Rise and shine

Screen­writer and pro­ducer Robin Swicord ex­plains why it’s the per­fect time for Greta Ger­wig’s ver­sion of Lit­tle Women.

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“It’s re­ally tak­ing a look at what it is for a young woman to en­ter the adult world. It’s a clear-eyed ap­proach to the chal­lenges women face as they try to bravely move into new sit­u­a­tions,” screen­writer Robin Swicord and pro­ducer of the lat­est planned ver­sion of Lit­tle Women, tells Glenn Whipp

Screen­writer Robin Swicord re­mem­bers the ques­tions: Why make an­other movie out of Lit­tle Women? It’s been done be­fore, right? And quite well. What could an­other ver­sion pos­si­bly have to of­fer?

Swicord heard those queries in 1994 while pro­mot­ing the last film adap­ta­tion of Louisa May Al­cott’s clas­sic novel about the smart, strong and in­de­pen­dent-minded March sis­ters. And she’s hear­ing echoes of those same com­plaints-framed-as-ques­tions to­day as a pro­ducer on Greta Ger­wig’s re­cently an­nounced new ver­sion of Lit­tle Women.

And, yes, she finds the logic be­hind the ques­tion­ing rather … in­ter­est­ing.

“I re­mem­ber right after our Lit­tle Women came out, there was an­other movie about King Arthur (1995’s First Knight), and yet I don’t re­mem­ber hear­ing any­one won­der­ing why we needed an­other film about the Knights of the Round Ta­ble,” Swicord says. “It did feel kind of funny that it was just Lit­tle

Women that fielded those sorts of ques­tions.”

A quar­ter cen­tury will have passed be­tween the 1994 Lit­tle

Women, a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial hit beau­ti­fully brought to life by Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Gil­lian Arm­strong, and the ver­sion that Ger­wig will be­gin film­ing in Bos­ton with Saoirse Ro­nan, Meryl Streep, Emma Stone and Ti­mothee Cha­la­met this Oc­to­ber. Dur­ing the in­ter­ven­ing years, there have been three Spi­der

Man fran­chise re­boots, a dozen Madea movies, 13 X-Men en­tries and a con­stant cul­tural churn­ing of Bat­men and Su­per­men and 007s.

But the first movie ver­sion of Lit­tle Women in a gen­er­a­tion? That’s where some peo­ple — judg­ing from the com­ments on web­sites that re­ported the news of Ger­wig’s adap­ta­tion — want to draw the line?

To those ob­jec­tors, it’s worth point­ing out that the themes and char­ac­ters of Lit­tle Women are so sturdy and time­less that not even Wil­liam Shat­ner’s wild stab at a Ger­man ac­cent by way of

Ho­gan’s He­roes — he played Pro­fes­sor Bhaer, Jo’s love in­ter­est and a prob­lem­atic fig­ure among many Lit­tle Women devo­tees, in a 1978 minis­eries adap­ta­tion — can de­rail its im­pact.

Swicord says she gets the grum­bling and, in a way, she’s flat­tered by peo­ple say­ing that no-one could im­prove on the Lit­tle Women movie she wrote, the movie that sported a su­perbly cast ensem­ble fea­tur­ing Wi­nona Ry­der, Claire Danes, Trini Al­varado, Kirsten Dunst and Sa­man­tha Burrows as the March sis­ters (Dunst and Burrows played Amy at dif­fer­ent ages); Chris­tian Bale as the crush-wor­thy boy next door, Lau­rie; and Su­san Saran­don as the strong, un­der­stand­ing mother, Marmee.

When Swicord and Amy Pas­cal and Denise Di Novi be­gan think­ing about mak­ing an­other ver­sion of Lit­tle Women a few years ago, they had to clear that ini­tial hur­dle of find­ing an ap­proach that would speak to a new set of movie­go­ers who might not know Al­cott’s book.

They met with a num­ber of peo­ple, in­clud­ing Sarah Pol­ley, though Swicord says that, con­trary to re­ports, Pol­ley’s in­volve­ment never went be­yond ini­tial talks. Ger­wig came in two years ago. She had pretty much fin­ished writ­ing Lady

Bird, an­other movie about young women find­ing and as­sert­ing them­selves (although Lady Bird’s re­la­tion­ship with her mother is a tad more com­pli­cated). Hav­ing grad­u­ated from Barnard Col­lege where she stud­ied English and phi­los­o­phy, Ger­wig ar­rived full of ideas for a new ver­sion of Lit­tle Women.

“Greta has a won­der­fully as­so­cia­tive, well-fur­nished mind,” Swicord says. “Her take on the novel more than con­vinced us that we could bring some­thing new to the screen.”

Ger­wig’s ver­sion will fo­cus more on the March sis­ters’ lives as young adults after Meg, Jo and Amy leave home. (Poor, sweet, doomed Beth is con­tent to re­main with Marmie.) Scenes from the girls’ child­hood will be seen as well, with the story jump­ing back and forth in time, past me­mories il­lu­mi­nat­ing themes of iden­tity, the search for self-es­teem and the deep, com­plex bonds among sis­ters. (Al­cott wrote two sequels, Lit­tle Men and Jo’s Boys, but Ger­wig’s movie will fo­cus on the first book.)

