Greta Gerwig’s six-times Academy Award nominated Little Women is, at its heart, a film about, and for, writers. In a post on Emma Watson’s Instagram following the nominations, Gerwig said: “This film of Little Women has been over thirty years in the making, from the very first time Louisa May Alcott and Jo March reached across time and space and made me believe I could be a writer and creator.” The search for that belief is imbued in the soul of the film.
Little Women was bound to resonate with me. I’m the second of four girls, I’m a writer, and my first novel publishes this summer (Blood Moon, July 2, Walker Books). Days before seeing Little Women, I received a printed copy of my book. I held it tight like it was my baby, and wept. Mostly I felt relieved, because writing is precarious and I finally had a solid, tangible, printed book that I could hold. And I had what all writers need: proof. I am a writer.
The cleverest and riskiest thing Greta Gerwig’s Little Women does is to weave Jo March and Louisa May Alcott into one character and story. She pulls it off perfectly, and in doing so explores the hazardous nature of written work, the forces at play between art and commerce, gender-politics in literature and society, and the tricky business of self-confidence. All this wrapped up in the most sumptuous of material worlds. There are hefty swishing skirts as Jo runs through the streets of 19th Century Manhattan, woollen mittens crunching on snow, velvet coats, brass chains and silver brooches. And that’s just Jacqueline Durran’s costumes. Equal material lust is spent on the physicality of the books on the set (Jess Gonchor). The sound of paper letters being folded, the scratch of the quill, the gorgeously leathery stack of books delivered to Jo’s door one night by the handsome Frederik.
The opening scene has Jo poised to knock on the door of a publisher. She finds him, sits, hands over ‘her friend’s’ work and watches as he mercilessly thumps down page after page, scores through half of it and says he’ll buy it. Gerwig illuminates the balance between writing what pays (“more of the scandalous variety please, Miss March”) and writing from the heart. There’s the frankly hilarious, if slightly cringe-inducing, rage Jo flies into when Friedrich (quiver) offers her the first honest feedback she’s ever had. And a brilliant scene where Jo and Amy debate whether literature ought to be about what is important, or whether writing about something bestows importance upon it. The film naturally concludes that the latter is the case. Louisa May Alcott was writing about the domestic struggles of young women at a time where the domestic was considered beneath the grand remit of the novel.
For much of the film, and closely tied up with Beth’s illness, Jo is unable to write. Her sisters implore her to write “more about girls like us”. She replies, “I don’t know if I can anymore.” It is a feeling so familiar I felt my heart twinge. But when Jo does finally write from the heart, it is for Beth. Beth says, “It’s all about us!” Jo asks, “Is it too boring?” and Beth replies in earnest, “It’s my favourite one yet.” Then there is the heart-breaking moment when Amy (a more compassionate version in this film, with some of the best lines) burns Jo’s manuscript in a vengeful rage. Jo sobs over the loss of her work. This moment is given much more weight than the scenes following Beth’s death. The trite blow that could be delivered by a lingering death-bed scene is avoided. Instead, the emotional arc of the film centres on Jo’s writing, weaving the family’s grief for Beth into this arc. This ups the stakes on Jo’s novel and allows her book to be a tonic to their bereavement.
Jo finally listens to Friedrich’s advice and her sisters’ pleas, and burns the scandalous stories, saving only a notebook with the inscription for Beth. Once Jo starts writing, there is no stopping her. This gorgeous montage too will be achingly familiar to writers. The story has bitten, and she has to write it.
Cue more material lust, this time of a writerly nature. Jo dons her embroidered writing coat, opens her wooden desk, takes out thick sheets of cream paper and a quill. A dip of the nib into a dark pool of ink and away she goes. She writes day and night, swapping hands to write with the other (another nod to Louisa May Alcott, who taught herself ambidexterity so that she could write faster), rubbing her eyes, falling asleep at her desk, eating from a tray brought up by Marmee. Finally, she spreads her pages out on the floor (the many candles reminding us how easily Jo’s first draft was destroyed, how perilous writing is), she scratches out lines, edits, revises, and finally sends it off. Little time is given to the rejection letter that follows – Jo says earlier she has been rejected before, another intrinsic aspect of writing which doesn’t go overlooked. It is only when the publisher’s daughters (Jo March’s literate, empowered, female audience) come running into their father’s parlour, demanding to know what happens to the Little Women, that he reconsiders his decision to reject it. This is every bit as triumphant as the standard ‘writer opening the post’ scene, but is twice as satisfying, bringing us back to the commercial side of literature. And with that we cut to Jo negotiating payment for her Little Women. In a move mirroring Alcott herself, she foregoes an advance in favour of keeping her copyright, an all-important vote of confidence in herself.
And now, one of the most beautiful sequences of film ever made. An indulgent montage of frankly pornographic bookbinding, interlaced with a race against the clock to kiss a man in the rain before he catches his train. The individual letter-pieces are typeset. A roller inks the plates. The paper is laid and pressed. An ivory paddle presses folded sheets; wooden knobs are turned to bind the pages. A rabbit-hair brush sweeps glue across the spine. Finally, the saw cuts open the pages, red leather is laid out and wrapped around a hard cover and gold leaf is swept away to reveal a neat circle with the words ‘Little Women’ in the centre. The first copy is handed to Jo, and she takes it, wraps her hands around it and simply holds it close. That proof, the thing that tells her she is a writer, is real. It was a feeling I had become familiar with so recently, and I absolutely cried my eyes out.
Gerwig’s Little Women is an absolute visual treat, rich with truth, which leaves you feeling uplifted and empowered. Forget ‘I don’t think I can write anymore’ forget ‘I wrote something, but I don’t know if it’s any good,’ and write from the heart. That’s the message of the film. And it’s such an important one. There are so many rules out there for writers about what sells, about what is commercially viable, but my soon-to-be published novel is the one where I wrote the truth, where I ignored those ‘rules’ and wrote what I cared about, wrote about the women in my life, and wrote it from the heart.
Lucy Cuthew’s debut, Blood Moon, is a YA novel in verse about sex, periods and online shaming. Described as Sex Education meets Sarah Crossan, it’ll be released on 2nd July, form Walker Books. Preorder it here. You can find Lucy on Twitter at @LucyCuthew.