From Alcott to Gerwig: How Little Women Went From Classical Novel to Award Winning Movies

Louisa May Alcott grew up in a poor family that was frequently at risk of being broken up, needing to move in order to avoid food shortage. Her father, Bronson Alcott, who rarely held steady employment as a transcendentalist philosopher and educator, was not a good supplier and the efforts of keeping the family afloat fell upon Louisa’s mother, Abigail.

While Bronson had failed in many rights, he did encourage his daughters to embrace their God-given talents. Anna pursued acting, Lizzie took to music, May to arts, and Louisa to writing. This was the early 1800s, a time when women were discouraged from putting pen to paper. It was a culture that believed a woman writer was as shameful as prostitution. 

And it certainly felt that way during those times. In 1867, 35 years-old, Louisa was approached by Thomas Niles, a publishing partner at Roberts Brothers. He solicited her to write a book for girls. Alcott didn’t like girls or knew many, only her sisters, so she was reluctant. However, her family needed money and after some pressure, she began work on a novel called The Pathetic Family. 

The Novel

In September 1868, The Pathetic Family was published under the new title: Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in the England publication, released two months later, it was titled: Four Little Women. This semi-autobiographical story was a success, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out instantly. Alcott received letters from readers, mostly young girls, who wanted to know what happened to the March sisters, most importantly who those girls married.

Because of this great reception, Alcott began working on the second half of the story, following these Little Women into adulthood. It was undeniable that the characters had a parallel with Louisa’s sisters and herself in real life: the death of her sister Lizzie, Louisa’s rivalry with her sister May — which mirrored Jo’s rivalry with Amy — and even her friendship with a Polish man named Laddie she met in Europe, who was represented in the story by the character Laurie. 

There were two main divergences from the real experiences: First was the father figure in the novel, Mr March, who was depicted as a Civil War hero, while in reality Bronson Alcott was hardly such and was often seen as an embarrassment to the Alcott family. The Marches were much more well off than the Alcotts. 

The second was the protagonist, Jo, who Alcott had based off of herself. While Alcott remained single her whole life, saying that she had a man’s soul inside of her woman’s body, Jo ended up married, which at the time was the pretty bow necessary at the end of any respectable tale. 

Alcott was against having Jo married, but in the end, the best she could do was to make a compromise. She set Jo up with an unconventional husband, which was designed to subvert adolescent romantic ideas, for he was older and unfitting — when it seemed like she would be destined to end up with Laurie.

Nevertheless, in April 1869, Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second was published — in England, it was called Little Women Wedded. 

Women from all different classes and national backgrounds, during a time when immigration was high in the US, could envision new dreams for themselves after reading Little Women. This was especially true during the 19th century when there were hardly any models for nontraditional womanhood. Literature was the first place to spark that self-authorization, opening the door for women to evolve and even encourage them to have a change of heart when necessary, whether it’s in their relationships or careers. 

Alcott was an abolitionist and feminist and in the early 1860s, prior to her fame from Little Women, she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War escalated, in 1862, Alcott went to Georgetown DC to serve as a nurse. During her six-week service, Alcott contracted typhoid and nearly died. She survived and her letters home were revised and published in a Boston anti-slavery publication and a collection called Hospital Sketches. This earned her her first critical recognition as a writer. 

While serving as a nurse, her father would send her poems saying how proud of her he was for her services. No doubt, Bronson Alcott would continue to be proud, as Louisa’s influence grew as one of the key female voices during the Gilded Age, which included Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Anne Moncure Crane. In 1877, Alcott would become a founding member of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, designed to support women and children during the rise of industrialism. 

Tragically, on March 6, 1888 — two days after her father’s death, Louisa May Alcott at the age of 55 died of a stroke. She would never get to see her story of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth come to life on screen, but her novel and the themes within will last for many generations to come. 

In a 1979 essay by literary scholar Judith Fetterley, entitled “Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War,” she argues that the novel was pushing back against the framework for adolescent girls of that time. One prime example was where Beth, the character that best exhibited the acceptance of the woman’s role, died upon reaching adulthood, while the sisters that resisted conforming survived. Little Women will be the subject of feminist and literary criticism for years to come, and while some deemed it unworthy to be catalogued with the great American novels like Huckleberry Finn, the story had consistently attracted writers and filmmakers. 

The Movies

From 1917 to 2019, there have been numerous adaptations of Little Women made for the television and the stage, as well as 6 feature films.

The first was a lost British silent film in 1917 starring former Gaiety Girl, Ruby Miller who played Jo. 

A year after, an American version of Little Women was produced around Alcott’s home in Concord Massachusetts. This was also a silent film and it starred Dorothy Bernard as Jo. 

The first talkie adaptation of Little Women was released in 1933 and it was a huge box office hit, garnering rave reviews from the critics. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, the movie’s theme about simplicity, frugality, and resilience resonated with the audience during the midst of the Great Depression. With that, it ended up earning the movie three nominations at the Academy Awards, one for best picture, one for best director, and one for screenwriters, Victor Heerman and Sarah Y Mason, who won for best-adapted screenplay. 

