This Christmas, Greta Gerwig brings her own humor, craft and unique sense of artistry to Little Women. It is the four-hundred and sixteenth time the classic novel has been brought to some kind of a screen (TV, phone, or movie) and it was clearly about time that someone did something new and fresh with the material.
In this 2019 version, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, little Timmy Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern and a completely-out-of-place Bob Odenkirk, has seen fit to not tell the straight-ahead story of Jo March and her family; but instead to switch back and forth between the story you know so well from the novel, and the later years of Jo March living in New York City.
And thank God for haircuts, or else the entire Lost-esque structure, would confuse even Damon Lindelof.
That being said — Little Women is well-done on the surface, and supports the source material, but the biggest problem with the film is the flashing-forward and flashing-back between the narrative you know and love and telling the story of where Jo March went after the events of the book. Namely, as she pursued a career as a writer in New York City, plugging out magazine articles and narrative stories while falling for a local man who shares her love of art, creativity and writing.
Since the story opens in the present day/future of Jo March’s life, and does so for a good fifteen minutes from the opening credits, Gerwig brings audiences into a newly visualized narrative situation for Jo, but the minute she begins switching back to the events of the book (now in the past), then winging her way to events that occurred in between the past, the future/present and the present/past, the narrative coherence and through line of the stories begin to confuse audiences as they twist and turn across each other. I’m not kidding you when I tell you that I sat through a screener of this movie with a group of people of all ages, who continually had to lean over and ask to pause the film, in order to look at the clothing of the actors, the hair length of Jo March and whether or not Amy March was sick in bed or not, in order to determine in which version of the narrative we were currently in.
Back to the Future‘s logic was simple compared to this.
As an avid reader and a fan of the original tome, even I found myself having to remind myself of which timeframe the narrative was focused on. If we were in Paris, was that now present day, past or future? Sometimes when we were in New York it was the present/future vs. the narrative of the book, but later on when Jo went to New York, it was after. Sometimes Mr. March (the patriarch played by Bob Odenkirk) was at war in the past, but also in the future. And Laura Dern, well, we think she was in this movie, but sometimes it was hard to tell which one she was in.
Much like the convoluted temporal logic used in Avengers: Endgame, this too presents three different timelines to track with different versions of each of the characters to keep track of. There is Haircut Jo March, Post Break-Up Jo March, and New York Jo March. There is Piano Playing Beth, Doesn’t Have a Piano But Plays One Next Door Beth, and there is Sick But Still Plays The Piano at Home Beth. There’s also Dead Beth, but she doesn’t show up much in the movie. Then there’s Paris Amy, Burned Your Book Pages Amy, Now With Timothee Chalamet Amy, Can’t Go To The Party With Meg and Jo, Amy and Amy Loves You Now Jo, Now That You’re Back From New York City, Amy.
I could go on and on, but the flow chart I started is looking extremely messy and I don’t have any room for Mom Mary, Mary’s With Mr. March Mary, and My Daughter’s Dead Mary But You Should Go To New York Mary. I also didn’t have any room to add Laurie Who Doesn’t Know the Marches, Laurie in Paris, Laurie Proposing His Undying Love to Jo Laurie, and Laurie Loves Amy Laurie.
It’s mind numbing really.
A movie like Little Women shouldn’t make me have to draw up a flow chart, or a Venn diagram or make me have to pause the screener every time the time period changes just to make a mental note about where where are, when we are, and who the hell they are…
Yes, some of you will tell me I clearly wasn’t paying attention enough, isn’t smart enough, or am overreacting to a confusing flash-forward/flashback structure.
But I’d be willing to bet there are more like me, than there are of you.