Little Women is nominated for an Oscar for best picture and writer/director Greta Gerwig for best adapted screenplay. This recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is well-deserved. But it is not enough. Gerwig deserves a nomination for best director.
If Little Women wins the 2020 Oscar for best picture, the award will go to producers Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord. Pascal, Di Novi and Swicord made an excellent choice in selecting Gerwig as the film’s writer and director, investing in her the faith and funds necessary to turn the book that inspired her to be a writer into a film. This is not the first time the producers have worked together on an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. Pascal and Di Novi produced the 1994 film version, for which Swicord wrote the screenplay. Just as they did a quarter-century ago, this team saw the importance of Little Women. And in supporting Gerwig’s particular adaptation of the story, they recognized the relevance of a project that focuses on women ambition and financial independence midst a status quo in which their work is deemed less valuable than that of men.What could be timelier than a film in which young artist Amy has the temerity to “want to be great, or nothing,” and boy-next-door Laurie admits it is harder for her to enter “the genius club” because admission is controlled by men?
But not only is the film timely, it is also an outstanding work of art. The star-studded ensemble cast’s acting is superb, earning a best actress nomination for what Saorsie Ronan calls “the performance of her career” and a best supporting actress nomination for Florence Pugh, whose energy breathes multidimensional life into the character of Amy. The performances are sustained by all the other aspects of the film. The set design invites the viewer to feel at home in a structure that mirrors the real Alcott abode, Orchard House. The detailed interiors and lush exteriors were shot on 35mm film in and around Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott wrote the novel. The cinematography is not just beautiful, but purposeful. Yorick Le Saux shot the scenes of girlhood in a golden light, representative of memory. These scenes are full of movement, whereas a stiller camera renders the scenes of adulthood in a clearer, cooler white. This contrast prompts the viewer to consider how we perceive our lives in the present, and how the past recreates itself in our minds. The costume design, which garnered a nomination for designer Jacqueline Durran, is both faithful to the styles of the 1860’s and individual to each March sister, highlighting her distinct personality. The music feels both exciting and intimate. Alexandre Desplat, whom Gerwig asked to think of both Mozart and David Bowie when composing, was nominated for best original score. All these elements come together to bring the March sisters’ stories to life, easing contemporary viewers into the slightly worn shoes of four poor young Victorian-era women with rich intellectual and emotional lives.
Yet who set these actors in motion? Who heard the sounds and saw the shapes and colors of “Little Women” in her head before we saw them on the screen? Who felt the story first and took charge of all the details of creation so that we could feel it too, so much that we could recognize our humanity–regardless of our gender identities–in the character’s words, actions and emotions? The film’s director.
Writing, Direction and the Role of Memory
As both director and screenwriter, Gerwig was uniquely positioned to realize her vision of the story, which retains what so many love about the classic novel while highlighting the edginess that was there all along. The screenplay is required reading for anyone who wants to appreciate the feat of turning a 750-word, two-volume classic into a two hour and fifteen-minute film ripe with energy and emotional depth. Reading her adaptation and then seeing the film–ideally more than once–reveals the many facets of sights and sounds Gerwig considered to make this film succeed.
Take what she did with dialogue. When the four March sisters speak over one another–which sisters often do–their dialogues appear side-by-side on the page, with slashes representing where an actor speaks in the middle of another line. The sounds of overlapping voices have the magical effect of recreating reality. The film’s viewer not only sees, but also hears, a world that feels not stilted and flat, but exuberantly messy and true to life. We are there as the sisters discuss plans, tease one other, dream aloud, quarrel and make up–in short, as they figure out who they are in relation to one another. A wonderful example is the novel’s iconic opening, which begins, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” The sounds of the dialogue are not harmonious, but not cacophonous either. Rather, there is rhythm in the overlap of distinct voices as one girl pipes in with her complaint about lacking money for luxuries just as another finishes hers. This banter leads quite naturally into declarations of dreams for the future, which Gerwig takes from a later, rather staid chapter in the novel called “Castles in the Air.” Here, the sisters both acknowledge and poke fun at one another’s plans before falling into a heap of limbs and tossed pillows upon the living room floor. Gerwig’s directorial choices – sounds, movements and light – made the pages of her script come alive on the screen.
An even bolder move Gerwig made in writing the screenplay was to cut Louisa May Alcott’s linear coming-of-age narrative into fragments and splice them into nonlinear, thematically-connected sequences. Near the beginning of the film, for example, we are treated to a rousing scene in a German beer hall in New York City. Jo, flush with the excitement of selling a story and watching a production of Twelfth Night from the standing-room section, dances with her boarding house mate, professor Friedrich Bhaer. Her dress was scorched earlier that day from standing too close to the fireplace. Jo’s vigorous movements become a blur as we are taken back in time from 1868 to 1861. We see the four March sisters in a whirl of primping as the two oldest girls prepare to attend a New Year’s celebration. This is the famous party where Jo meets Laurie and they dance, despite Jo having a scorched dress from standing too close to the fire. Gerwig sets this scene outside on a winter night’s porch, where fast-friends Jo and Laurie dance to the rousing opening strings of Antonín Leopold Dvořák’s “String Quartet No. 12.” The camera moves with the pair as they mischievously pass windows, from which they can be viewed by party-goers inside, with feigned decorum and then move in rebellious freestyle when out of sight. At the end of that night, when Laurie leaves the March’s house, he looks up at the garret window and watches Jo writing by candlelight. When the warm glow in which her image is cast fades, we see Jo through the window of her boardinghouse in the white light of the present. As before, she is writing.
The movie moves like this from past to present throughout most of the film, until Beth’s death stops childhood memory and the adult narrative moves forward to the film’s conclusion. This nonlinear storytelling showcases how memory plays a role in creation – be that creation literature, art, and music, the forging of friendships and romantic partnerships, or the safeguarding of family bonds despite the challenges that money, competing ideals and sibling rivalries may pose. This choice was successful because Gerwig’s directing ensured that the transitions were not jarring, but rather evocative sensory moments, for the viewer.
A Talented Director, Who is Also a Woman
The Academy’s choice is difficult, as there can only be five nominees for best director. Undoubtedly, this year’s picks represent great directing. And yes, as many have lamented, they represent the work of male directors only. But Gerwig should be among the five – not because Little Women represents great directing by a female director, and a female should be included just for the sake of inclusivity, but rather because what Gerwig achieved was great directing by a director, period.
In one of my favorite dialogues in the film, Jo tells her sisters she is writing a novel “about our little life,” but doubts anyone “will be interested … because it doesn’t have any real importance.” Amy suggests that “maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them…Perhaps writing will make them more important.” Directing films about “little lives” makes them important, too.
In Little Women, Gerwig made a movie about young women who struggle to share their creativity with the world and be fairly compensated for it. She made a movie about people who love and hurt one another, who fail and lose, who revise and try again, who often look upon yesterday more fondly than today, and who go on and try their best at life despite it all. These are human stories. They are important stories. This is why the film matters, why the director matters, and why her exclusion from the best director club proves that her vision of a 152-year-old classic is absolutely relevant in 2020.
O’Connor writes fiction and nonfiction, translates literature from the Spanish,
and teaches writing and Spanish at Harvard University. She has read Little
Women at least 20 times in the past 30 years, and seen every film
adaptation. Find her on twitter at
emoconnor1 or visit her website at emoconnor.com.