Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Somehow, in that dark time, our family, the March family, seemed to create its own light.
– Jo March (Winona Ryder)
I begin with the end, beyond the film’s final credits, which close in honour of two women: Judy Scott-Fox (director Gillian Armstrong’s agent, who died of cancer in 1994) and Polly Hannah Klaas (the 12-year-old girl, kidnapped, strangled and murdered in 1993). In the film’s second act, narrator Jo (Winona Ryder) offers in voiceover that “we did not know then that a shadow had fallen,” and the final dedication retroactively casts a shadow over this film, too: an acknowledgement that real women die by illness and by violence, and too soon. In Little Women, a grief-stricken Jo sublimates and transforms her loss – of Beth, of Laurie, of youth, of an inchoate notion of possibility and hope – into a magnum opus that defines the larger novel and Armstrong’s 1994 film adaptation alike. At once a film about domesticity and ambition, selfhood and society, ageing and changing, and feminism in our contemporary moment, Armstrong’s Little Women also celebrates the making and finding of meaning – the creating of light, as Jo’s opening voiceover reflects – under the shadow of loss.
Critics read each version of Little Women in terms of its risks taken, its redressing of how freedom looks. In other words, critics want Little Women to be Jo-like: a rupturing force, an anarchic spirit, questioning the naturalness of conventions. Yet critics and scholars also express concern about the peril of anachronism, of streamlining legitimate feminist struggles (for suffrage, education, property), as if gaining the vote might be as simple as offering a feminist statement within a salon of men who affirm its brilliance (such a fantasy occurs in Armstrong’s film). Released at Christmas 1994, in a Hollywood year that included Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis), Dumb and Dumber (Peter Farrelly), The Lion King (Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino), Armstrong’s Little Women felt real to me at its theatrical exhibition; a teenager then myself, I was in love with moviegoing, but – without formal classes, critical vocabulary or a sense of film history and theory – I couldn’t, then, name how Armstrong’s film proved either revelatory and bold or anachronistic and concerning. I only knew that those girls felt true; that Jo’s will was mine; that I wanted uncompromisingly to dream, write, learn, teach and love; and that – yes, of course! – women should exercise their right to speak, vote, act and choose their future. If Armstrong’s film, over 25 years later, seems less revolutionary, it’s because I’ve both internalised and rewritten Armstrong and screenwriter Robin Swicord’s adaptation. Momentum from this film gave rise to an education that taught me to demand more from this home of a film that I’d once known. Though a quick gloss of 2020 news headlines might reveal how the unapologetic ferocity and bright joy of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation might ease these painful times, I have grown to appreciate Armstrong’s Little Women for more than nostalgia.
Early in Armstrong’s film, Marmee (Susan Sarandon) wraps her daughters in her arms and reads their father’s newly arrived letter, and the shot moves from the inside to outside, the window doubly framing them within the film. Inviting our voyeurism here, Armstrong’s Little Women invokes this pattern of portraiture through a window, frame within frame, only to rupture its passivity and storybook quality. The melodramatic convention of looking at women through a window connotes a performance of longing, aligning a woman with domestic space as she looks beyond the threshold of the pane – incapable of acting on her desire and positioned in a perpetual state of becoming though helpless to move beyond, even as the camera’s perching just outside the home’s exterior seems spatially to invite the attempt. Scores of films have relied on such portraiture – for instance, Jane Wyman’s Cary in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) – often with falling snow or rain separating camera and interior, rendering the outdoors more prohibitive. In this film, shortly after the aforementioned group portrait, the March sisters look from their window and speculate about neighbour Laurie (Christian Bale); a subsequent exterior shot frames them within the window, grouping them together as a subject. Yet, outside, we can still hear their excited voices, at a volume and clarity unchanged by the camera’s newfound distance. Shifting from a realistic marriage of image–sound to an impossible view and volume, this scene ruptures melodramatic convention, as the March sisters speak through the look with ebullience, their voices cacophonic, resisting projections upon their muted beauty.
This pattern continues throughout: letting women speak, encouraging an audience that listens, refusing projections upon female youth. After the film’s gilded Christmas celebration, Laurie nears Jo, sitting behind the banister, alone on the stairs. “Isn’t it wonderful, Jo?” he asks, raising his glass to her; “Yes,” she responds. Though Laurie strolls away, the camera remains on Jo, pressing in on her face, panning gently to follow her gaze, though the shot dissolves into an elliptical cut (four years later!), allowing her thoughts and look to remain private. We never learn the exact source of her pain: whether it is because she disapproves of Meg’s (Trini Alvarado) romance with John (Eric Stoltz); or she feels the pressure of Laurie’s affections, which she doesn’t wholly reciprocate; or she senses the momentum toward assuming a familial role from which she feels alien; or she registers Beth’s (Claire Danes) fragility, and, from afar, gulps down this joyful reunion; or she’s an artist who participates by observing; or she’s in shock at her sister’s sudden health and her father’s return, this buoyant and abundant community like nothing the film has revealed thus far. Yet the film doesn’t clarify Jo’s feeling, doesn’t presume to know her interiority. Instead of a conventional scopophilic pleasure at a traditionally beautiful woman, this scene offers a steady look at our protagonist, whose expression registers concern, an art-cinema moment within a Hollywood film. Here, ambiguity shines, thwarting idealisation or fantastic projection, and instead forcing us to sit with and wonder about not her pleasure or beauty, but rather her discomfort and concern.
With Beth, the film makes this concern shareable. In her first major cinematic role, Danes shines, with her trembling chin and watering eyes, her gentle upward gaze of longing and submission, her remarkable performance of fever as she flushes her cheeks and nostrils within one long take; the film takes time with a dying girl, slowing down in proportion to her health. In Beth and Jo’s final conversation, held in increasingly closer shot scales, an emphatic camera forces attention to their faces, presciently mourning the connection that Beth’s imminent death will sever. Further, after Beth’s death, the camera omnisciently forces our time with her left-behind objects, the scene scored dreadfully to evoke sentiment. I think here of Klaas, the horror of her violent death, and Scott-Fox, her succumbing to cancer. I think of the thousands who have died alone in this global pandemic, and Little Women’s meaningful, peaceful, companionate death seems a fantasy that we need right now. Somewhere in between Beth’s passing and Armstrong’s closing dedication, in a complex sonic flashback and 360-degree elliptical shot that brings close her family and coheres our own memories of the film, Jo writes; she inherits property; she finds new connection; she chooses companionship; she lives. From the darkness, light.
If each iteration of Little Women pushes a proverbial feminist needle toward the contemporary, inching toward a stylistic exhilaration comparable to Jo’s own abounding zeal, then Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation leaps (and runs!) toward such radical transformation. The latter film ruptures linear continuity, suggests that endings might fork and grow instead of stop and freeze, self-reflexively critiques conventional pressures (not just societal but also aesthetic) that Jo must marry, and correlates camera movement with character drive. Make no mistake, I love Gerwig’s film. But, right now, Armstrong’s Little Women encourages a listening and attention that feels more of the moment, a time of the interiority and domesticity – simultaneous with emergency – that a pandemic demands, of transforming our homes into places of health and work and school, holding up and finding hope for our students and children. Necessity, light, for the win.
• • •
Little Women (1994 USA 115 mins)
Prod. Co: Columbia Pictures, DiNovi Pictures Prod: Denise DiNovi Dir: Gillian Armstrong Scr: Robin Swicord Phot: Geoffrey Simpson Ed: Nicholas Beauman Art Dir: Richard Hudolin Cost: Colleen Atwood Mus: Thomas Newman
Cast: Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz, John Neville