In a world where Hollywood writers choose to adapt and recycle a story as many times as humanly possible, delivering a worthwhile cinematic adaptation is quite difficult. Despite the myriad of pre-existing films and TV shows about a novel or a character, contemporary creatives insist on making them over again, wanting to display modern technological feats that will surely breathe new life into a beloved story. Spoiler alert: this is seldom the case.
But for that rare occasion where an adaptation is a success, we should give due credit, and carefully observe how that retelling was carried out. I now look to writer-director Greta Gerwig, who first brought us “Lady Bird,” a semi-autobiographical film with grit, humor, and authenticity, and then decided to tackle the challenge of the adaptation: in this case, her version of “Little Women.”
Bringing then into now
Of the countless iterations of Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth century novel, Gerwig’s is decidedly the winner. Taking such a familiar story and finding ways to revitalize it for today’s audience, while also preserving the sisterhood at the heart of the story was no small feat. Gerwig wastes no time wallowing the tenderness and sentimentality of it all, the way some filmmakers before her did. Instead, she plays with time, artfully jumping back and forth between the past and the present.
When the film opens, we are met with a grown-up and present-day Jo March in an editor’s office, negotiating the terms of publishing a book she has written. This is, of course, the story of sisters we are about to witness. We then cut to an elegantly dressed Amy, the youngest of the March sisters, who is in Paris with their aunt. She spots Laurie Laurence, the girls’ childhood friend and neighbor, in a moment that can only be described as cinematic: the world around him slows, and he seems to glide, rather than walk, across the frame.
Later, we are sent seven years back in time, to when these little women were girls, growing up in a dignified poverty in Massachusetts. These time jumps, while frequent, are executed so harmoniously and in a way that gives each March sister her due time, one hardly notices. In fact, the non-linear fashion of the film keeps the story fresh and compelling, even for those of us who know the story inside and out.
A love for the story
Gerwig’s loving relationship with this particular work is evident in the coziness of the fireplace, the wise words of Marmee, and the nostalgia of watching the seasons change around that beloved New England cottage. Of course, she was not without help: the costume and production designers, set dressers, and the cinematographer all had a major hand in bringing this beloved story to life, as well as the spectacular cast.
So, according to Greta Gerwig, here’s how you make a stellar book-to-film adaptation: if it’s a literary work that you love, chances that many others love it too, and therefore you must know the story just as well as they do before going and retelling it. In the screenplay, things will of course have to change from the original narrative, and you should make it your own, but it is essential that you preserve the core of the story as much as possible. Then, find the best possible team of creatives and put your collective heart and soul into it. Good luck!