Spoilers for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women follow below, including changes from the book.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel Little Women is a masterful example of changing the book for the better. Alcott’s novel was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, with the first volume following the March sisters—Jo, Mary, Beth, and Amy—throughout their childhood growing up in Massachusetts and the second volume picking up with the characters in adulthood. Instead of presenting the story in two halves, Gerwig’s film layers the past and the present throughout the entire movie, flashing back and forth in an attempt to compare and contrast the characters in these two different periods of their lives.
The result is a wildly emotional and deeply impactful piece of storytelling, as the naiveté and endless possibilities of childhood stand in stark contrast to the harsh realities of navigating the world as an adult—and as an adult woman in the 1860s at that. It’s one of many masterstrokes throughout Gerwig’s film, which is anchored by phenomenal performances from Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, and Laura Dern to name a few.
But the Little Women book changes don’t end with the structure. Gerwig also made a radical change to the Little Women ending, presenting an alternative path for literary heroine Jo March. In Alcott’s book, Jo March spends much of the pages talking about how she never wants to marry or have children. At the end of the story, however, Jo eventually marries her boarding housemate Professor Bhaer and has children.
In Gerwig’s film, it appears as though Jo (Ronan) is going to fall in love with Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) just as she does in the book, but the film instead then flashes to Jo proposing this very ending to Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), a publisher who is now considering printing March’s book Little Women. Mr. Dashwood bristles at the idea that the story’s heroine would end the book unmarried and childless, and insists that Jo change it so that the protagonist marries the Professor. She does, in exchange for a greater percentage of the net profits of the book while also deciding to maintain her own copyright (side note: Alcott also owned the copyright to her book).
Thus Gerwig has it both ways: Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March ends the movie unmarried and childless but having happily published her novel, and in her book the heroine based on herself ends up married and with children so it can be a bestseller for the masses. The final scene with the family gathered at Jo’s new school? That’s a cinematic embodiment of the novel’s ending, and if you look closely it’s even presented in the same warm aesthetic as the film’s past-set scenes. It’s telling that the final shot of the film is actually of Ronan’s Jo March looking on as her novel is published—this is the true ending to the story. It’s a win/win and yet another stroke of Gerwig’s brilliance in adapting this beloved book.
But as it turns out, Gerwig’s ending may have been the ending that Alcott wanted all along. Appearing on the DGA Podcast in conversation with fellow filmmaker Rian Johnson, Gerwig explained why she changed the Little Women ending to bring it more in line with Alcott’s wishes:
“One of the things that I discovered while I was researching Louisa May Alcott, and I tried to bring in a lot of this, is unlike Jo March who does get married and have children, Louisa May Alcott never got married and she never had children. But she was convinced that she needed to have Jo get married and have children in order to sell the book, but she never wanted that for her heroine. She wanted her to remain, as she called it, a literary spinster, but they convinced her no this is not gonna work so she did it the other way.”
So Gerwig says she set about giving Alcott the Little Women ending she actually desired:
“Part of what I wanted to do was 150 years later give her an ending she might have liked. I thought if we can’t do this now then we’ve really made no progress and we should all hang our heads (laughs). But the structure truly came out of wanting to introduce this layer of authorship everywhere in it, how we author our own lives even if we’re not writers and how we kind of tell and retell the story of how we became who we are.”
All of this shines through beautifully and is part of what makes Little Women one of the best films of the year. But if it wasn’t evident through Gerwig’s changes, it’s clear in her explanation here that she had a strong point of view in retelling this particular story. I’d say she knocked it out of the park.
Listen to the full podcast discussion below, in which Gerwig goes deep on how she brought Little Women to life.