Resisting a "problem marriage:" Louisa May Alcott's actual book ends in an uplifting manner.
Its heroine, Jo March, has married a man she respects and admires. The two of them even go so far as to open a school for destitute boys!
It's obvious why the school for the poor wouldn't "sell" to Us Liberals Today. After all, if there's one thing we've unintentionally demonstrated at this site, it would have to be this:
You can't get us liberals, or the upper-end mainstream press, to pay any real attention to the state of our low-income schools!
At any rate, Louisa May Alcott's actual book ends with the creation of a school for destitute boys. By the time Greta Gerwig came along, it was obvious that no modern liberal would spend good money to sit through a film which seemed to embrace such values.
That said, Gerwig took a second, less obvious approach to the way Alcott's book actually ends. As we noted last week, producer Amy Pascal described this second shift to the New York Times' Jessica Bennett:
BENNETT (1/8/20): “One of the first things Greta said to me was, ‘You know we can’t actually have her marry Professor Bhaer,’” said Pascal.Say what? In Gerwig's film, Jo March couldn’t actually marry Professor Bhaer? Why the Sam or Notting Hill not?
An elaborate theory lies behind this decision to change the basic events which take place in Alcott's famous book. At moments like these, we get to think about the meaning of the term "adaptation." But we also get to ruminated about our liberal tribe's current values, which sometimes might seem rather poor.
Why couldn't Jo March marry Bhaer? As an initial point of reference, Bennett's piece in the New York Times runs beneath these headlines:
This Is ‘Little Women’ for a New EraAccording to this presentation, Gerwig's film creates a Little Women for "a new era"—our own. While keeping the names of Alcott's famous characters and retaining the famous name of her book, Gerwig is reinventing Alcott's book to make it All About Us.
The characters are ambitious, angry and they have agency. How Greta Gerwig adapted a 150-year-old text for our time.
This means that its famous female characters will be ambitious and angry, and it means that they'll have agency. By whatever calculation. Jo's decision to start a school for destitute boys will no longer count as representative of such traits. Neither will her decision to marry Professor Bhaer.
Why can't Jo marry Bhaer any more? A visit to the scribes of Vox may help us answer this question.
As elsewhere, Gerwig's well-reviewed film wasn't ignored at Vox. Five days before the film was released, the site ran the first of four long pieces about the its transplendent greatness:
Alissa Wilkinson, 12/20/19:This particular adaptation had gone beyond a mere updating.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation is genuinely extraordinary
The new movie doesn’t “update” the novel. It does something much better.
Should film adaptations "update" source novels at all? Presumably, that's a matter of opinion. It's also true that such "updating" can be executed in various ways.
At any rate, you can read Wilkinson's gushing assessment here. One week later, along came Constance Grady, offering a lengthy essay which may help us think about our modern "liberal/progressive" values:
Constance Grady, 12/27/19:Grady pulls no punches in her hard-hitting assessment. And sure enough! Right in her opening paragraph, she describes the "insurmountable problem" at the heart of Alcott's famous novel.
The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has an intentionally unsatisfying ending. Greta Gerwig weaponizes it.
As it turns out, this insurmountable problem involves Jo's marriage to Bhaer:
GRADY (12/27/19): The insurmountable problem with Little Women—the one that’s had its fans in fits ever since its second volume was published in 1869, that every Little Women adaptation wrestles with—is that its climactic marriages are so profoundly unsatisfying. But Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women, out now in theaters, is the first adaptation of the book to truly solve that problem—and it does so by leaning into everything fans dislike about those marriages, and amplifying it.Grady pulls no punches. Generations of readers have loved Alcott's book while hating those horrible marriages (plural).
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.
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?
Worst of all is the marriage which ends the book—Jo's bizarre, unsatisfying marriage to a German professor who is "unattractive."
Plus, he's middle-aged! Why did Alcott do this to us? Progressive minds want to know!
Before the week is done, we expect to offer text from Alcott's actual book which might start to provide an actual fictional answer to this vexing age-old question. First, though, let's get clear on the nature of the complaint being voiced at Vox.
We've already learned that Professor Bhaer is middle-aged and unattractive. He's also unromantic—"pointedly so," we're told.
As she continues, Grady helps us understand what's so awful about this marriage. While possibly misquoting the book at one point, she reveals an additional troubling fact—the German professor in question is "stout," another word for fat:
GRADY (continuing directly): 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.Tomorrow, we'll examine the claim concerning Bhaer's "criticism of Jo's writing." For today, we'll only note the additional log Grady has thrown on the fire:
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. And she, too, reinterprets his criticism of Jo’s writing: Now, instead of moralizing to her, Bhaer is giving Jo constructive feedback because he respects her and her talent enough to be brutally honest with her.
Professor Bhaer is "stout," we're now told, and he apparently isn't "sexy" enough! How in the world could Alcott have visited this horrible match upon us modern progressives?
For the record, Alcott's book doesn't seem to describe the professor as "plain and odd."
At least in the Gutenberg text which appears online, the professor is described, at one point, as being "plain and peculiar." But the description occurs in this longer passage, in which the reader is starting to be shown the basis for the eventual marriage:
ALCOTT (chapter 34): Why everybody liked him was what puzzled Jo, at first. He was neither rich nor great, young nor handsome, in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant, and yet he was as attractive as a genial fire, and people seemed to gather about him as naturally as about a warm hearth. He was poor, yet always appeared to be giving something away; a stranger, yet everyone was his friend; no longer young, but as happy-hearted as a boy; plain and peculiar, yet his face looked beautiful to many, and his oddities were freely forgiven for his sake. Jo often watched him, trying to discover the charm, and at last decided that it was benevolence which worked the miracle....The pleasant curves about his mouth were the memorials of many friendly words and cheery laughs, his eyes were never cold or hard, and his big hand had a warm, strong grasp that was more expressive than words.Out of that description of the birth of deep admiration, the modern progressive pulls the damning information that the professor is "plain and peculiar." Given our more advanced modern values, we want someone a little bit sexier, more fit for romcom duty.
Before this foreshortened Oscar week is done, we plan to show you more of the writing which explains this (fictional) match. Having said that, good God!
We all understand that modern progressives could never find value in the idea that two fictional people decide to start a school for destitute children. But did you know that we've reached the point where a "problem marriage" (Grady's comical term) can consist in the fact that the gentleman—while "attractive as a genial fire"—is unacceptably fat?
After reading Grady's piece, the analysts turned to us, uncomprehending. Then, they glumly borrowed from Dylan:
"What kind of progressive values are these," they sighed, "which go from bad to worse?"
Tomorrow: For a new era! Marmee's reimagined anger and Bhaer's reimagined remarks