Greta Gerwig and the Art of Return

“You can do nothing if you go back.”

So says Aunt March to her niece Amy in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The two are in Paris, and Amy has just received word from home of her sister Beth’s declining health. Amy feels she should go back, but Aunt March insists nothing good will come of a homecoming—nothing for Beth (who is sick, not lonely), and nothing for Amy, for whom a return might preempt an advantageous marriage proposal.

Aunt March’s words might also challenge screenwriter and director Gerwig herself. After five film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, can anything come from going back? A remake risks rehashing the March sisters’ tale simply to invoke nostalgia or, worse, to impose themes foreign to Alcott’s classic. Impressively, Gerwig avoids both pitfalls, instead making the timeless tale her own with an emphasis on the importance of return.

A Fresh Framework

While previous renderings present the narrative chronologically, Gerwig begins in medias res, with an adult Jo March returning home and intermittently recalling scenes from childhood. Gerwig invites the audience to “go back” on several levels. In resurrecting the story for America, she summons a collective return to our roots. As Gerwig noted in a recent interview, the story is set in Concord, Massachusetts, the cradle of the Revolutionary War, and takes place during America’s Civil War—its “new birth of freedom.” Gerwig magnifies this invitation to “go back” by framing the story itself as a return: Jo’s physical return home and imaginative return to childhood memories.

Gerwig further invites reflection, when in the first scene, Mr. Dashwood, a New York editor, offers to publish a heavily edited version of Jo’s story. “You’ve cut—” Jo argues, “I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.” But self-reflection and resolve have no place in Mr. Dashwood’s newspaper. “The country just went through a war. People want to be amused, not preached at. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” By opening the film with a conversation about storytelling, Gerwig challenges the viewer to watch for a deeper moral.

Little Self-Made Women

Gerwig’s invitation to reflect and return to the past is more striking in light of her simultaneous emphasis on ambition. Earlier film versions downplay Jo’s aspirations, presenting her eventual union with Professor Friedrich Bhaer as the fulfillment of her desires. They likewise fail to treat her sisters’ ambitions seriously. Gerwig, however, underscores her characters’ talents and dreams, but in a way consistent with Alcott’s novel and with Gerwig’s own emphasis on return. This becomes clear in the character development of Jo, who wants to become a famous writer and “make [her] own way in the world,” and of Amy, an aspiring painter who will be “great or nothing.” Each learns the truth of Aunt March’s wise words that “no one makes their own way, not really.”

When Amy finds her artistic hopes dashed by her lack of “genius,” she heads for another avenue to “greatness”—marrying rich to become a “queen of society.” But then her childhood friend Theodore “Laurie” Laurence arrives and, despite Aunt March’s protestations, literally turns Amy’s head—back to him and back to her roots. Laurie challenges Amy’s claim that “we have some power over who we love” and notes the oddity that one of her “mother’s girls” would marry for money, given the matriarch’s integrity. He ultimately persuades Amy, but, crucially, her change of mind and heart neither presupposes nor prompts a surrender of her artistic ambitions.

Laurie’s pursuit of Amy actually incites the opposite, for he asks her to paint at least one more portrait—of him. Far from holding her back, Laurie serves as her muse and makes her art more meaningful. When Amy turns back to Laurie, whom she has loved since childhood, we see that her talent for fashioning his face matches that of sketching his soul. While he jokingly claims irredeemable depravity, she sees in him merely indolence worsened by heartbreak, with abiding potential for goodness and beauty. By the film’s end, Amy is less concerned with refining her nose and more interested in shaping character.

Jo intends to make her way through writing, but is quickly forced to choose between the morals instilled by her upbringing and her need to publish something that carries currency “nowadays.” She compromises, keeping up with the times, even if it means hiding her stories from her mother (affectionately called Marmee), who would disapprove of their gore. She’s making her own money and making her own way—or so it seems. Yet her published stories are just not good, as Friedrich bluntly observes.

