In recent decades, there seems to have emerged two paths to approach movie adaptations of literary works, especially for a classic: faithful to the source, or awash it with contemporary strokes.
Here’s the rub: total loyalty would trigger criticisms of movies being a kind of illustrated book, simply redundant. But gloss it over with postmodern touches could strip an adaptation of the meaning and authenticity of the original text. Debates arise as to which is a better path.
A few days ago, in a Writers Panel with five screenwriters at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Greta Gerwig presented a third way. She didn’t call it that, but that’s how I see it, a happy medium (pun intended). Her approach to Little Women is both loyal to the spirit and letter of Louisa May Alcott’s as well as creating a contemporary, artful production for modern viewers to enjoy.
I’ve to quote her exact words as they are inspiring. Here’s the link to the video. The following quotes can be found from 27 to 36 mins. How does Gerwig handle the loyalty aspect? The writer-director did extensive research in preparation for her screenplay:
I wanted to treat the text of Little Women as almost a sacred text, also other texts that Louisa May Alcott and her family and other contemporaries had generated between letters, and other books that she’d written. I wanted to ground as much as I could in that. I wanted everything to be footnoteable (she well had coined a new word) and I wanted every line you ask me about and I can say it’s here, that I have my references.
How does her version relate with previous adaptations?
But the fact that it’s been adapted for screen seven times, it’s been made into an opera, and made into a musical and made into two anime shows, this is a loved and interpreted work. The way that something that’s been loved and interpreted many times you get this collective memory of what it is.
There’s the text, which is the book, and then there’s urtext, which is every time it’s loved and interpreted again. Urtext does have a relationship with the text, but it’s also separate… I wanted to deliver on the pleasures of Little Women as we’ve collectively come to know them.
And how does the collective interplay with the personal?
Gerwig instilled her own style and framed it in her own light. Quite a few things I’ve observed, the most obvious difference from previous versions is the structure, her juxtaposing the past and present timelines. The story is told as Jo’s memories seamlessly woven with her present as a struggling writer alone in NYC, a fresh take that adds depth and texture.
Gerwig paints the past with a golden hue signifying the warmth of cherished family memories and the present with a cool, blueish tone sending out harsher, lonelier vibes. She has also given an elevated role for Amy to interact with Jo, two seemingly rival siblings but could well be two sides of the same coin. Amy the pragmatic realist who grows up to understand too well her lack of economic status as a woman and who is ready to take financial security over real love ultimately gets both. Jo the dreamer and idealist, who’d vowed she’d never marry, has also carved out a path of her own.
So what does the ending mean?
I don’t want to say: O here’s what the ending means… I wanted to create something that’s open to interpretation along two lines. I think the movie belongs to the audience, so it’s down to the reflection you see…
With the layered ending, Gerwig effectively depicts the struggles of not only the book character Jo as an aspiring author in Little Women, but parallels it with Louisa May Alcott the woman writer in a man’s publishing world, and extending by implication to Gerwig’s own reality as a woman writer-director striving in a male-dominated film industry. The triple-layered final act opens the door to a golden future as we see a progressive school for boys and girls, and a published author giving birth to her work and keeping her own copyright. As for that third, invisible layer, I do wish Gerwig continual success in her writing and filmmaking career despite the obstacles she faces in the real world.
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10 thoughts on “Greta Gerwig Creates A Third Way to Adaptation with ‘Little Women’”
Beautifully explained. I saw all that. I do appreciate this, it highlights Gerwig’s talent, and Alcott’s talent. I love what they both have given us. This adaptation is a classic. FINALLY. A movie that’s not a safe take, money profit driven, or that is done to exalt the director but to make the public think, and to delight.
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Well said! It’s unfortunate that she got snubbed in the Oscar Director category while the movie got 6 other nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
What a thoughtful and well conceived post. I loved the film and part of the reason why was because it was different from the other (dearly beloved) versions I’d seen before. I almost felt like I was watching a biopic, which in some oblique way, it partially was. It felt very real, very honest, and very now. This only adds to why that worked so well. Thanks.
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I’m excited to see all these positive ripples! I like this: “It felt very real, very honest, and very now.” Hope Greta could read that too. 🙂
I’m so looking forward to seeing this and will watch with your take on it in mind!
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It’s a must-see, albeit it’s disheartening to see Greta Gerwig gets snubbed time and time again. Latest, WGA last night and BAFTA tonight in London!
This is Off the subject of the above, yet I wanted to share with you an upcoming book into movie 🎥 coming soon from Martin Scorsese. (I didn’t know how else to communicate with you.)
My husband and I recently read David Grann’s wonderfully written and researched book “Killers of the Flower Moon” — a National Book Award finalist. I think you would be very interested in the story. It takes place in the 1920s…Osage Indians with mineral rights to their land in Oklahoma strike oil — and the death toll rises as the mystery begins. The FBI gets involved and it is a great account of true history.
Thanks for the heads-up, Heather! I’ll check that out. Your take on unfilmed novels? 🙂
Let me see…how about these two authors:
Mary Doria Russell (yes she was named after the Andrea Doria Steamliner) is a historic fiction writer with advanced degrees in anthropology. To name a few of her books that would make great movies: “The Sparrow” — will keep the reader on the edge of her seat about space travel gone very wrong, “Doc” — about the Wild West and the notorious Doc Holiday, “Epitaph” — about the men involved in the shoot out at the OK Corral, “Dreamers of the Day” — about the Cairo Conference and the dividing of Mesopotamia, and her latest “The Women of Copper County” — about copper mines, health issues, working conditions and the women who fought for betterment.
And how about Alan Furst’s historic spy novels (pre WWII and WWII era) many of his books even have repeat characters!
“The Night Soldiers” “A Hero of France” “Dark star” “Spies of the Balkans” and “Blood of Victory” to name a few.
This is a wonderful list, Heather. Can you leave this comment in my current post “Unfilmed Novels”? So other readers can read your suggestions. And you might want to see what others have recommended as well. Again, thanks for your input, you two pebbles into the Pond. 🙂