In 1949, Little Women was adapted once more, this time in Technicolor, starring June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. According to many critics of the time, it couldn’t hold a candle to the preceding version starring Katherine Hepburn, saying that although Allyson may have tried to emulate Hepburn it wasn’t as persuasive. But nobody could blame Allyson for copying as the script and music were taken directly from the version that was released over 15 years prior. 

When Denise Di Novi, known then for producing Ed Wood and Nightmare Before Christmas, reached out to director Gillian Armstrong to gauge her interest in remaking Little Women, Armstrong, feeling the movie was too similar in theme to her first feature, My Brilliant Career, declined. However, Di Novi was persistent and encouraged Armstrong to reconsider. When she did, she found that the story was pertinent to the times and perhaps it was worth revisiting after 45 years. Armstrong would only then discover that Di Novi, producer Amy Pascal, and screenwriter Robin Swicord have been working on modernizing Little Women for 12 years. Their main pitch was for it to be a great family Christmas movie. 

When Robin Swicord wrote the script for the 1994 version of Little Women, she looked back at the previous adaptations and saw that the main question in the story was “Who will these girls marry?”, but she knew even at a young age, that the question should be, “Who will these girls become?” Considering what Louisa May Alcott had at the heart of the story, she wrote the script focusing on the themes of ambition and identity.  

Filmed in Vancouver with a budget of $18 million, Little Women starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, and Christian Bale as Laurie opened to over 1,500 screens in North America on December 21, 1994, grossing over $50 million — a success. 

In addition, the film earned three Academy Awards nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Actress for Winona Ryder. Robin Swicord was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America Award but lost to Eric Roth who wrote Forrest Gump. Although many critics were skeptical about this remake at first, feeling it would be cheesy or overly sentimental, they found that it was full of serious themes and warm and meticulous performances. 

Between 2013 to 2015, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord, and Amy Pascal teamed up again for a new adaptation of Little Women. While the news about the project started to spread, many wondered what new aspects can be brought to a story that was now nearly a century and a half years old. During this time, Olivia Milch, who would eventually write Ocean’s Eight, was working on the script.  

Later on, in 2015, Canadian actor and director, Sarah Polley — known for the movie Away from Her — was hired to take over the script and eventually direct the movie, but she never got much deeper into the project than the discussion phase. 

Finally, in August 2016, Greta Gerwig was brought on to write the script. Little Women was a book that she grew up with and loved. She went as far as saying that the character of Jo was someone she idolized, inspiring her to be a writer herself. Gerwig saw themes that other adaptations glossed over, including money, authorship, ownership, art — but mostly money. 

After the success of 2017’s Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig was signed on as the director for Little Women. While on the set of Lady Bird, upon hearing that Gerwig had such influence in such an influential movie, Ronan approached her evoking her desperation to play Jo

In addition to casting Ronan as Jo, Gerwig continued to make major decisions regarding her rebellious protagonist. Upon doing her own research of Louisa May Alcott, she discovered that so much of Jo was pulled from Alcott’s own life, however, the author had to make many compromises as per the pressures of the times. Gerwig wanted to bring more of Alcott into the character that Alcott herself was unable to do. Convinced that the author had never wanted to write a story where Jo got married, Gerwig made a movie that she believed honoured the original creator — a redemptive adaptation — while being faithful to the novel.

Telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, Gerwig began the 2019 adaptation of Little Women with Jo trying to sell her book and ending her story not on the importance of finding a man to marry, but rather the qualities of the sisters, most notably the intelligence of the bratty sister, Amy, played by Florence Pugh. 

While the whole cast, including Emma Watson as Meg, Laura Dern as Marmie, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March all received positive reception for their performances as an ensemble, it was Ronan, Pugh, and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie that were deemed stand out performances by the critics. 

On Christmas Day 2019, Gerwig’s Little Women, with a budget of $40 million, was released and ended up earning $206 million worldwide. The movie earned six nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading role for Ronan, Best Actress in a Support Role for Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig, and Best Costume Design, which was the only win of the night. 

There was a bitter taste when Gerwig was left off the ballot for Best Director, which many called foul, feeling that Gerwig had done a phenomenal job modernizing the classic and bringing a uniqueness to a story that was so familiar, blending the contemporary and the nostalgia so masterfully that it made the adaptation relevant. 

Nevertheless, no one can deny the sustaining power of the story of the four March sisters. While so much of our world has changed since Alcott had written the words, so much remained. We can only imagine what the next twenty to fifty years will bring. How much will change? And how will the next version of Little Women be interpreted? As the readers of Alcotts’ time had wondered what will happen to Jo — we can also do the same… as we look towards the future. 

What was your favourite adaptation of Little Women? Let me know in the comments below.

For more in the series of adaptations, please check out this YouTube playlist here.

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