Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has transformed the sister I love to hate into the sister that I love the most.
Like most fans of Little Women, I go into a viewing of any adaptation with certain expectations.
First off, I know I’ll love Jo, the headstrong, free spirited writer who lives life on her own terms. I know I’ll cry when Beth dies, even though I know it’s coming from the very beginning of the story. And while my feelings about whether or not Jo and Laurie could have made it as a couple tend to waffle back and forth depending on my mood and the adaptation, I always know that the proposal scene will break my heart.
And while I’ve always understood that all the sisters are different and unique, I know that no matter what, I’ll always hate Amy.
Ever since I first fell in love with Little Women in my early teens, hating the character of Amy has been as integral to my experience as loving and wanting to be Jo.
Part of this is because most adaptations tend to both focus the story primarily on Jo and to emphasize the differences between Jo and Amy. To me, Jo has always been the sister I wanted either to be or be friends with (or both!) — someone who inspired me with her talent, her drive and her passion. She is someone whose strength and courage I’ve always admired — someone who chooses to live life on her own terms and in her own way, confident and unapologetic about who she is.
In my mind, in contrast to Jo, there’s Amy — petulant, petty, and preening. While Jo spends all her time not caring about what others think of her, Amy is all too aware of it. And while Jo always knows that she wants to be a great writer, the thing that Amy always knows is that she will marry rich.
Of course, I realize that this is an overly simplified view of the characters. It’s one that has been shaped by reading the story so young in my teens, and by the adaptations themselves — but also stoked over the years by my own personal biases and the fact that I can be particularly intractable in beliefs that I’ve cultivated since childhood.
So imagine my surprise when I emerged from my viewing of Greta Gerwig’s tremendous adaptation of Little Women and found myself thinking, “Is Amy now my favorite character?”
If you’re a fan of Little Women, then hearing about the Greta Gerwig adaptation will probably put you in one of two camps.
Either you thought: Do we really need another adaptation after 1994’s Winona Ryder feature film and 2018’s Maya Hawke PBS mini-series?
Or you, like me, thought: I’m ready to fall in love with Jo all over again, get my heart broken by that proposal scene once more and feel sick another time when Amy burns Jo’s book. Give me all the Little Women adaptations forever, for the rest of my life, forever, til death do us part.
Still, even with my general hype for the film, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I ended up loving it (easily in my top five films of the year) and how much Greta Gerwig and this immensely talented cast both captured the spirit of the book and brought the story into the 21st century.
And I really, really wasn’t prepared for how much Greta Gerwig’s script and direction — coupled with Florence Pugh’s tremendous performance — would make me swallow all my years of carefully fermented hatred for Amy, and come out of this movie not only cheering for her, but loving her to the point where I had a bit of an identity crisis sitting outside the theater afterwards, wondering if she had now supplanted Jo as my favorite March sister.
The jury is still out, as Jo has been not only my favorite March sister but one of my favorite fictional characters since childhood, but such is the power of this version of Little Women that I’m even asking the question.
It gives us an Amy that is not drawn in broad, over simplified strokes, but given depth and complexity not afforded to her by previous adaptations. Here, she is not defined by her pettiness but her prowess in playing the game set before her, her clear-eyed perspective of reality, and a steeliness that once struck me as only petulance.
Of course, in Greta Gerwig’s capable hands, all the March sisters have become more real.
Previous adaptations were much more Jo-focused, while this one is much more of an ensemble piece. We love Jo, because of course we always love Jo, but Beth is given more than just to die — her goodness is shown to us, rather than told to us. Her gentleness and kindness the grounding piece for Jo and the glue that holds the sisters together.
Meg, too, is treated as more than just a pretty centerpiece who gets married off — she’s the sister who clings to traditional femininity in a way that Jo doesn’t, but is also different from Amy, who suffers for love and for goodness and comes through both on the other side.
Yet of all the sisters who benefit from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, it is Amy March who ascends the ranks of all the March sisters to become the most relatable one of all.
Part of the reason I was able to see Amy in a new light is because the movie deliberately makes an effort to force us to do so. Rather than telling the story linearly, as the book and all other adaptations have, the film jumps back and forth in time, linking scenes and storylines by theme and motif rather than by chronology.
This, then, allows us to meet Amy as an adult — someone whose petulance has given away to even-tempered stoicism, whose pettiness has sharpened into ambition, and whose childhood stubbornness has become the sort of steeliness that one admires.
Allowing us to see the type of woman that Amy becomes and, more importantly, spending time with that woman allows us to more easily see her faults for what they were — childhood flaws and foibles that one grows out of — and forgive her for them.
It gives Amy the sort of treatment she probably should’ve had the whole time — the same treatment the narrative and all its adaptations have afforded to Jo. It allows the movie to grow with the character, to treat the flaws as they are, and see what they look like when not wrapped in the impulsiveness and selfishness of childhood.
What that leaves us with is an adult Amy who I found myself relating to even more than Jo.
Jo is — and remains — the type of person I would like to be, the type of person who, as I get older and more set in my ways, wish I could be but likely will never be. She is someone who refuses to play the game set out in front of her, who cares little for social mores and standards set by society, and who — whenever she can — actively sets herself against them. She blazes her own trail, in her own way, and damn the consequences.
