Little Women: Greta Gerwig’s Love Letter to the 19th-Century NovelRoundup
tags: film, literature
Bibliophiles who see Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott will have ample reason to drool. Aunt March’s house is filled with books in period-appropriate bindings. Jo March (played by Saoirse Ronan) drafts her manuscripts in a marbled-cover journal identical to an original owned by Alcott. A first edition of the novel stands in for the title card.
Gerwig’s love for the novel is evinced at the film’s conclusion with a montage of the book’s production. Jo watches from the sidelines as a printer sets her words in type and prints the novel on a beautiful iron handpress. A binder takes the freshly printed signatures and sews them into a text block, rounds and backs the spine with a hammer, and binds the text in red leather. In the final moments of the film, he lovingly stamps the title on the cover in gold: Little Women by Jo March. Brushing off the extra gilt shavings, he hands the first copy to the proud author. Book lovers swoon; the credits roll.
Gerwig’s interest in the novel’s creation extends beyond the physical book to the world of publishers, editors, and even copyright. Readers who haven’t seen Little Women may wonder at a Hollywood film that would let such dry topics take up valuable screen time, but the results are surprisingly cinematic. It’s thrilling to see the historic Roberts Brothers publishing house richly imagined in the film’s first scene and to watch Jo spar with her editor over the rights to her novel and its ending. In these scenes, Gerwig references Alcott’s own experience bringing out her novel in the competitive 19th-century American literary market. In fact, Gerwig has stated in multiple interviews that she drew inspiration from both the novel and Alcott’s life, creating a meta-narrative of a novel that is already quite self-referential. In many ways, Alcott’s road to publishing was more extraordinary than Jo’s, and it’s worth unpacking Gerwig’s decisions, which draw from the literary experiences of the two women.
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