Early in the second chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1869), the four March sisters – already facing a present-less Civil War Christmas – give up their one seasonal indulgence, a fancy dinner, to a family of starving German refugees down the way. The Germans pronounce them “angels,” and Alcott, in an easy-to-miss half-sentence, notes the girls’ perfectly normal pleasure in being thus designated. This is, to my eyes, the moment when Alcott the artist enters into a struggle with Alcott the cloying Sunday-school moralist, a struggle that never ends and that gives the resulting book much of its power. By this point Alcott has already invoked Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, or foil, for the kind of text she’s writing (the girls amuse themselves acting out scenes from it). But John Bunyan would have engineered some sort of swift punishment for this perfectly natural moment of amour-propre. Alcott uses her characters as vehicles of moral instruction, but she also sees them and likes them, and she lets them have the moment, pausing only to archly note it.
Because it superposes an unforgettable novel upon an interminable sermon, Little Women is that rare thing: a classic novel that you can make a good movie from. It leaves filmmakers something to do. Greta Gerwig’s version is powerful, thoughtful, and finds artful ways of dealing with the novel’s diffuse structure. The cast cannot be improved upon, with Saoirse Ronan as an era-defining Jo and Laura Dern making the girls’ stiff, preachy mother seem believable. Florence Pugh finds unlooked-for resonance in the character of Amy, and fans of sketch comedy will find the casting of Mr. March a brilliant sick joke. The film is marred only by a didacticism nearly as relentless as the novel’s, and a cheap ending that tries to have it all and fails.