Little Women

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Alexandre Desplat — Visit his profile on Spotify, and you will find him listed as the composer of a number of film soundtracks. Among these are Shape of Water, J’Accuse, and Suburbicon. Also listed in his profile is a mysterious album called Godric’s Hollow Graveyard, by Sea Turtle Harmonic… an artist/album name which is a little too close to my thoughts, and my bookshelf. Most recently, Desplat composed the soundtrack to the latest film adaptation of Little Women, which I had the good fortune of seeing today. 

Little Women is a Civil War-era novel by Louisa May Alcott. The novel tells the story of four sisters, growing up in the small and rather idyllic town of Concord, Massachusetts. Since the nineteenth century, Concord has been home to some of New England’s most thoughtful public intellectuals and creative writers. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott all hail from Concord, nurturing ideas and stewarding stories that countless people cherish today. Concord is a beautiful town, though perhaps not nearly as beautiful as it was in the nineteenth century. Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond is surrounded by woods, which are richly green in the summer, flush scarlet and gold in the autumn, and are stripped of their thousands of leaves in the winter. 

Little Women is a story that, in some ways, could only have happened in a small and wooded town like this. The main character in the story is Jo, a restless, strong-willed and exceptionally talented writer who chafes at the expectations placed upon her as a girl. Her three sisters’ personalities (Meg, Beth and Amy) run a wide range; the story follows them all as they come of age, make choices that highlight the differences in their personalities, and deal with life’s challenges together, despite it all. With the exception of a little time in New York, the plot occurs in a nature-filled environment— where friendships are close, community is unavoidable, the ambitious dream of leaving, and the contented never want to leave. 

Little Women has been adapted for the screen many times. The version I know best is the one released in 1994, which stars Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and others. Winona Ryder plays Jo— beautiful, willful, and determined to have a future which does not involve carrying out the usual duties placed upon women. In this latest version, which was written and directed by the alarmingly young and talented Greta Gerwig, Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan. The biggest difference between this new portrayal of Jo and previous versions is that, now more than ever, Jo is more candid about the double-edged swords of her life— the sadness and frustrations of coming to grips with her own personality and circumstances. The same is true of all her sisters, and the result is a film which candidly lays bear the issues that women faced, and continue to face, today. 

This difference is clearly signaled by Desplat’s soundtrack. It is almost difficult to listen to this soundtrack alone, because it is highly energetic— some would even say frenetic. But in the film, it makes sense. It provides an impetus for the girls’ unbridled energy— their creativity, their convictions, their emotion. More than in 1994, the Little Women in 2019 are more honest about the full truth of their feelings. Even Marmee, ever the tranquil mother and role model, admits that on a daily basis she struggles with her fury: Her fury at the moral bankruptcy of the Confederacy, and her fury at the responsibilities she has to shoulder on her own as her husband fights in battle for the North. None of the women and girls in this movie hide their feelings, for better or worse. They are allowed to express themselves, to be complex, to live by their own motivations. 

Meg marries for love but continually struggles with her ambivalence about the poverty that is her husband’s fate. Beth is an angel as always, but suffers the most in this unfair world. Amy, who in the past has been portrayed as vain, makes an important confession: that she has always felt inferior to her sisters, and therefore believes (albeit reluctantly) that she must attract a partner, or else live her life in poverty. And Jo, who will never compromise her talent and her dreams, not even for love, confesses to her mother that she is lonely, and that she hates that the world has to be that way. In recognizing the shadow side of independence, but still not changing her behavior to conform to expectations, Jo portrays for us all the complexity of real feminism… and those of us who feel the same laugh and cry, with relief and recognition, as a result. 

Little Women thus remains relevant for feminism in 2019 (or rather, 2020!). The travails of four girls in rural New England pertain to all of us. Music and nature are, as always, important characters. If you see the movie, consider— how does the setting drive forward the lessons it offers about being a woman and being free? How does the music do the same? 

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