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Greta Gerwig On Her 'Little Women' Film Adaptation


Now we're going to hear about a new film adaptation of a much-loved classic, "Little Women." The novel by Louisa May Alcott tells the story of four sisters coming of age in New England against the backdrop of the Civil War. Generations of women and girls and boys have loved that novel, and so have filmmakers. There have been several big-screen treatments and multiple versions for television and the stage.

But this latest version comes from another young woman who, like Louisa May Alcott, has captured the sensibilities of the young women of her time in award-winning and much-loved works like "Lady Bird" and "Frances Ha." She's writer and director Greta Gerwig. When we spoke, she told me how Alcott's novel inspired her and how she relates to Jo March, the ambitious, strong-willed main character.

GRETA GERWIG: I don't remember when I first encountered it. I don't remember a time when I didn't know who Jo March was. She's always been with me. So in some ways, it's hard to know whether I was like Jo March, which is why I loved her, or Jo March molded me because I was trying to make myself like her.

But I don't remember when I first encountered it. But I do - I read it, and I read it again multiple times when I was young. And then I hadn't read it until I was around 30. There was a 15-year - I read it until I was, like, 15 or so, and then I didn't read it for 15 years. Then I read it again, and it was - I couldn't believe how modern and strange and urgent it was.

MARTIN: Do you remember why you picked it up again at 30?

GERWIG: Yeah. I was actually moving apartments. And I always refer to my library as my dowry (laughter) - some joke that I don't really know the origins of. But my friends and I all say - we said, this is our dowries. But I hadn't read it for a long time, and I - so I opened it, and I found myself sucked back in. And also, I felt like I'd never read it before. So it was just - it was kind of a stumbled-upon-it moment.

MARTIN: The thing that people have already noticed about the film - I think the people who've had a chance to see it - is that, you know, it's obviously set in the 19th century. You know, they've got all the hoop skirts, and they've got all the things.

GERWIG: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And at one point, like, Jo's skirt, like, catches on fire, which - things that actually really happened. But it has this fresh feeling, even as the people are talking about things that are antiquated in terms of the facts. But the way it comes across feels very fresh. And I just want to play a clip from this exchange between Jo March, who was played by the amazing Saoirse Ronan, and her Aunt March, played by the amazing Meryl Streep. And here it is.


MERYL STREEP: (As Aunt March) You mind yourself, dearie. Someday you'll need me, and you'll wish you had behaved better.

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Jo March) Thank you, Aunt March, for your employment and your many kindnesses. But I intend to make my own way in the world.

STREEP: (As Aunt March) No. No one makes their own way - not really - least of all a woman. You'll need to marry well.

RONAN: (As Jo March) But you are not married, Aunt March.

STREEP: (As Aunt March) Well, that's because I'm rich.

MARTIN: So, you know, here again, it's just - it's - you know, it's not something that most people would probably hear in this day and age. But there's still something about it that resonates. And I wonder, what do you think that is?

STREEP: Well, I - you know, I wanted to take the language seriously that she wrote. And most of my script is is lifted either directly from the book or from letters or from diaries or other things she wrote. I wanted to be in the world of the time, but I also wanted to move at the speed of life. No one walks around thinking that they're in a period piece. These are the most modern people that they knew. And I wanted it to feel like everything was alive.

And I think for me, some of that was about creating a lot of speed with the dialogue, allowing the words to tumble out. And then also, I mean, just getting really specific with, what are these characters' relationships with each other? And I think one thing particularly between Jo and Aunt March is how much they love arguing with each other...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GERWIG: ...That the best part of Aunt March's day is when Jo comes over, and they fight.

MARTIN: (Laughter) You're right. I hadn't noticed that before.

GERWIG: Yeah. She loves it. It's terrific. She's got a smart niece who argues with her. Have fun.

MARTIN: Probably who else does, right? Everybody else...

GERWIG: Nobody.

MARTIN: ...Is scared of her, right?

GERWIG: Yeah. Exactly.

MARTIN: But another aspect of this I think people appreciate is - and have always appreciated about the novel but very much appreciate in your adaptation of it is Jo's ambition.


