By Trix Wilkins
I loved many things about Greta Gerwig’s film: the music, the writing, the ending…I was left wondering, though, where were the men of Little Women?
Jo’s writing being the bookends of the film, the depiction of discussions with her publisher (especially how she responds to that question, “Who does she [Jo] marry?”), how Beth is shown to inspire her writing of Little Women, how Jo mourns Beth and struggles even to write after her death, how she is shown in her jacket in the garret with ink-stained hands while “genius burns” by candlelight, laboring physically for her precious sister…The story of Louisa interwoven into the movie like this is exquisitely told. It honors her writing method and sacrifices, and her sister Elizabeth’s influence and significance in her life.
I greatly enjoyed the way the story unfolded, with the pairing of scenes done so that it was very clear which past events were pertinent to the present. The music was wonderful and moving, particularly Beth’s piano playing. One of my favorite scenes is of Beth playing while Mr Laurence listens, quietly and discreetly, on the stairs outside so as not to frighten or disturb her. It is incredibly beautiful music…and I love the time that is given in the film to show Beth in her element!
The missing men
Yes, we saw Theodore Laurence, John Brooke, Friedrich Bhaer, grandfather Laurence, father March, on the screen. I just didn’t feel like they were really in the film as people. It felt like they were there as literary devices: Laurie to be told off by Amy and rejected by Jo, John to marry responsible Meg, Friedrich to be the “funny match” for Jo, Mr Laurence to provide money whenever needed, and it feels like even Mr March is only there so Mrs March “can be angry with [him] face to face.”
Perhaps that was part of the intent of the film, to comment on how often little development is devoted to secondary female characters as opposed to male leads by flipping that on its head, but this idea saddens me. A significant part of the charm of Little Women is that it features both strong women and strong men and how closely the beauty and strength of their characters are connected to the quality of their relationships with each other. There are many ways in which all the March sisters are enriched by the admirable example and work of the men that we don’t see, who love them, cherish them, cheer them on, provide for them and live for them.
The absence of Laurie for me was the hardest to watch. I had the feeling I was meant to merely see him as a spoiled wealthy man who got told to get back to work. This Laurie is stripped of just about every noble thing he did in the novel: his encouraging Beth in her music, his encouraging Jo in her writing (he’s the one who calls her “our great American authoress”), his sending for Marmee from Washington, his “digging” for the sake of Jo and his grandfather, his sponsoring a poor student in college…
Something similar happens to John Brooke. He is shown to be an incompetent poor tutor. I would have liked to have seen him honored with more screen time and deeper development the way Elizabeth had been, considering how much Louisa had esteemed the man this character was based on, John Pratt. (The 2018 Masterpiece film does this well.)
I can, however, understand Friedrich Bhaer not being developed as a character in the film, because this accurately reflects his purpose in the novel. He exists purely because Louisa refused to marry Jo to Laurie. This is what makes Greta Gerwig’s casting choice so acceptable, even though he is meant to be “stout,” blond, and forty. He is designed solely to provide a romantic ending for Jo – and in this sense, adheres to canon in spirit if not in letter.
It has always unsettled me: the ending of the novel in which Beth dies, Jo stops writing, Amy stops painting to become “an ornament to society,” Laurie stops composing to join the list of nineteenth century wealthy men plying the “trade to India”… and the marriages that have been debated for a hundred and fifty years ever since.
In light of all that, I loved the ending of Greta Gerwig’s film! I suspect Louisa May Alcott would have applauded. (I like to think she would have liked the ending of The Courtship of Jo March too. At least the publishing house bit ;))