Greta Gerwig’s glorious new adaptation both is and isn’t your grandmother’s Little Women. In many ways it’s an even more faithful take on Louisa May Alcott’s original novel than the beloved 1994 Gillian Armstrong version, which downplayed the other March sisters to focus first and foremost on Winona Ryder’s Jo. Gerwig creates her own version of Alcott’s iconic tomboy (Saoirse Ronan), while giving romantic Meg (Emma Watson), shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and ambitious Amy (Florence Pugh) the same kind of loving focus they get in the novel. Much of the film’s dialogue is pulled directly from the book. Yet Gerwig also plays fast and loose with structure, anchoring the film in the March sisters’ complicated young adulthood and depicting their happier childhoods in lyrical flashbacks. And Gerwig saves her biggest innovation for her ending.
Just as the film is building to the romantic climax in which Jo gets engaged to soft-spoken German Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), we suddenly cut to Jo negotiating with her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). He wants to publish the novel she’s written about her family, but only if she changes the ending so that her leading lady winds up married. Jo agrees as part of a savvy negotiation that sees her own her book’s copyright and take home a larger percentage of the royalties. As she puts it, “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.”
As they haggle, the film cuts back to Jo’s romance with Bhaer, which has the heightened, honey-colored tone of a classic romantic comedy. Jo and her sisters frantically jump into a carriage to make a mad dash to the train station to stop Bhaer from leaving town. The two lovers share a sweeping kiss in the rain, before we see the extended March family enjoying an idyllic picnic, which is the setting for the final chapter of Little Women. Meanwhile, we also cut back to the other version of Jo, who’s now overseeing the printing of her novel like a proud parent watching over their baby in a maternity ward. The film’s opening title card is a red leather-bound book that reads “Little Women by L.M. Alcott.” At the end, we see that same book again, only now the author is listed as “J.L. March.”
So what exactly is going on? The most straightforward reading is that everything from Jo’s dash to the train station-onwards is a fantasy that takes place only in her novel, not in the “real world” we’ve been watching up until that point. The heightened tone of the rom-com-y ending conveys that feeling of unreality. In a New York Times profile, Gerwig revealed that at one point she was asked to drop the meta element and play the romantic reunion as the actual ending of the film: “To which I said, I never would have shot it that way. Everyone would have been like, ‘What did we just watch?’ That ending’s not in me. At all.”
But Gerwig’s fragmented, poetic take on Little Women also defies easy categorization. As she put it on Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast,“What I was always looking for was this cubist, intuitive, emotional, intellectual kaleidoscope of authorship and ownership of text and of character. Everything had to be multiple things, it could not ever just be singular. I had to have a multiplicity in every moment, every line.” So in many ways, Gerwig is trying to deliver two finales at once, both the novel’s conventional happy ending and a different take on what happy endings can look like. “The hat trick I wanted to pull off was, what if you felt when she gets her book the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed?” Gerwig explains. “So it’s not girl gets boy, it’s girl gets book.”
One line Gerwig has used a lot on her Little Women press tour is that Jo was the heroine of her youth but Louisa May Alcott is the heroine of her adulthood. The ending of Gerwig’s film attempts to synthesize the real life of the never-married Alcott with the literary avatar she was reluctant to pair off as well. (Gerwig even gives Jo a line that Alcott said of herself, “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”) Little Women was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, and while working on the second half, Alcott wrote in her diary, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.”
Sure enough, the fact that Jo doesn’t end up with her boy-next-door best friend, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), has haunted generations of readers, as has her eventual coupling with stodgy Professor Bhaer. Fans got even more fodder for their frustrations in a letter Alcott wrote to a friend in early 1896, in which she said, “Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.”
Most adaptations attempt to improve the ending by making Professor Bhaer more dashing than he is in the novel and having him help Jo achieve her dream of becoming a successful author. In the original source material, however, Jo not only marries Bhaer, but puts aside her writing to focus on running a progressive school for rambunctious boys, including her own two sons—although she does leave open the possibility that she might still write a great book one day. For many, Gerwig’s ending will be a welcome feminist reclamation. In selling studio execs on her script, Gerwig argued: “If I can’t do an ending [Alcott] would have liked 150 years later, then we’ve made no progress.”
Personally, however, the idea that Little Women needs to be “fixed” is one I’ve always found a bit frustrating. Yes, Alcott was pressured into marrying off Jo, but she was also pressured into writing the book in the first place. After Alcott’s publisher, Thomas Niles, asked her to write a story for girls, she noted in her diary, “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” (She later went back and annotated the passage with “Good joke,” which is a reminder that personal and private correspondence can often contain a sense of humor that isn’t always immediately apparent.)