That is a kind of strength and drive and ambition that I admire and envy.
But what this version of Little Women shows us is that Jo’s strength is not the only strength that women have and not the only kind of strength that is worth our admiration.
Because Amy, too, has strength and drive and ambition in spades. It’s just before this adaptation, I — like Jo — never opened my eyes or my heart to see it.
Amy isn’t like Jo — we’ve always known this. She doesn’t have the personality or the brashness to live outside the lines, to push back against society. But that doesn’t make her lazy or any less radical, it just makes her more pragmatic. She understands marriage as the economic proposition it is for a woman in her time and in her station, and exploits that reality as best as she can.
Jo works outside the system, forging her own path — one that has higher risk associated with its high reward. Amy, seeing that she doesn’t have the same tools that Jo has, instead uses her cunning, her ambition, and her beauty in the best way she can — to maneuver within the system and net the best possible outcome for her and her family.
Amy’s strength is quieter than Jo’s — it’s the strength to start again, the strength to meet reality where it is, the strength to work with what you have rather than what you wish you had — but it is strength nonetheless, one that she uses just as well and just as effectively as Jo uses hers.
In addition to introducing us first to an adult Amy, Little Women likewise takes pains throughout its narrative and its timeline to draw comparisons between Jo and Amy. It’s easy to think of the sisters as being the most different, and a simplified read on the two could easily describe them as foils to one another.
But what Gerwig’s adaptation shows is that the two sisters are actually more alike than they are different, which is one of the root causes of so many of their issues with one another.
Both sisters want to pursue their art, though their aims in their art are quite different — Amy wants to be great or nothing at all; Jo sees art as a way to prove her independence, a way to support herself and her family.
Both sisters are intent on doing whatever they can to help their families, though their paths diverge on how they plan to do it. Both sisters know what they want, and they have an exact plan for how they’re going to get it.
In short, both sisters are talented, ambitious, loving, and selfish, though in different ways. It’s easy to see how the two are both talented and ambitious, but harder to ascribe how Amy can be coded as compassionate and Jo as selfish.
It’s a hard reality to swallow, but the truth is — especially in the time period — there is a certain amount of selfishness inherent in pursuing your own dreams the way that Jo does. It’s a choice she makes based on what she wants and what she wants to do, rather than what might be best for her family in the long run.
It’s the right choice for Jo and a good one, but there’s also an amount of selfishness to it. Jo succeeds in her writing endeavors, of course, and she’s able to support her family through it — but there’s also the chance, some alternate universe where her selfishness in pursuing her dreams and staying unmarried outweighs the benefits to her family.
Again, it’s the right choice and a good one, but it’s also the more selfish one.
Of course, it’s easier to see Amy’s choice to marry well as a selfish one, motivated by her desire to live in luxury and not struggle with want the way she had to as a child. But there’s also a loving (and practical) side we see to it in this adaptation, where Amy’s desire to marry rich is tied up — similar to Jo’s with her writing — with her desire to provide for her family.
We see again and again the way poverty has affected the March family, to the point that Amy and Jo make it their goal to lift themselves and their families out of it. Amy’s desire to marry well is selfish on the surface, but it’s wrapped up in love for her family — a love so great that she is willing to sacrifice the possibility on having love in her own life and her own marriage, just so she can provide for her family.
It’s pragmatic, but it’s also heartbreaking in its own right, and were it not for her marriage to Laurie in the story’s final act, Amy would end up with one of the more tragic stories of the Marches, who are a family so defined by how they love and their love for one another.
Luckily, Amy does end up with Laurie, and I cannot tell you just how utterly strange it is for me to write that sentence after years of railing against that very ending.
But again, such is the power of this adaptation of Little Women.
There was a period of my life where I couldn’t stand to watch past the proposal scene in the 1994 Winona Ryder and Christian Bale version of the film — that’s how devastated I was that Jo turned down Laurie’s proposal.
Of course, over the years, as I’ve matured and grown up and gotten married myself, I know in my head that the two of them really wouldn’t have worked out — but my heart has been slow to follow.
So it’s the one, final, and perhaps greatest joy to me that I now have an adaptation of one of Little Women where I don’t feel completely sick when Laurie introduces Amy to Jo as his wife. Because in this version — more than any other version — it not only makes sense that Laurie and Jo wouldn’t be a good match, but that Amy and Laurie would, in fact, be a great one.
For as lovable as Laurie is, he needs someone more grounded and practical than Jo at his side, someone who will call him to task and push him to be the best version of himself. She is someone who would fit in elegant society in all the ways that Jo always knew she couldn’t, and will love him for him rather than solely for his money.
This adaptation of Little Women has not only given me another version of the story to watch during the Christmas holidays, but one that allowed me to see one of my favorite stories and least favorite characters in a brand new way.
If you’ve been a long-time Amy hater like me, my guess is that you’ll leave the theater feeling absolutely stunned at how much you now love her.
And if you’re a long-time Amy apologist, rejoice! Your time has now come.