Give Louisa May Alcott Some Credit

Ceci n'est pas une critique de Little Women.
Speaking personally, I don't know how to even approach a review of Little Women. Now, it's important to know that - for the purposes of this piece - I'm talking about the 2019 adaptation of Little Women. I'm not talking about the 1949 version. I'm not talking about the 1994 version. I'm not talking about the 1933 version. I'm not talking about the 2018 version or the 1918 version. I'm certainly not talking about the 1917 version.

No, I'm talking about the latest adaptation of one of the most famous books in the history of classic American literature. Greta Gerwig has received a tremendous amount of praise for her direction and screenplay, well-deserved. I had considered writing a review of the movie, which I liked, but as I collected my thoughts I realized most of my praise was really for the source material, rather than anything specifically having to do with the film. There are things this new version does better than the 1917, 1918, 1933, 1949, 1994, and 2018 versions, and I might go so far as to say this is the definitive film adaptation of Little Women. It only took us seven tries to do it right.

Something has bothered me about all the praise this latest iteration has received, however. I keep hearing praise for Gerwig, what a triumph for her, it's her best work so far. I've heard more than that, but I'll get to it later. Gerwig did a great job, but...there's just something missing from all this praise that's caught in my craw. Here, watch the trailer, see if you can tell what's bugging me:


Did you see it? Did you catch it? Did you see the part where it says who wrote the classic novel this movie was based on? It was at the very end, lost in the brick wall of credits, lower third, on the left. Barely on screen for two seconds. I needed a magnifying glass to see it. No chance you'll catch it without pausing. Ordinarily I'd've opened this piece with a pop quiz on who wrote Little Women, but I put the answer in the headline.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and you should know that.

A lot of people I've talked to and read online have called this movie "Greta Gerwig's Little Women" and that really bothers me. She adapted the story into a screenplay, and yes, it's a good screenplay, but Louisa May Alcott wrote the story, she wrote the dialogue, she established the setting, she formulated the dilemmas and triumphs, and she created the characters. Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy - these are all the creation of Louisa May Alcott. Think about those names - Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy - as soon as you hear those names, you immediately think of the book Little Women.

You have read Little Women, haven't you? I mean, I know the United States is steadily becoming one of the more illiterate nations, and that overall literacy has dropped significantly over the years, and that most people read nothing more than the back of cereal boxes these days, but of course you've read Little Women, right? Mark Twain once said that a classic book is one that everyone has on his or her shelf, yet no one has actually read; yet surely you made a special exception for Little Women, right? One of the most important books in American literary history, one of the most critical advances for the cause of feminism, and one of the most beloved tales of sisterhood, love, and camaraderie ever written, right? Of course you have. You've probably read it more than once; you just forgot who wrote it. That's fine. Happens all the time, really.

In the future, could you just do us all a favor and remember Louisa May Alcott's name? She was an important woman. She deserves to be remembered. She did a lot more than just write Little Women, which is what she's most well-known for. She was also a staunch abolitionist, at a time when that was not a particularly popular position. She enlisted as an Army nurse during the Civil War. She rubbed elbows with Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was one of the first American suffragettes. Louisa May Alcott is one of the most important citizens in this country's history, and she ought to be remembered alongside people like Emily Dickinson (also from Massachusetts).

I think it's important to pause for a moment here and mention that under no circumstances do I blame Greta Gerwig. It's not her fault, and it's not the movie's fault. On the contrary, the 2019 adaptation of Little Women does an excellent job giving the original author credit. It begins with a quote from Louisa May Alcott. Approximately five minutes into the movie there's a cover of the book Little Women with a barely legible "L.M. Alcott" on the cover for a full three seconds. She even gets the second credit at the end of the movie, and Gerwig's credit specifically says "written for the screen". This is all good enough for me, but the movie actually takes the extra step and incorporates Alcott's credit into the narrative structure. It's made abundantly clear that the novel was semi-autobiographical, and Jo (played admirably by Saoirse Ronan) is very obviously a stand-in for Alcott (this becomes even more clear toward the end of the movie).

With all that being said, why am I even bothering to write this piece? If the movie gives Louisa May Alcott credit, isn't that enough? Am I getting worked about something that doesn't really matter? Not even close, I'm afraid. I will never calm down and I will never log off. The trailer not giving the author enough credit is bad enough, but I think my qualms lie with us: the viewers. You simply cannot imagine how many people I talked to who watched Little Women - some who even watched the movie with me - who did not know who Alcott was after the movie was over. It's genuinely alarming. They watched the movie - they saw her name repeatedly, they saw how Jo represented the author, they saw the second credit, and they still didn't bother to consider that Alcott was the one who wrote the book. I shudder to think this, but it might be true - maybe they didn't think that was important. When Jo says "I want to own my work," I thought that was the best quote in the whole movie. I feel that owning your work goes beyond copyright, though - it means people associate the story and the characters with your name, just as easily as we associate Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with Mark Twain, or Harry Potter and Voldemort with J.K. Rowling, or Dr. Victor Frankenstein withg Mary Shelley. Those are characters and authors you immediately recognize - Jo, Beth, Meg, Amy, and Louisa May Alcott ought to be there, especially those of you who watched about them. The only ones who knew who she was were on my trivia team, and I expect them to know it.

But her name shouldn't be relegated to trivia. Trivia means little stuff, stuff that doesn't matter, stuff you randomly happen to remember in case you get asked about it on a Tuesday quiz night at a pizza joint. Her name deserves to stand throughout history. It deserves to be remembered. The fault isn't with Hollywood for neglecting to put her name front and center where it belongs. The problem is with you and me. We need to read the book as well as watch the movie. We need to talk about her more - just get her name out there, if anything. We need to read about her. We need to read her other work, too.
Finally, a true classic


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