Tired book turned into tract: For reasons which haven't been fully explained, Greta Gerwig decided to create yet another film bearing the name Little Women.
Such films are sometimes called "adaptations." In this case, Gerwig produced some ch-ch-changes to Louisa May Alcott's somewhat dated tale. To wit:
As everyone knows, Alcott's famous novel ends with its heroine, Jo March, marrying Professor Bhaer.
According to one of Gerwig's producers, this had to be ch-ch-ch-changed. "You know we can’t actually have her marry Professor Bhaer,” Gerwig is said to have said.
This resolution has produced a mysterious ending in Gerwig's film—an ending straight outta This Year at Marryin's Bad. Some viewers think Jo and Bhaer get married; others feel sure that they don't.
Whatever! Fanpersons agree that the ending is great, whatever it is that actually happens. The fact that you can't tell what happens is what makes this ending so great!
At any rate, the fact that Jo March can't get married is one of Gerwig's major ch-ch-ch-changes. A second, widely ballyhooed change involves Marmee's anger.
In Louisa May Alcott's actual book, Jo, then roughly 15, tells her mother that she (Jo) can't control "my dreadful temper." Thanks to a bit of (understandable) pique on Jo's part, her youngest sister has almost drowned. The following exchange occurs, with Jo speaking first:
ALCOTT (chapter 8): "You can't guess how bad it is! It seems as if I could do anything when I'm in a passion. I get so savage, I could hurt anyone and enjoy it. I'm afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me. Oh, Mother, help me, do help me!"As you can see, much of the writing in this famous old text is in fact rather clunky. But Marmee's statement—"I am angry nearly every day of my life"—appears word for word in Gerwig's film, and it's been heralded, far and wide, as Marmee's complaint against sexist oppression.
"I will, my child, I will. Don't cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve with all your soul that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it."
"Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!" And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.
"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it..."
Every critic praises Gerwig for diagnosing this hidden meaning in Alcott's famous text. Perhaps somewhat cynically, we'll guess that this widely recited interpretation was floated in the film's press release, or perhaps it simply was put into play by Gerwigs early interviews.
Whatever! According to major anthropologists, the rational animal always loved to repeat whatever the last twenty tribe members had said. So it has been in reviews of this film, with Gerwig praised for the greatness of the way she found the meaning in Marmee's remark.
For better or worse, Alcott's actual text doesn't support this interpretation is any conceivable manner. Indeed, how has Marmee learned to check her hasty words? Soon, this exchange occurs. Marmee is speaking first:
ALCOTT: "I've learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips, and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked," answered Mrs. March with a sigh and a smile, as she smoothed and fastened up Jo's disheveled hair.Oof. Marmee was lucky enough to have the help of her cheerful husband! At any rate, nothing in Alcott's book suggests that Marmee's temper is meant to be seen as an expression of her oppression. This is one of the ch-ch-changes we're told that Gerwig engineered to make the book fit our own times.
"How did you learn to keep still? That is what troubles me, for the sharp words fly out before I know what I'm about, and the more I say the worse I get, till it's a pleasure to hurt people's feelings and say dreadful things. Tell me how you do it, Marmee dear."
"My good mother used to help me..."
"As you do us..." interrupted Jo, with a grateful kiss.
"But I lost her when I was a little older than you are, and for years had to struggle on alone, for I was too proud to confess my weakness to anyone else. I had a hard time, Jo, and shed a good many bitter tears over my failures, for in spite of my efforts I never seemed to get on. Then your father came, and I was so happy that I found it easy to be good. But by-and-by, when I had four little daughters round me and we were poor, then the old trouble began again, for I am not patient by nature, and it tried me very much to see my children wanting anything."
"Poor Mother! What helped you then?"
"Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. He helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess..."
Another of these ch-ch-changes involves Professor Bhaer's "harsh criticism" of Jo's writing. In Gerwig'a film, we see Professor Bhaer tell Jo, in no uncertain terms, that he doesn't approve of the "sensation stories" she is composing for what it, in effect, the tabloid press of the day.
Bhaer is remarkably direct. Jo tells him off in no uncertain terms, as any self-respecting person would do in the thoroughly enlightened modern world of today. But nothing like that actually happens in Alcott's actual book.
In Alcott's actual book, the professor hasn't seen any of the Jo's tabloid tales when he tells her that he disapproves of such work as a general matter. It's also abundantly clear that Jo agree with this critical judgment.
She has already voiced embarrassment at the fact that she writes such lurid "rubbish," and we've already seen her reproaching herself over the fact that her parents wouldn't approve. Not even good feminist Marmee!
After her exchange with Bhaer, Jo vows that she will never produce such tabloid trash again. At no point does she storm off in anger over criticism by the professor. Indeed, in Alcott's book, Jo is grateful for the fact that the wise professor has helped her see the problem with the "rubbish" (her term) she has been producing.
