"Little Women" is a coming-of-age period drama film released in the U.S. in December 2019. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures / Regency Enterprises /
La Cañada High School

Review: ‘Little Women’ is a smooth transition from paper to film

As I was not one of the many teens asked to read the classic American novel “Little Women” in their middle school English class, I was tasked with the reading of the novel on my own accord.

As someone who always prefers to read the book before the movie, when I became aware that Greta Gerwig was directing a film adaptation, I rushed to read the book. While I gave my best attempt at finishing all 500 pages of the novel, I was ultimately unsuccessful and gave into watching the film with much of girls’ adulthood lives and ending plot unknown to me.

Reading the first few hundred pages established a familiarity and connection to the March girls which was enhanced by the almost over-the-top portrayals by the leading actresses. The 2019 adaptation of Alcott’s acclaimed novel stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep.

The film begins in media res with Jo away tutoring for a family in New York while simultaneously selling her stories to local newspapers. The storyline unfolds by flashing back to the young lives of the March sisters and proceeding with the events facing Jo in her adulthood.

The defining experiences of the sisters bonding and developing their values and ambitions are culminated to show their progression to adulthood. Laughable moments and depressing realities mesh together to tell the story of the March sisters.

The two plots eventually meet at the death of the Beth March which is skillfully illustrated by jumping between Beth’s scare with scarlet fever in her early life and her eventual passing several years later. The jump cuts, which showcase Jo’s reaction to Beth’s initial survival in junction with her loss of faith at Beth’s death, reveal the significance that Beth played in Jo’s motivation. 

Gerwig’s screenplay maintains the integrity of the novel’s plot and keeps the sequence of events and key developments true to Alcott’s literary vision. The use of lighting, set design, color, and scene set up enhance the story of the March girls by visualizing the nuances of the novel. She sustains the chaotic nature of the plot and characters which preserves the narrative as unique piece for the time period.

In scenes with all of the sisters on screen have methodical camera angles and movement as each character cuts the others off with their lines. Gerwig breaks down the planning of one such scene in a video Vanity Fair’s YouTube channel.

Additionally, the use of color and lighting throughout the film help convey the tone and mood formulated in the novel. For example Gerwig separates the plot into the girls’ early childhood and their adulthood, and utilizes color to enhance the division. In adolescence scenes, the frame is littered with warm hues, vivid lighting, and nostalgic settings like the beach, grass fields, and an attic playroom.

The strategic placement of candles and fireplace lighting during the winter removed the harshness of season and builds off of the family’s hospitality and generosity. The scenes in the hotter months showcase bright colors in the flowers and shrubbery, toys, and decorations. This combined with the almost over the top characterizations of Jo, Amy, and Laurie create a lovable and playful mood throughout their childhood. The joyful mood provides a stark contrast to the disillusionment in their later lives.

The cool tones and dimly lit scenes of adulthood give way to the harsh and despairing realities of growing up. This contrast is most clear in the two scenes set at the beach. The girls first accompany Laurie on a day trip to the seaside for games and festivities. At the time, the sky is clear and bright blue; the sand is warm and golden against the turquoise waves.

Then we see Jo and Beth return in hopes of bettering Beth’s deteriorating health. The second appearance at the beach is filled with gloomy storm clouds, grey ocean waves, and silver speckled sand. The icy colors and lack of sunshine relates the bitter truth Jo must accept regarding the fate of her beloved sister. 

The themes of the novel are portrayed throughout the film effectively making the transition from paper to motion picture near ideal. Greta Gerwig takes the subtleties of Louisa May Alcott’s writing and shapes them in film.

The noteworthy cast embraces and enhances the lovable characteristics of familiar characters. Whilst, the set design, combined with borderline satirical performances, and film techniques create an impressive film which will bring a new generation into the cult of admirers of the novel “Little Women.”