Friedrich’s harsh feedback, which Jo knows is true, prompts her to put down her pen until a dying Beth reminds her of Marmee’s maxim—“do it for someone else.” Not only does Jo later resume writing with the motto “For Beth” propped on her desk, but her entire novel is inspired by her childhood and family. She becomes author of her own life by embracing her home, with all of its struggles, joys, and limitations, and entrusting it all to her readers.

Though unique, Gerwig’s emphases on ambition and return do not betray Alcott’s meaning. Alcott has both Jo and Amy marry happily, but their marriages do not mark rebukes of their origins or artistic ambitions. Rather, the novel concludes with them discussing girlhood dreams and renewing their commitment to pursue them, albeit without illusion that they can do so unencumbered. “I haven’t given up the hope that I may write a good book yet,” Jo confesses, as nearby students play and her husband and father converse, “but I can wait, and I’m sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these.” Amy agrees: “I don’t relinquish all my artistic hopes, or confine myself to helping others fulfill their dreams of beauty.” While Gerwig’s Amy finds inspiration for her art in Laurie, Alcott’s Amy finds inspiration in her baby, whom she has begun to model for a sculpture.

Alcott’s Amy admits that “the world is hard on ambitious girls.” In the same vein, Gerwig’s Amy articulates the reality facing 19th-century American women, who, with few exceptions, could not vote, work for pay, or own property. The film’s return to the past does not romanticize it, then, but neither does it simply regret or triumph over it. In highlighting the gifts and burdens that the March sisters inherit from their childhood, the film reveals that recognition of our givenness is not opposed to ambition and creation—but is crucial for it.

A Story About Stories

Gerwig’s cinematic twists accentuate forgotten themes from the original book. She has Jo watch a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which Viola disguises herself as a man so that she “might not be delivered to the world, till [she] had made [her] own occasion mellow what [her] estate is.” Like Jo and Amy, Viola strives for autonomy, but when she unintentionally seduces Countess Olivia, she regrets her attempts to remake herself. In the scene Gerwig’s film features, the still-disguised Viola warns Olivia against her lack of self-knowledge—a lacking Viola admits sharing. Just as Viola recognizes this flaw and profits by a reunion with her brother, so Jo and Amy grow when they pursue ambitions in light of their gratitude for home and family.

Similarly, Gerwig inserts text from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss to stress the significance of origins. “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,” Jo reads to Beth in one scene, and we get the sense that Gerwig believes this to be true for Alcott’s characters as well. “What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?” Eliot’s narrator calls childhood experiences the “mother tongue” of our imagination, and Jo’s eventual writing success, inspired by her childhood, affirms this. That past experiences inform the way we live does not mean we can never grow beyond them, but means instead that our capacity to create things of our own is made possible by earlier experiences of belonging.

Along with nonlinear narration and emphases on ambition and return, Gerwig’s incorporation of particular literary works is unique to her version of Little Women. Although not inconsistent with the spirit of Alcott—who has Jo read Shakespeare but no particular play, and who, as Gerwig also noted, herself read Eliot—Gerwig’s supplements further emphasize the importance of self-reflection and return, of inheritance and givenness. Their inclusion suggests a certain reflection on the purpose of art—Gerwig’s own as well as earlier Western classics, including Alcott’s.

These themes echo Gerwig’s first film, Lady Bird, loosely modeled after her upbringing in Sacramento. The coming-of-age movie follows 17-year-old Christine McPherson, who insists everyone call her “Lady Bird.” Consistent with her desire for independence and self-making, she laments her origins—her hometown, her small house, her parents, and her Catholic school—and vows to leave it all behind. Lady Bird does move to New York, but not without her father’s help and a college essay that unwittingly reveals love for her hometown. The film culminates with Lady Bird leaving her parents a voicemail, in which she expresses care for Sacramento and finally identifies herself as Christine—“the name you gave me. It’s a good one.”

In the novel Little Women, Alcott’s narrator notes that Jo was no heroine, only “a struggling human girl.” So, too, are Gerwig’s characters, who neither heroically conquer the world nor heroically give it up. They are real, human girls who must wrestle with the fruitful tension between their ambitions and their givenness, their futures and their pasts. Like Jo’s repentant sinners, Gerwig’s girls return to their origins and beget the self-knowledge they need to better make their way.