You could've tried harder, Little Women. Why better representation is needed when adapting classics
Adaptations like Anne with an E have set a new standard, and Greta Gerwig's new film doesn't quite hit the bar
When I was a child, I was obsessed with Little Women. I read the book over and over until my well-worn paperback fell apart — crying when Beth got sick, laughing with delight when Meg stands up to Aunt March, crying (again) when Amy burns Jo's book. And I remember watching the 1994 film with so much anticipation — falling in love with Winona Ryder as Jo, feeling like Susan Sarandon was the most perfect Marmee to ever be cast and wishing that Christian Bale's Laurie could have been as dreamy as I'd imagined him in my head. I also remember feeling confused when key moments in the story were skipped on the screen. It was one of my first lessons on the limits of book-to-screen adaptations: not everything can survive the journey.
A new version of Little Women is about to arrive in theatres. I went to a preview at TIFF Bell Lightbox last week with trepidation, trying to manage my expectations lest I be disappointed once again. Thankfully, I left feeling (mostly) inspired.
Greta Gerwig's adaptation is revelatory and daring. Her decision to break from the chronology of the book is brilliant, and her fusion of Louisa May Alcott's real life with Jo's ambition provides an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the second half of the book (which has been a thorn in readers' sides for over a century). That brilliant third act maneuvre made this well-told story feel new and exciting.
With all that said, I still had a small but distinct pang of disappointment leaving the theatre, and it took me a few days to figure out why. It wasn't provoked by a childhood need to see every moment from the page reflected on the screen, but rather from an adult desire to see contemporary adaptations push for deeper and wider reflections on their source material. It's a new expectation for me, but it's one that emerged after watching Anne with an E.
The CBC series is based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (another childhood favourite), and in many ways, the main characters — Jo March and Anne Shirley-Cuthbert — are kindred spirits. Like Jo, Anne is a storyteller and a lover of literature. She has a vast imagination and a rebellious spirit that constantly gets her into scrapes.
In Anne with an E, showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett boldly explores aspects of Anne's character and world in a way the book never did. The series often tackles contemporary issues in a period context. Season 1 sets the groundwork by diving into the trauma and violence an orphan like Anne would have experienced at the time. In Season 2, Avonlea's universe is expanded when Gilbert Blythe starts work on a steamship. The series introduces us to Prince Edward Island's historically Black community (The Bog) and illustrates the very real racism that permeates and undergirds our favourite little town of Avonlea. It gives us a peek into a late 19th century artsy community where gender expression is fluid, social circles are diverse and queer love is privately celebrated. It takes us to Trinidad where the characters are introduced to babash (a word I never thought I would hear on television). There, the plot explores how the trauma of slavery persists even after formal freedom has been bestowed. Perhaps most powerfully, Anne with an E introduced us to a charming and charismatic Indigenous character named Ka'kwet who is taken to a residential school.
The show isn't perfect, of course. The writers seem reluctant to consider, even for a moment, that beloved characters like Anne and Gilbert would harbour even a hint of the prejudice and racism that defined their era. For them, being progressive is an innate character trait, and that takes them dangerously close to white saviour territory. However, supporting characters such as Diana Barry, Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde work through their prejudices. These new storylines provide ample opportunity for new depth and provocative challenges. Some skeptics may argue that it's all a form of political correctness — Anne With an E is just catering to a 2019 audience. However, I would argue the new characters and storylines are fascinating attempts to interrogate the historical realities in a way that Lucy Maud Montgomery could not.
I know comparing three seasons of television to a single feature film is a little unfair, but even within the constraints of its two-hour runtime, Gerwig's Little Women missed out on a big opportunity. It could have widened the world of the novel. In the last two movie adaptations, the family's fortune is lost because of Mr. March's progressive views. In the 1994 film, he opened his school to Black children. (In the book, he lost the property trying to help an unfortunate friend.) Indeed, Mr. March is gone for much of the book and film because he has enlisted in the Civil War, fighting on the right side of history. There are details suggesting the Marches are ahead of their time, but beyond a few unnamed Black characters, their universe is just as white and traditional as the one in Alcott's book.
OK, cool, there are no Black people in Little Women. That's not a huge surprise. But I had other hopes. Jo's sojourn to New York has such potential. I had this secret desire that Gerwig would expose Jo to a wider world. There's a momentary hint of that: we see Jo at the theatre — and then dancing in an alehouse that's filled with people speaking multiple languages. And I'm grateful to Gerwig for the inspired casting of Louis Garrel, who transformed Professor Bhaer from the creepy older man I never understood in the books to a very dreamy academic I almost rooted for. But that wasn't enough. I always imagined Jo as a person who would have numerous romances (maybe even one with a woman!) and friendships with political and creative rabble rousers. As a port of entry for so many newcomers, New York City was rife with the potential for adventure. But in Gerwig's Little Women, Jo's life in the city is still confined to a house — a place where she tutors and writes stories.
Despite their absence from the page, there have always been Black folks, queer folks, Indigenous folks and differently abled folks populating these worlds. It is a choice to leave them out. Anne with an E has illustrated that a far richer and more expansive story can be told when you keep them in. It would be ridiculous to be retroactively disappointed in the limited worldviews of Lucy Maud Montgomery or Louisa May Alcott. However, I can expect more from the contemporary storytellers who choose to adapt their stories for audiences in 2019.
The impact of these wider stories cannot be overstated. In online campaigns to save Anne with an E, fans frequently demand to know more about Ka'kwet and her life at the residential school. They say they want to learn more about a chapter of history rarely depicted on screen. One writer argued that its cancellation is irresponsible and damaging to Indigenous viewers because it leaves behind a storyline that was initially handled so well.
Writer Sarah Hagi recently tweeted her reaction to Little Women: "Do you think Greta Gerwig has ever met a Black person?" I'm definitely a Greta Gerwig fan, but the tweet made me reflect on her body of work and how many communities are consistently left out. She's part of a larger creative contingency that rarely feels the need to see beyond a very specific and limited bubble. To expect her to shift with Little Women — a book that has been adapted numerous times and has never concerned itself with the issues I've outlined above — is definitely asking a lot. But I'm putting the request out there anyway because I think it's time for a new set of standards. Thank Anne with an E for raising the bar.