“It’s re­ally tak­ing a look at what it is for a young woman to en­ter the adult world,” Swicord says. “It’s a clear-eyed ap­proach to the chal­lenges women face as they try to bravely move into new sit­u­a­tions.”

Pre­vi­ous film ver­sions of Lit­tle Women — Ge­orge Cukor’s 1933 adap­ta­tion star­ring Katharine Hep­burn; a 1949 Tech­ni­color take di­rected by Mervyn LeRoy and star­ring, among oth­ers, a young El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor; and the 1994 movie Swicord wrote — have fol­lowed a lin­ear ap­proach to Al­cott’s novel to vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

The novel was orig­i­nally pub­lished in two vol­umes. The first, ar­riv­ing in 1868, fol­lowed the im­pov­er­ished March women as they per­se­vered through the fa­ther’s ab­sence dur­ing the Civil War. Al­cott de­liv­ered the sec­ond part in 1869. Ti­tled Good Wives in some mar­kets, it jumps ahead three years, look­ing at Meg’s mar­riage and mother­hood; Jo’s move to New York, where she tries to es­tab­lish her­self as a writer; and Amy’s Euro­pean tour with the fam­ily’s wealthy, wid­owed Aunt March.

Ger­wig’s movie will fo­cus pri­mar­ily on this sec­ond sec­tion, Swicord says.

“I think at this point in her life Greta has a real feel for sto­ries about women com­ing into their own,” she adds.

Swicord con­firms the cast­ing: Ro­nan will play the fiercely in­de­pen­dent Jo; Stone will por­tray sen­si­ble el­dest sis­ter Meg; and Florence Pugh is cast as the con­fi­dent youngest sis­ter, Amy. Cha­la­met makes for a nat­u­ral Lau­rie, the charm­ing and rich neigh­bour who falls in love with the March fam­ily and ends up propos­ing to two of the sis­ters. And Streep will play the acer­bic Aunt March.

Cha­la­met, Pugh and Ro­nan are Lady Bird alums, lead­ing one to won­der if per­haps Lau­rie Met­calf, who earned an Os­car nom­i­na­tion play­ing Lady Bird’s com­bat­ive mother, might slide into the Lit­tle Women cast, tak­ing the Marmie role. (“No com­ment,” Swicord says with a laugh.)

How­ever the cast rounds out, it’s no small thing that fam­i­lies who weren’t around when Bill Clin­ton was pres­i­dent will be able to watch the March sis­ters’ story grace­fully un­fold in the­atres. The BBC pro­duced a faith­ful, sun-dap­pled minis­eries adap­ta­tion of Lit­tle Women that aired on PBS tele­vi­sion sta­tions this year. It felt like a missed op­por­tu­nity, care­ful to a fault and awk­ward in its at­tempts to of­fer a lit­tle mod­ern in­sight into the story.

The 1994 film, on the other hand, could be seen as a cor­rec­tive to ear­lier ver­sions, fo­cus­ing not on who the March sis­ters might marry but rather what kind of women they might be­come. Both Swicord and Arm­strong read Lit­tle Women nu­mer­ous times in their young lives and delved into re­search about Al­cott’s life and the ways her jour­ney mir­rored and de­parted from her fic­tional stand-in, Jo.

Al­cott never mar­ried, say­ing she’d “rather be a free spin­ster and pad­dle my own ca­noe.” And she re­ally didn’t want to marry off Jo, ei­ther, writ­ing in her jour­nal: “Girls write to ask who the lit­tle women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Lau­rie to please any­one.” Her de­ci­sion to pair Jo with Pro­fes­sor Bhaer in­stead still di­vides fans.

“That book was a life­line for me as a young reader be­cause Jo March was the only writer I knew,” Swicord says. “Read­ing her story showed me that a small-town, tomboy­ish girl could leave home for the big city and be­come a writer and main­tain her fam­ily ties. Al­cott saw her am­bi­tion as ad­mirable, show­ing how it didn’t cause the fam­ily to dis­in­te­grate.”

“That idea was one thing I wanted to con­vey in my adap­ta­tion,” Swicord adds. “Greta has an­other take, and 25 years from now an­other writer will come up with an­other fresh way into the book. That’s the beauty of Lit­tle Women. It’s not go­ing any­where.” — Los An­ge­les Times/TNS

CAST OF 1994: From top left: Wi­nona Ry­der as Josephine ‘Jo’ March; Trini Al­varado as Mar­garet ‘Meg’March; Claire Danes as El­iz­a­beth ‘Beth’ March; Su­san Saran­don as Abi­gail ‘Marmee’ March; Kirsten Dunst as younger Amy; Sa­man­tha Mathis as Amy March; Eric Stoltz as John Brooke; Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer; and Chris­tian Bale as Theodore ‘Lau­rie’ Laurence.

SPOT­LIGHT: Robin Swicord and Greta Ger­wig, be­low.

Meryl Streep will es­say Aunt March.

Emma Stone will por­tray Meg.

Ti­mothee Cha­la­mat will star as Lau­rie.

Florence Pugh will fea­ture as Amy.

NEW VER­SION CAST: Saoirse Ro­nan will play Jo.

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