis white male writers dominate many fields, writing in particular, and Jo presents a challenge to that norm, with her genre stories (never forget that Jo’s short stories were about vampires), and her refusal to adhere to writerly expectations.

We live in a culture where superhero stories are constantly retold – we’ve had three cinematic Spider-mans in last decade alone – and James Bond flourishes, and there can never be enough John Connors. Why, then, are we so reluctant to see the story of women flourishing, growing, learning, combatting? Little Women is as necessary now as it ever was, and it doesn’t matter how often this story is told. It’s worth telling, and that’s all that matters.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: