Sunday, February 2, 2020

Some Thoughts On Little Women (2019)

I finally got to see the 2019 version of Little Women the other day, and I have a few things to say.

Roughly 800 years ago (which is to say, back in 2013) I sat down and read the novel Little Women, both volumes. I then wrote this post, in which I talked about the book as well as some of its many film adaptations.

Since 2013, the world has been granted three (3!) new versions of Little Women. 

The first, a 2017 TV-movie starring Maya Hawke as Jo, had all the makings of a masterpiece -- Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, Emily Watson as Marmee, Michael Gambon as Laurie's grandfather. Unfortunately, the acting from everyone else was so stilted and ridiculous that I couldn't even make it past episode one.

The second, a 2018 "modern retelling," featured Lea Thompson as Marmee. I never saw it, and the ratings don't look particularly promising, so I likely never will.

And finally, there's the 2019 version, which boasts the likes of Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern. It currently has a 95% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it received several Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Ronan), Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh as Amy), Music (Alexandre Desplat) and Costume Design. (As a quick note -- if nothing else, I hope it wins for screenplay and music. The music was beautiful. More on the adaptation in a moment.)

Okay, so spoiler alert, if you haven't seen this version and plan to do so, maybe wait and see it and then come back and read this afterward.

* * *

For the most part, I really enjoyed the 2019 version.

But I can't help wondering... how many people were able to actually follow it?

Because the whole thing begins with the four girls as adults -- Jo in New York, Amy in Paris, Meg with kids, and Beth loitering about.

Then it jumps back in time to when the four sisters are teenagers. Or, in other words, to where the novel begins.

Then it jumps to the future again.

And back. And forth. And back. And forth.

And it's never super obvious WHICH time period they're in whenever a jump is made. If you're incredibly familiar with the story, you can figure it out for the most part. But the clues are so subtle. I'm thinking about other movies that jump back & forth -- Forrest Gump makes the transitions with narration, and Now & Then's two time periods feature completely different actresses. Those are just two films that come to mind.)

Here, the clues are basically: The girls' hair. Pay attention to their hair. Of course, even then, it's not always clear. Does Jo's hair look short  because we're in the time period right after she lobbed it off, or does it just appear to be short because she's got it pulled back? Speaking of hair, would it have killed them to give Laurie a mustache when he got older? They gave Christian Bale one in the 1994 version once he got older and more worldly.

Okay, yes, in some cases you can tell it's the future or the past by paying close attention to the surroundings.  (Is someone in New York? Okay, it's the future.) Other times -- like during two separate visits to the seashore and two instances of Beth being gravely ill -- the two events happening in different time periods are presented as parallels, with quick cuts in between, and it's like... wait!? Stop!? When ARE we?

For a viewer who isn't familiar with the work, were they just left utterly confused?

Well, if you, like me, ARE familiar with the work, and you can get past the constant hopping through time, what you are left with is a version of Little Women that is unlike any that has come before it. (I am considering the films of 1933, 1949, and 1994, as well as the TV versions from 1970 and 1978.) And if I may say so, that's a GOOD thing. Whenever there's a "new" version of a classic work, it BETTER be different and interesting -- otherwise, what's the point?

When I first began to see trailers for this version, my immediate impression was that yes, it was going to be different -- and not particularly true to the book. But honestly, I didn't care. NONE of the films have been 100% true to the book. Several of the older versions had subplots involving Laurie and his Grandfather having a dysfunctional relationship, for example. Even the 1994 version chose to focus on Jo rather than focus on all the sisters in their later years, the way the book does. (This was fine, though, because A) Jo's plots are the best, and B) Nobody cares about your toddlers, Meg. No one!)

So, I have to say, after seeing the full film, I'm surprised how closely it DID stick to the book. If you were to rearrange all the scenes into chronological order, you'd get something very similar to the book.

Oh sure, there are a few differences. One, in this film, Friedrich is played as a little bit younger (mid-30s as opposed to the usual mid-to-late 40s), which I don't mind. Two, in this film, Jo opens a co-ed school, whereas in the book it was an all-boys school. (Again, I like this change.)

But then there was the whole thing about Jo's letter to Laurie towards the end. Jumpin' Jehoshaphat, Josephine March! That was -- I mean, it's not really fair to tease us like that! Make the audience think, Hmm, yeah, this is a NEW version of Little Women, where they might finally make things "right" and get those two crazy kids together! And then it's like, "Nope! Fooled you!" MEAN.

My biggest surprise was that they included several post-marriage scenes between Meg and John, which I don't recall seeing much of before in any of the films. (In the 1994 version, Meg gives birth and that's about it.) Well, no, my surprise was more with the fact that the scenes were tolerable -- good, even!

But perhaps the biggest difference between the book and this film (and the 1994 one, too, if we're being fair) is the overall message.

The book: Morality wins the day! Be good wives, and thou shalt prosper!

This movie's message: Feminism! Bucking traditional roles and going one's own way! You'll never reign in Jo March, oh no!

The 1994 version went in that direction, too, but the 2019 version pushes the message even further. And that's great. We're 150+ years removed from the novel. A movie about four girls growing into "good little wives," and basically dumbing down as they do so, would be insulting, even outrageous, to most Americans today. (Yeah, I'm sure you'd still find a few people who'd be into it, but I'm not sure those people even go to movie theaters in the first place.)

Anyway, first impressions:

*Chronological time-and-space jumping is a little confusing (at least upon a first viewing).

*Acting is great.

*Music is wonderful.

*Story is familiar, and yet presented in a way that's not stale.

*Someone PLEASE teach Eliza Scanlen how to actually look like she's playing a piano. (ETA: Okay, apparently she knows how to play. Hey, let's blame a sound editor instead!)

*I hope it wins an Oscar or two.