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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