Only Florence Pugh and Greta Gerwig could create a character arc so wide, yet so believable, that they turned literature’s least favorite bratty little sister into a practical and unapologetic, if bitter, adult woman who teaches us only fools think beauty is a guarantee of happiness.
Most of us have read the novel Little Women at some point, seen the most recent movie, or both. The most engrossing film made based on the books to date, Greta Gerwig’s vision remains true to the characters’ personalities, and yet makes their choices more understandable to modern audiences. Packed with amazing actresses (even Meryl Streep), great writing, and revealing dialogue, it deserved its Best Picture nom.
Though all the characters were given more agency than ever before, both Pugh and Gerwig deserve accolades for Amy’s journey from careless child to practical woman.
Pugh plays Amy as a child with all the recklessness that is native to the character and to any child who believes she is the center of the universe. The book and film are about sacrifice, but Amy seems the least familiar with it.
Seemingly born with low emotional intelligence, Amy is terrible at “reading the room”, she doesn’t understand that her desires don’t always come first, that she will be held responsible for her actions, and she won’t always be instantly forgiven for her nasty behavior or caustic jokes at the expense of her sisters. The fact that she does not see the insults or herself as caustic, merely honest, only enrages them more. Perhaps some part of you feels akin to Amy; I know I did watching her.
Her worst act, of course, was burning Jo’s book. If you’re a writer, it hits you in the soul. She destroys a year of Jo’s life in retaliation for being denied a trip to the theater (the fact that Laurie is involved is no coincidence). Her equally terrifying and hysterical explanation is that “I wanted to hurt you and writing is the only thing you care about.” Perhaps a more tactful sister would come up with a better excuse, but not Amy, who is honest to the core. Hanging in the air, unspoken is “Why don’t you care about me? Why don’t you want to spend time with me?”
If your favorite character is Jo, you’re not alone. The main character, she’s the favorite of the majority of readers and movie watchers for good reason. A free spirit trying to live as an independent woman in an age where her ambition was not only frowned-upon, but usually impossible to achieve, Jo is smart, tough, and determined to be her own person, regardless of the consequences.
Just as Jo takes over the story, four-time Academy Award nominee, Irish actress Saorise Ronan, takes over the film, blowing experienced actors like Timothee Chalamet and Emma Watson off the screen like a hurricane. But she meets her match in Pugh’s Oscar nominated rendition of Amy. Both actresses give their best performances opposite each other.
Both are able to plumb the depths of the relationship between these two sisters whose choices are polar opposites, but whose personalities are nearly identical. Jo doesn’t care about money, looks, fine things, manners, or society’s judgment, while Amy cares about little else, but neither gives a fig for the other’s opinion. And neither sister understands that whatever they’re arguing about, Laurie is the real bone they’re fighting over.
While Pugh’s portrayal of Amy as a child was occasionally hilarious, Amy as an adult is anything but. The way she walks, talks, acts, looks and sounds are entirely different. Pugh’s walk goes from careless to confident, her voice from a whiny mid-range squeal to deep and cold. This Amy is hurt, she’s the walking wounded, having fully accepted herself exactly as she is.
The brutal honesty her sisters didn’t appreciate, she has turned firmly on herself. In both the book and the movie, Amy states, “I want to be great, or nothing.” While Jo is content to hone her craft and be unable to please everyone, Amy declares she will “never be a master”, and instantaneously gives up her life’s passion without a backward glance or a single tear. She then vows to fall back on the only other gifts she claims — societal manners, charm, and good looks. Amy is ruthless with herself in a way she never was with her sisters.
Laurie’s change of heart about the two women has always been a point of contention for readers. I felt that in the book, it was very contrived. In the film, these two women are so different mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and in body type, it seems impossible he could be attracted to them both.
But while this alteration of affections seems unbelievable in the book, it feels real in the film because of the humanity Pugh lends Amy.
When she and Laurie meet again Paris, both have had their hearts broken, both have had to face life’s harshest challenges.
Laurie judges adult Amy as beautiful, but just as vapid as he thought she was as she prattles on about finding a rich enough husband in Fred, until she argues with his dismissive attitude:
“I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman. And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”
He looks at her differently, and moments later, she asks him to undo the buttons and ribbons on her artist’s smock; his desire to keep undressing her is palpable. While Laurie’s early obsessive love for Jo was entirely spiritual, his feelings for Amy are much closer to earth.
While Jo has remained the same over the years, steadfast in her refusal to give up her ambition, living her dream without compromise, Laurie and Amy bond over being frustrated adults who have had to change in face of rejection.
It’s ultimately Jo who puts the war to rest by allowing Amy her happiness with Laurie, and not testing his loyalties. It’s up to the reader to decide what Laurie would have done. I think his change was complete and he would have stuck with Amy.
Louisa May Alcott’s lesson was to be more like Jo. But Gerwig’s lesson goes to a deeper level than Alcott could have pulled off in her time. “There’s no point being angry with one’s sister.”
Jo disobeys all the rules and nothing works out for her. Amy follows all the rules and nothing works out for her. So little of what happens to a woman is within her control, being angry about her choices is a waste of time. Both women see they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Meg’s desire for stability results in anything but, and Beth’s essential goodness cannot save her.
Ultimately neither Jo’s brains nor Amy’s beauty guarantee happiness, and all the sisters find out sacrifice doesn’t always come with a reward, and choices for women are never easy or straightforward.
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