For a lot of readers, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy aren’t just characters in a book; they’re part of us. And when a movie of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” gets made, we feel protective and concerned: Will the filmmakers get it right? Could there possibly be a screen Jo, or Amy, or Laurie, who matches up to the one we see in our minds while reading? Is another “Little Women” movie really necessary, considering how close the 1994 version came to perfection?
Reader, I had all of these questions, and many more, when approaching Greta Gerwig’s new “Little Women.” Yes, the cast list looked good, but did we really need this? By its end — actually, long before — I had the only answer that mattered: oh, yes.
Gerwig, in only her second feature film (following “Lady Bird”), pulls off something near-miraculous: a resolutely faithful rendition of the book that’s nonetheless deeply creative. (Mild spoiler alert: If you want to experience the surprises of this “Little Women” intact, stop reading here. Just go.) Rather than adapting the book in straightforward chronological fashion, as in previous screen renditions, Gerwig has come at it sideways, mixing up the time frame so as to juxtapose key scenes. (If you’re ever unsure what time period it is, check Jo’s hair.) And she has put at its center, in a way that no other movie version has done, the idea of Jo as writer — or, more specifically, Jo as Louisa, lovingly writing her family into immortality.
While every role is beautifully cast — Laura Dern’s Marmee and Meryl Streep’s Aunt March, just to name two, are so delightful you’ll be spoiled for any other — Gerwig found the perfect trio for the story’s love triangle. Saoirse Ronan, with her ethereal features, seems at first glance to be an unlikely choice for Jo, but as soon as she starts running, with a reckless, I-don’t-care-who’s-looking energy, you realize she’s exactly right. And what a face for a writer, ever — you can see how this Jo notices everything, filing it away.
As neighbor Laurie, Timothée Chalamet — and his exuberant hair — is perfectly dreamy. And Amy, a key character in the book often given short shrift in the movies, gets her due in the form of the wonderfully throaty-voiced Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth,” “Midsommar”), who lets us see how the spoiled brat of the earlier chapters becomes a practical and loving woman. (I love how this movie allows the Jo/Amy rivalry and bond to emerge. A scene in the book that’s between Jo and Meg is switched here to Jo and Amy, and it makes sense; these two sisters are the most alike, and their relationship is both the most fraught and the most compelling.)
As is should be, this “Little Women” — filmed in the book’s New England — is storybook-pretty: The inviting rooms of the March home are modest in furnishing but rich in color, and the costumes (Laurie in a purple velvet blazer! Amy burning Jo’s book while wearing angel wings!) are a joy. I could list so many of Gerwig’s wise choices here, but I’ll ultimately say just this: This “Little Women” purist was moved to tears by this movie, and didn’t want it to end. Beautifully intimate, gentle and wise, it made me — and all of us — part of the March family. And what better Christmas gift could we wish for than that?
★★★★ “Little Women,” with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. 135 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking. Opens Dec. 25 at multiple theaters.