"Little Women" and Me: A Love Letter to Jo March and Greta Gerwig

I recently returned home from an advanced press screening of "Little Women." (This will luckily prevent the inevitable fight with my family when I would have left Christmas Day celebrations to go see it.) I have a proper review for In Their Own League forthcoming, but I needed to get my more emotional, personal feelings onto the page about what this novel has meant to me throughout my life and how well this film has captured it. What can I say, Jo March would definitely approve.

I don't remember when I first read or watched "Little Women." It feels like it must have been a part of me since birth, though in truth I was likely eight or nine when I first read Louisa May Alcott's masterpiece. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy were as much my childhood friends as my elementary school classmates were. Laurie was my first love and Beth, my first loss. In short, I was one of many girls raised on "Little Women."

Growing up, I wanted to be Jo March more than anything. It was Jo who inspired my love of writing and Jo who taught me what it meant to be a writer. I was forever scribbling on something, though I don't know which was worse: my childish short stories or my angsty high school poems. Now, at twenty-five, I have circled back to being a writer as a blogger and film and theatre critic. And at times, I feel that there's a script rustling around in my head, begging to be written.

Director and writer Greta Gerwig captures what it means for Jo to be a writer better than I've ever seen before. Perhaps, it is because Gerwig is a writer herself. There is a great scene towards the end of the film in which we get to see Jo's writing process as she gives birth to her great novel. She eats and sleeps amongst its pages, tirelessly working and reworking. Jo taught me that being a writer means to work hard.

As much as I idolized Jo in my childhood, I came to the realization in my teens that I was as much a Meg as a Jo. I am the mom friend extraordinaire, forever ready with a tissue or a Bandaid and always getting told off by my younger sister for attempting to mother her. I yearn for fine things, romance, and a family and often was a bit ashamed of this part of myself when I was younger. I thought that to be strong and smart, you had to be a Jo or an Amy. It was only as I grew older that I could accept this Meg-like side of myself.

I've always felt that film adaptations didn't do Meg justice, didn't understand that Alcott shows that both Meg and Jo's paths are equally valid. But this film has a beautiful portrayal of Meg by the wonderful Emma Watson. It feels like a special blessing to have an actress that I've admired for so long play one of my favorite literary characters and she does a splendid job. In this version, we get to see Meg fall in love with John Brooke (played perfectly by James Norton, my coworker once upon a time when I was an intern at the Donmar Warehouse) and then we get to see them struggle to raise a family and keep their love as they deal with being poor. We see that Meg's decision to follow her heart and marry a "penniless tutor" (Aunt March's words, not mine) is as brave as Jo or Amy's decisions to pursue their passions.

When I was eight years old, to my delight, my parents gifted me with the younger sister I'd always wanted. Hannah is the Amy to my Meg, the Beth to my Jo. She has never understood my frustration with Amy, declaring the spoiled brat her favorite character. I cannot wait for her to see Florence Pugh's performance because Gerwig has somehow made me appreciate and even like Amy. In this portrayal, I can see my younger sister reflected back to me.

A few years ago, my sister suddenly fell ill. She was diagnosed with a heart condition and eventually received a heart transplant. For months, it felt like my world was teetering on its axis. Now, our life is largely back to normal, but we know that, as Jo says, it can never be the same. I have always been sensitive to stories about sisters (catch me crying over "Frozen" or "The Hunger Games"), but "Little Women" suddenly hurts in new and fresh ways. I understand Jo's struggle to understand a world that could hurt Beth, her desperation not to be left behind.

I started crying about halfway through this film and never really got it back together. I don't want to spoil it, but the way that Gerwig builds the narrative around Beth's illness and death is exquisite and poised for optimal emotional impact without ever feeling manipulative. I cried because I now know what Jo was feeling, sitting at her sister's bedside, trying to bring about her recovery by sheer force of will. I know because I've sat there. And as someone who has, I can attest to the fact that Saoirse Ronan's performance was perfect.

Like Jo, I had dreams of living in New York City and making some large contribution to culture and the world. I moved to New York a little over a year ago and, like Jo, found that the city didn't inspire my creativity as I had hoped. (Unfortunately, I did not meet any dreamy professors too willing to offer advice; Louis Garrel makes Professor Bhaer seem like quite the catch in this film.) After several months of misery, I began to feel that I would be better off at home, back in North Carolina where I could be near my family. My sister's illness has made me realize how important each moment together is and I had already had my grand year abroad doing my Master's in London.

And yet, leaving New York felt like giving up, not just on the city, but on some part of myself and my dreams and who I imagined I would be. I spent many therapy sessions trying to come to terms with my decision; I knew it was best for my mental (and financial) health to leave and yet, I struggled. Everything clicked into place one day when I realized that Jo March had also left New York to be near her sisters and that it was back home, not in the city, that she wrote her masterpiece.

Please, don't expect a great novel from me anytime soon, but since moving home, I've reviewed many theatrical productions, attended my first film festival as a member of the press, written countless reviews and blog posts, and been accepted into the North Carolina Film Critics Association. I feel comfortable that I, like Jo, made the right choice.

It felt very special to see this with my mother. Saoirse Ronan is my favorite actress; Meryl Streep is hers. We share a love for Laura Dern, who brilliantly portrays Marmee in this film. (My sister actually calls my mother "Marmee" as a pet name, on occasion.) Marmee is the calm amongst the storm, who holds down the fort for her daughters, and yet this version allows her to be more than that, too. By incorporating Marmee's best line from the novel, "I am angry nearly every day of my life," we are given a glimpse into who this woman really is. I think that "Little Women" is something that is special for many mothers and daughters; it has certainly been inextricably linked to mine and my mother's life.

All of this is to say: Greta Gerwig is a genius who took a novel that is over a century old and made it feel fresh while still respecting and loving it. She brought the characters to life in a way that allowed me to recognize all of my old friends, while also seeing them each from new angles. She didn't leave out a single important thing -- from Amy's limes to Laurie's promise to be a saint. This film feels made for me and yet, I also feel oddly comforted by knowing that there are people out there -- namely, Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan -- who understand exactly what Jo March and "Little Women" mean in the same way that I do.
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