MARTIN: She wants not just to be a writer. She wants to keep her vision. And there is this exchange between her and her publisher that we're going to play. And here it is.


TRACY LETTS: (As Mr. Dashwood) Frankly, I don't see why she didn't marry the neighbor.

RONAN: (As Jo March) Well, because the neighbor marries her sister.

LETTS: (As Mr. Dashwood) Right. Right. Well, of course. So who does she marry?

RONAN: (As Jo March) No one. She doesn't marry either of them.

LETTS: (As Mr. Dashwood) No. No. No. No. That won't work at all.

RONAN: (As Jo March) Well, she says the whole book that she doesn't want to marry.

LETTS: (As Mr. Dashwood) Who cares?

MARTIN: (Laughter) I mean, that's - OK.


GERWIG: Yes. Yes.



MARTIN: Writer.

GERWIG: Yes. That's me. That's me in there.

MARTIN: Yes. Let us know. Like...

GERWIG: I know.

MARTIN: What's happening here? Now...

GERWIG: Well...

MARTIN: I assume nobody ever told you you had to have your characters marry or die.

GERWIG: No. No. Although, I mean, married or death is a - yeah, I mean, it definitely is a 19th-century trope for female characters. But I've had conversations like that. I'll say that. I've had conversations like that. I haven't had that exact conversation, but I have had conversations like that where I am trying to say, people want something different than you think they want. You think they want sort of a narrative arc that they've already had, and they don't. They are actually hungry for something else.

MARTIN: You know, Geena Davis has a foundation where she studies women in - the depictions of women in film, and she's also participated in a documentary that came out early this year called "This Changes Everything" in which there are a number of interviews with women writers being told by men why their women characters are wrong. OK, like, why - and you're looking at them, and you're, like - especially when it comes to - and I don't need to be very graphic here - but specific things that only biological women experience. I'll just...


MARTIN: ...Put it that way.


MARTIN: And then - and a man saying to them, oh, no. It wouldn't be that way. And they're going, what? So I'm just wondering if the scene kind of has some special meaning to you and other women creatives trying to get their story told.

GERWIG: I mean, yes. And I think that these scenes - there's so much about this movie that is - I am in as a person who is a writer director. And I think, you know, for me, it's actually interesting because the place that I've come up against - some of this is men having this sort of, like, do sisters really fight like that? Or do mothers and daughters really fight like that? This kind of incredulity about the emotional violence that sisters or mothers or friends can inflict upon each other.

Because I think that the truth is, if I have said it before but it bears repeating, men don't know what we're doing when they're not there. They're just not there. So what do they know about what the complexities of those relationships are? And I think it's funny because I think if they have daughters or if they have sisters, they can say, oh, yes, I see. But if they don't, there's this kind of confusion around the emotional intensity of those relationships.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I do want to - I mean, in the spirit of full disclosure, we have spoken before.

GERWIG: Yes. We know each other (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah. We've never met. But I do feel for - I feel an obligation to ask for people who don't have the chance to speak to you directly, do you have some advice for people who would like to tell their own stories and don't necessarily know how to do it?


MARTIN: What would you say?

GERWIG: I would say, first of all, I think often - I'm guilty of this too - I frame this discussion in terms of young people. But I think whatever your age is, there are tools available now to actually make work and put it out into the world in some capacity which are a little bit more accessible than they ever have been. Namely, you can shoot things on your iPhone and edit them and put them online and start practicing. And I think - I always think about that in terms of kids who are making movies now coming up.

But I think it's also a really interesting possibility for people who, you know, have had other careers or other, you know, had families or in another stage of their life because I think there's a lot of stories that go missing when you only focus on people who are in their 20s, to say the least. Not that I don't love people who are in their 20s, but I think sometimes it's fascinating to see - I'm always on the lookout for artists who have a different trajectory or have - do other things and then find their art and they perhaps start a bit later because I think they bring something else to it. So I think that making your own work and starting at whatever point becomes interesting to you.

MARTIN: That was writer and director Greta Gerwig. Her new film, "Little Women," is out Christmas Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.