Future adaptations of Little Women

(Written back in January. Just didn’t get around to posting.)

When I heard there was going to be a new Little Women movie, I thought to myself, what more can they do with this story? I’ve only ever watched the 1994 adaptation, and while I’m not exactly a fan, I just felt like it did such a thorough job of covering the material, there was no room for doing anything new.

As you’ve probably guessed, I was wrong about that. A lot has been written about it already, so I won’t go into it. I will instead link you to (1) a really great video by Be Kind Rewind who compares what each film version brought to the table, and (2) the coverage of the meta-ending by Oprah Magazine.

What I will talk about though is what else I think future adaptations can bring to the table. After watching Greta Gerwig’s take on the story, and after reading up on Louisa May Alcott and her letters about her decisions with respect to this book, I now think there is a lot more that can be done!

But first, I have to address the meta-ending of Gerwig’s adaptation, so um, spoiler warning from here on out. I did absolutely love this meta-ending: that Jo got a third option – the ending Alcott herself got – she got an immensely successful book. But it’s also worth exploring another take on this ending.

“Personally, however, the idea that Little Women needs to be “fixed” is one I’ve always found a bit frustrating,” writes Caroline Siede in this A.V. Club article. She goes on to say, “What I love best about the ending of Little Women isn’t the romance of it all, it’s the idea that you can still live a happy life even if your childhood dreams don’t come true. The notion that it’s okay to change your mind and shift your goals was a hugely comforting thing for me to read as a kid growing up in our intensely success-driven culture.”

And that’s a valid point. My takeaway from Little Women and similar novels had been that: we may have many hopes and dreams and fantasies, but society puts many restrictions of us, especially on women, and we must learn to do the best we can within those restrictions. Don’t get me wrong, the books aren’t necessarily advocating never fighting the system, but it never urges the reader to fight the system either. They only encouraged the readers to keep pushing the boundaries of these restrictions ever so slightly.

And that’s not necessarily bad advice. Not everyone can go out there and fight for radical change. We can only do what we can do with what is given to us. And shifting our goals and “settling” for certain things really is a part of growing up. Alcott herself had to make compromises. She couldn’t give Little Women the ending she wanted. So she compromised. And she made so much money because of it.

I don’t really view Gerwig’s adaptation as one that is trying to “fix” the ending of Little Women. It is giving Alcott the ending she wanted. But it doesn’t do so by explicitly changing the ending. It does so by showing that the novel about Jo’s life has the same ending as the book, whereas the author gets the ending that the real author got. And that was such a cool touch.

But why do I feel this opens up more room for future adaptations to Little Women? Because now we are free to read further into the characters and view them through different lenses. For instance, queer theory.

This isn’t complete death of the author. We don’t know what Alcott intended, but here are some direct quotes by her:

“Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters.” (source)

“I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body. … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” (source)

We will never know for sure if Alcott was queer or queer in what way. She may have been lesbian, or transgender, or something else. But that’s not important. What I take away from this is that Jo can be interpreted as a queer character. I know people may object to this because this may not have been what Alcott intended. (Well, we don’t know what Alcott intended. Alcott didn’t have access to the vocabulary or the ideas about queerness to have known definitively how to identify.) But adaptations don’t have to stick to authorial intent. There exists adaptations that have lovingly embraced the book’s ending; and now there is an adaptation which has a meta-twist to give it the ending that author originally wanted. So why not branch out and explore the material through a new lens?

I hope new story tellers will take this opportunity to tell us old stories from a new perspective. This doesn’t mean they have to “fix” anything. They can just explore new interpretations.

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