Lousia May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, is a staple of American literature and a great inspiration to many women, and men, across the world, who want to be writers.
As a testament to the book’s impact, in the 153 years since it was published, Little Women has never been out of print, selling over 1.78 million copies, and being translated into over 50 languages. In addition, Alcott’s beloved story has been adapted into seven films, several TV mini-series, at least fifteen musicals, countless plays, a ballet, and even an anime show.
Among the many female writers and artists who have attributed their creative pursuits to Louisa May Alcott and Little Women is Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of one of the most recent film adaptations of the novel. She has said about writing the screenplay, “I don’t remember ever not knowing who the March sisters were. I always knew who Jo March was. I always knew those sisters and that mother and those adventures and they so became a part of the inner landscape of myself. They felt like my memories. So, in a lot of ways it didn’t feel that different for me [from writing Lady Bird], the book had become a part of me.” And in writing Little Women, Gerwig wanted more than anything to have her film pay tribute, not only to the ambitions of the female characters in the story, but to Louisa May Alcott herself.
There are many fascinating aspects of Gerwig’s screenplay and writing process, and in this blog post we will explore some of the elements that earned her a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for her adaptation of Little Women.
When you first begin reading the screenplay, something small, but impactful is Gerwig’s inclusion of a quote by Louisa May Alcott “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” Similarly, in the screenplay for her first film, Lady Bird, she included a quote by Joan Didion that connected to her experience and feelings growing up in Sacramento, California. This is a simple addition to her films, but it makes the work that much more emotional, as she is infusing the people that inspired her into her work, paying homage to those who helped her get where she is, forever memorializing them, and their legacies, in her films.
Something noticeable right off the bat is that, in contrast to past film adaptations of the novel, Gerwig tells the story in a non-linear fashion, which she denotes in her screenplay using either red or black ink. She begins in adulthood, and starting from two different points in time, 1868 and 1861, she moves forward on the two different timelines, while flashing back and forth between childhood and adulthood. There were several reasons behind her choice to do this.
First, she chose to begin the film in adulthood in order to give space for the adult characters’ desires and ambitions to be taken seriously as real emotionally driven pursuits, rather than just being seen as silly young girls’ fantasies. Another use of the non-linear timeline is to have childhood feel like a memory. Joan Didion has said that writers are born with a presentiment of loss. Through reading Louisa May Alcott’s diaries, Gerwig felt that this presentiment of loss was very applicable to Alcott and Little Women, so it only seemed right that childhood feel like a distant memory that the audience, alongside the characters, aches to go back to.
In the same vein of creating the ache for something that once was, Gerwig used the non-linear structure to give an extra layer of tragedy and heartbreak to Beth’s infamous death. She has noted that narratively it is tough to tell Beth’s story as she gets sick, then she gets better, then she gets sick again, and then she dies. Similar to Mike Leigh movies, that Gerwig describes are like he’s building a rug underneath you and halfway through the film he rips it out, she wanted to capture the effect of building up to this moment where both timelines collide in a crescendo of emotion, and the climax is subtle yet incredibly profound. So Beth gets sick in both timelines, then there is a double walk-down. The first time Jo walks down and Beth is there, her health is improving. But, the second time, Jo walks down and Beth is gone.
Another notable component of Gerwig’s screenplay is her tightly scripted and fast-paced dialogue. For this story in particular, Gerwig didn’t want the story to feel slow. Oftentimes in period piece films, the characters speak in a way where they will wait until the other person is completely finished speaking before they start their next sentence. Instead of following this tradition, she decided to have the characters speak at the speed of life, like they are the first people to have ever said these lines and they are saying them right now. So instead of “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”...”It’s so dreadful to be poor." She has implemented a dual dialogue and slash technique into her screenplay so they overlap and interrupt, just as four sisters would.
A device often used by playwrights, the slash indicates where the next person should begin speaking. So, Amy says “No, no poison it’s Christmas” the whole way through, but when she says “it’s” Jo begins her line “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” It is a way of achieving fast-paced dialogue while also maintaining an incredible amount of control over how it sounds. In what Gerwig refers to as a controlled cacophony, the actors had to spend days rehearsing and memorizing their lines just right to perfect the rhythm and melody of the words.
The final aspect of this screenplay that I’d like to recognize is Gerwig’s beautiful use of language to not just write an outline for what the characters should be doing, but to craft the screenplay as a piece of literature.
As she was an English major in college, it is no surprise that she values the written word. She has said that if you want to get good actors and a good crew to work with you on your film, it should start with you giving them a good script. This includes exquisitely worded descriptions that go beyond what’s required in an action block, and parantheticals that exist purely to denote a deeper meaning within the text.
One example of her use of parantheticals is in the first scene of the movie. Jo is trying to sell a story to Mr. Dashwood, the publisher, and he says that he will take it, but she must take out the parts of the story that are about morals in order to make it more amusing for readers. In dire need of money, Jo agrees. The parenthetical reads “money over art." It is something so simple, almost easy to gloss over, but the value it holds is that you know there is an author behind the screenplay who has intention behind her work, which makes the story feel more human and personable.
With a similar takeaway as the parantheticals, the final lines of this screenplay are brilliantly written. There isn’t much to be written in terms of action. Jo is handed a copy of her bound book, Little Women by J. L. March, there is a flashback to the March sisters as little girls playing in the attic, Jo smiles, holding her book, and then a cut to black. But, again, wording it in such a way that you can sense her emotions and inner thoughts as she’s writing, Gerwig crafted a beautiful ending to her screenplay.
I can’t watch this scene in the movie, or even read these lines in the screenplay without getting emotional.
There are lots of lessons to be learned from various screenwriters about the craft. There is a lot of practical knowledge that we can gain and in turn use to write our own screenplays. But Gerwig’s writing offers something special. She not only writes a screenplay that checks off all the boxes for a technically well written script, but she also writes her screenplays with so much emotion and thoughtfulness that it bleeds from the page and evokes levels of joy, passion, sadness, grief, anger, affection...feelings. Feelings that are equally as impactful as the finished film itself. When you are writing a screenplay, try to find a way to inject your voice and your emotion into the pages. Tell human stories and let your humanity bleed into your words. Good scripts attract good people, so give it everything you’ve got. And most importantly...
Always Be Writing.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.