Great art often springs from limitation—Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense because Steven Spielberg was forced to shoot around a mechanical shark that didn’t work. I’m not thrilled by the idea of taking away Alcott’s agency as an author just because, like many creators before her, she faced outside pressure. Alcott doesn’t mindlessly bend to convention in Little Women, she finds her own kind of subversive streak. Especially for the era, it was an act of empowerment to have Jo reject the rich, seemingly perfect guy she doesn’t love and hold out for someone she does, even if he may be a “funny match.” Jo specifically states that she won’t give up her independence for Bhaer and won’t marry him if he expects her to.
But what I love best about the ending of Little Women isn’t the romance of it all, it’s the idea that you can still live a happy life even if your childhood dreams don’t come true. The notion that it’s okay to change your mind and shift your goals was a hugely comforting thing for me to read as a kid growing up in our intensely success-driven culture. Though people often want to freeze Jo in amber as the rebellious 15-year-old we first meet, Little Women is very much a novel about evolution and change. As a 30-year-old Jo notes in the book’s final chapter, “The life I wanted [as a child] seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now.” Running her school isn’t a capitulation, it’s the fulfillment of a different kind of ambition—that of running wild with a group of boys while guiding them away from the pitfalls of toxic masculinity. (Gerwig makes it so that Jo wants to open a school for girls, a change she doesn’t call out in the way she does with the romantic climax.)
Yet though the endings differ dramatically, Gerwig captures the spirit of Alcott’s novel much better than the adaptations that give Jo both the romance and the bestselling book all at once. Gerwig’s “girl gets book” happy ending is made much more complex by a heart-wrenching earlier scene in which Jo vents to Marmee (Laura Dern), “I just feel like women—they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it… But I’m so lonely.”
That last caveat was left out of the film’s trailer, the better to present Jo’s speech as a 21st-century feminist rallying cry. But it’s a welcome complication to the idea that we should simply encourage women to “choose themselves”—a concept that’s often presented as the same kind of magical cure-all as “Just find your prince charming!” Though they take opposite approaches, Alcott and Gerwig both acknowledge that the fantasy of “having it all” isn’t something everyone who wants it can realistically achieve. And they do so in a way that’s bittersweet without being tragic.
Seventeen years after Little Women was published, Alcott finally gave Jo something akin to a “You can have it all!” ending. In Jo’s Boys, the third and final book in the March family saga, it’s revealed that Jo took up writing again in her late 30s and penned a book for girls that earned her the same kind of success Alcott experienced around that age. (Like Alcott, Jo appreciates the money but hates the fame.) Whether that was an example of Alcott reclaiming the ending she always wanted, bowing to a different kind of pressure, or simply evolving her story as she saw fit is as much up for debate as the ending of Little Women. Alcott died of a stroke just two years later, after a life plagued by chronic health problems. She was 55 years old.
Gerwig’s film opens with the Alcott quote, “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” Indeed, the differences between Alcott and Jo don’t start and stop at their marital statuses. While Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk) is a wise, caring man fighting for his principles in the Civil War, Alcott’s real-life father was a religious fanatic whose impractical philosophies and refusal to provide for his family nearly caused them to starve to death—harrowing experiences far more severe than the genteel poverty of the March family. And it was Alcott herself, not her father, who experienced the war firsthand when she served as a nurse for the Union Army. From the very beginning, Little Women was a sentimental reimagining for Alcott, and it’s fascinating to see which of those divergences we unthinkingly accept and which make us bristle.
There’s a sort of “grass is always greener” idea at play to what a happy ending for Jo March looks like. Louisa May Alcott—a prolific writer who never married—ultimately gave Jo a happy ending where she moved away from writing to focus on her family and her school. Meanwhile, Gerwig—a filmmaker who often speaks lovingly of a personal and creative partnership with Noah Baumbach that’s not entirely unlike Jo and Professor Bhaer—imagines Jo’s ultimate happy ending as finding fulfillment solely in her writing career. Both endings feel like reflections of their time. And both are tempered by the fact that Jo is still young with an unknown future ahead of her.
Part of the reason Little Women has been adapted so many times is because it’s such a dense, contradictory text that readers can come away with drastically different experiences of it. And each new adaptation brings hope of finding that platonic ideal that perhaps only exists in our minds. Gerwig’s version comes the closest of any adaptation yet to capturing my perfect vision of Little Women. But her ending leaves just enough wiggle room that I can’t wait to see what the next adaptation brings to the table too.