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BASED ON: 'Little Women' Leaves Father Vince Wanting More

, | February 9, 2020 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

Little Women written and directed by Greta Gerwig based on the novel of the same title by Louisa May Alcott. Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Costume Design and Best Original Score.

Outside of celebrating Sunday Mass, I most look forward to reading The New York Times Book Review. One of the new sections to the weekly magazine is the back-page graphic story, unofficially cementing, in my opinion, graphic novels as a legitimate literary form. This week featured a parody of proposed sequels to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “Drama Nerds Strike Back” and “The Waltzing Dead” were among some of the cartoons that accompanied the names of the hypothetical spin-offs.

Fortunately, the latest cinematic interpretation of the classic novel stays true to the source material, as it begins with the four March girls of the Civil War-era growing in virtue. Opposing virtue, is, of course vice, or at least the coveting of the material world. The novel shows its hand by using the words of the title in the story. Eldest sister Meg recollects: “Annie Moffat’s foolish lessons in coquetry came into her mind, and the love of power, which sleeps in the bosoms of the best of little women.”

The three eldest daughters in the film, too, court worldly things. Meg (Emma Watson) desires to marry for love. Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the voice of the film, dreams of a publisher to print her stories. Amy (Florence Pugh), under the watchful tutelage of the family’s rich aunt (Meryl Streep), climbs the social ladder after an artistic career peters out. The third March sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), exhibits a talent for piano playing while absorbing the best part of her parents: taking the father’s sermons (Bob Odenkirk) to heart and modeling the sacrificial example of the mother, played by Laura Dern.

Mid-19th-Century living proves harsh, as Beth succumbs to scarlet fever. She assures Jo that she never wanted for much in this world and is at peace with God’s will for her. Ironically, then, the youngest sister, who dies too young to experience the joys and sorrows of adulthood, serves as a memory for the sisters not too be overly obsessed with the earthly realm, lest they remain “little."

Scenes alternate between the sisters in adulthood and seven years prior, when they lived under the same roof as young girls. I thought the editing choice showed the director’s brilliance. In some cases, consecutive scenes mark how immediately some life moments recount the past.

In a scene bathed in warm colors, Jo hurries to the breakfast nook to discover Beth made it through the night after a brush with scarlet fever. In the very next scene, a stark cool façade let us know, years later, that a second bout with a similar fever produces a different outcome. In another editing example, Amy and Jo have reconciled as adults. Much in line with St. Augustine realizing God’s presence in his life after the fact, it’s only after thinking about the movie afterwards that a much earlier scene depicting the mother encouraging Jo to forgive Amy’s transgression of burning her stories comes through as a seed planted for later.

A few scenes follow the novel’s use of Christian terminology: sin, grace and forgiveness. In that sense, the dialogue approaches the faith-based genre closer than any mainstream film of the year.

However, the movie excised some of the faith elements present in the book -- most notably an entire chapter where Jo stays with her Protestant upbringing when she meets a like-minded German professor while living in New York City. I have a feeling this wasn’t the director’s decision. Gerwig’s previous film Lady Bird precisely captures the teenage spirituality of a Catholic high school. Perhaps, executives left some scenes on the cutting room floor in interests of running time.

On many occasions the film cuts away prematurely from scenes the viewer wishes could sink in a bit more. It’s a shame. I sat through three and half hours of The Irishman waiting for the main character to finally drag himself to the confessional, and another three hours figuring out whatever Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood was trying to be. Equal leisure should be afforded to female directors.

In a genius story within a story, within another story-closing sequence, this give-and-take marks artistic struggles of every age. It was true for Alcott; true, also, probably for Gerwig; and true too, for the aspiring writer character Jo March at the heart of Little Women.

Image: Columbia Pictures

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