Jo is grateful to the professor. Indeed, we see her tell herself this about her lurid "sensation stories:"
ALCOTT: "They are trash, and will soon be worse trash if I go on, for each is more sensational than the last. I've gone blindly on, hurting myself and other people, for the sake of money. I know it's so, for I can't read this stuff in sober earnest without being horribly ashamed of it, and what should I do if they were seen at home or Mr. Bhaer got hold of them?"Jo says she's been hurting other people for the sake of money! Think how conflicted she might have been over the amounts of money tabloid rubbish can produce today, on cable TV or in Hollywood!
In Alcott's book, Marmee's anger doesn't stem from societal oppression. The professor doesn't "harshly criticize" Jo, and she doesn't tell him off when he does.
The other change Gerwig affects involves the fat, unattractive Bhaer. In a remarkably instructive essay at Vox, followed by a remarkably instructive colloquy, Constance Grady instructs us in the values of our modern highly progressive progressives.
According to Grady, Jo's marriage to the appalling Bhaer has always lay at the heart of the book's "notorious problem ending." The professor is too old and too "stout;" he's also "unattractive." In the passage shown below, she helps us see the values with which our flailing, failing tribe is now apparently saddled:
GRADY (12/27/19): The end of Little Women sees its heroine, tomboyish and ambitious Jo, married off to the pointedly unromantic Friedrich Bhaer, a middle-aged and unattractive German professor who disapproves of the sensational stories she writes. And the character readers expect Jo to end up with, her charming best friend Laurie, marries Jo’s least favorite sister Amy instead.According to the highly progressive Grady, Professor Bhaer is unattractive and middle-aged (according to Alcott's text, he's "almost 40" when he and Jo meet). He "disapproves of the sensational stories [Jo] writes." Two paragraphs later, Grady complains that the professor is "stout."
And so, while generations of readers have loved Little Women and sighed over Little Women, they have also puzzled over that bizarre, unsatisfying ending. Why would Louisa May Alcott do such a thing to Jo? Why would she do such a thing to us?
The professor is old and fat. Given our modern progressive values, that called for some ch-ch-ch-changes!
With that, along came Gerwig. Alcott thought she knew what we need, but Gerwig knows what we want:
GRADY: Little Women adaptations have struggled to provide satisfying answers to those questions, and generally they do so by working hard against the grain of Alcott’s writing. Laurie’s marriage to Amy generally gets glossed over as quickly as possible, while Bhaer generally gets transformed into a palatable romantic hero.The professor wasn't palatable! Like all the other Tinseltown types, heroic Gerwig has made him "younger and sexier." We fiery modern-day progressives can thus breathe a sigh of relief.
Most contemporary versions of Little Women, contra Alcott’s description of the professor as a middle-aged man who is both “rather stout” and also “plain and odd,” have cast Bhaer with a young and attractive actor. He also becomes less harsh toward Jo’s writing...
Gerwig’s Little Women follows some of the path laid out before it by previous adaptations. Gerwig, too, makes Bhaer younger and sexier than he is in Alcott’s novel.
We leave our campus tomorrow morning on an Oscar-related mission of extreme national import. For weekend study, we leave a possible reading assignment:
In chapters 33 and 34, Alcott actually does a skillful job showing us the development of Jo's attraction to Bhaer.
In chapter 33, we read her letters home from her new job in New York—letters in which she keeps describing the professor's various fine qualities. We learn that he has even gifted here with volumes of Shakespeare. This is some of the best writing in Alcott's book—and it's easy to make out the drift of what Jo describes in her letters.
In chapter 34, the exchange about the rubbishy "sensation stories" occurs. But all through that chapter, in several episodes, Jo's growing admiration for the professor only becomes more obvious. With how much clarity did poor Alcott have to spell it out?
ALCOTT (chapter 34): I don't know whether the study of Shakespeare helped her to read character, or the natural instinct of a woman for what was honest, brave, and strong, but while endowing her imaginary heroes with every perfection under the sun, Jo was discovering a live hero, who interested her in spite of many human imperfections. Mr. Bhaer, in one of their conversations, had advised her to study simple, true, and lovely characters, wherever she found them, as good training for a writer. Jo took him at his word, for she coolly turned round and studied him—a proceeding which would have much surprised him, had he known it, for the worthy Professor was very humble in his own conceit.Jo was discovering a live hero. As she coolly turns round and studies him, Alcott describes a long list of virtues she finds in this unattractive man.
Later, Jo and Fatso marry, creating this allegedly beloved book's "notorious problem ending." Even worse, they open a school for destitute children! Why would someone do that?
Progressives like Grady and Gerwig can't seem to find value in such tedious conduct. They want the professor younger and sexier. With these values, our failing tribe keeps marching forward, often while being exposed to justifiable ridicule by the grateful propagandists at Fox.
The punditry surrounding Gerwig's "adaptation" has been deeply instructive. Simply put, nothing is too dumb or too unclear for us to assert it as obvious fact—and Fox is eager to take our nonsense and tell The Others about it.
The professor was honest, brave and strong, but he was also too fat. We may offer a few more thoughts about this mass of punditry next week; a great deal remains to be said. But oh what kind of progressive values are these, which go from dumb and deeply unattractive to much worse?