"Little Women" isn't a new story, so for the latest version by Greta Gerwig to stick out, the director ("Lady Bird") had to take a modern approach. Of course, the main themes (independence, coming-of-age, love, a woman's place in society) of the Louisa May Alcott story will stay as prevalent as they've always been, but by casting some of the most sought-after leading ladies of the decade, Gerwig's direction, naturally, relied a lot on their new, specific personifications of these well-known characters.
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen will play the March sisters, joined by Laura Dern and Meryl Streep as Marmee and Aunt March. Each actress playing a sister has grown up as definitive millennials or Gen Z-ers, meaning they exist in a society that's recently hellbent on seeing women thrive justly and independently. Likewise, Dern and Streep, 52 and 70 years old, respectively, have likely endured plenty of gender unfairness in both their industry and, to put it plainly, their everyday lives. Gerwig, according to The Hollywood Reporter, wanted to draw parallels from Alcott's experience of 19th century to that of the modern-day woman, referencing what Amy March tells Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in the film about the kinds of decisions women had to make for themselves back when they had much fewer choices.
The dialogue (which Gerwig admitted basically came directly from a conversation with Streep, queen that she is), describes how "the position of women" at the time that Alcott was writing was wrought with challenges, prompting Gerwig to use this latest installment of the beloved 1868 novel to prevail against those obstacles -- and her cast is right behind her.
As the eldest March, Meg, Watson is well aware that her character's goal is to marry and pop out some kids. But in making the film for the 21st century, a balance had to be struck in what Meg wants out of life and how it relates to her female experience. In speaking with British Vogue, the nearing-30-year-old Watson (in a very un-Meg-like way) described herself not as "single," but as "self-partnered" at a time in her life when she thought she'd have it all figured out.
"I was like, 'Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal.' Cut to 29, and I’m like, 'Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious.' And I realize it's because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around," she said. "If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30 and you're not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out...There's just this incredible amount of anxiety."
That sentiment, in a way, is what translates into the character of Meg March. But Watson, ever the professional, saw it as a way not to limit her character to the societal pressures that many of us are all too familiar with, but to display how that particular understanding is feminism.
"With Meg's character, her way of being a feminist is making the choice -- because that's really, for me anyway, what feminism is about. Her choice is that she wants to be a full-time mother and wife. Meg says...just because my dreams are different from yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant," Watson told Vogue.
Ronan, no stranger to the "girls rule" mentality in film nor to Gerwig as a director (she was nominated for Best Actress as the titular Lady Bird in 2018), was fully prepared to take on Jo March's strong will and tenacity. She basically cast herself, after all.
"It felt like such a Jo thing to do, to declare your space and say 'That's mine.' And she was right," Gerwig said, according to the LA Times. "She was extraordinary in the role and was extraordinary from the first second."
Ronan even studied Alcott herself, reading "Marmee & Louisa" to get a sense of how the young Louisa May dealt with her familial pressures and, in turn, how those pressures could translate to the present day.
"When [Alcott] started to do well, [her father] was always very, very hard on her. He was great with the other girls but not with her, I think because she was sort of this asexual or bisexual tomboy girl who wrote about murderers," Ronan told the LA Times. "I think it's quite powerful -- especially for that community now -- that an author who wrote a beautiful, romanticized American classic could have potentially been at least bisexual."
For Pugh, finding her way into Amy March's mind was something of a unique challenge, given that the predetermined opinion from many a past iteration was that Amy was decidedly the worst. Her job for this 2019 film, then, was to first learn how to make Amy not the villain, but the child who was coming into her own in the only way she knew how.
"Amy's in that sweet spot of nearly being an adult, but also being a child, and she doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. And she's also very truthful and very blunt," Pugh told Den of Geek. "I think that's the coolest and cutest thing about kids; they can tell you just how ugly you look, or just how much you’ve put on weight over Christmas, and they just say it like it's fact, and you know it's fact...She's not wrong, she just doesn’t know how to say it yet."
Whether Pugh's performance meant providing Amy with a more mature disposition or just inherently understanding where the youngest March was coming from, she found the fresh vision Gerwig was going for in this retelling.
"The thing that I grabbed hold of on Greta’s version was that these girls are so cheeky, and they are so naughty, and they are the best and the worst sisters and they hit each other and they love each other and they eat food all the time. It made them normal and it made them breathe and it made them alive," she told Entertainment Weekly.
Fresh off her breakout performance as Amma in HBO's "Sharp Objects" adaptation, Scanlen, as the ill-fated Beth March, hoped to spotlight herself in a much different way than the murderous teen of Gillian Flynn's novel -- starting with dusting off her piano skills.
"Greta wants me to learn quite a few songs. I'm working on that. I've played piano since I was probably 6 or 7, but I stopped when I was about 13, and I couldn’t be bothered to do the exams or learn my scales. Now I'm coming back to it, and it feels good," Scanlen told Vanity Fair.
Beth's story may not be able to get that modernized -- scarlet fever deaths were rare by the 1950s, to be fair -- but Scanlen nevertheless said she was looking forward to being cast in a new light.
"It's exciting to finally be working on a new character, and a character that's so different from Amma. I'm excited," she said.
As for where Beth would be today? She has a few ideas that speak to the desire of this year's version to be renewed, experienced and innovative.
According to Scanlen's testimony to Empire, "After completing high school and passing her final piano exams (A+ obviously), Beth would be totally mixing it up! I see Beth on keyboard for some cool indie pop band like Parcels. She'd live by the vegan philosophy and spend her free time running a dairy- and egg-free cupcake stall at the weekend farmer’s market."
"Little Women" is in theaters Dec. 25.