Screenwriting and Little Women

rant and rave second

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If you want to see what a difference a screenwriter and a director can make to a movie, it might behoove you to see all four versions of Little Women, 1933, 1949, 1994 and 2019.


The ranking quality of the films are generally thus: the 2019 version is the best, then 1994, closely, closely followed by 1933, with 1949 a distant fourth. And I think there are reasons for this, which lie in the areas of both directing and screenwriting. In the end, what makes the 2019 version the best is that it is the best directed combined with the best screenplay. The 1994 and 1933 versions are almost as well directed, but the screenplays are not nearly as strong. And the 1949 suffers from just not being that good in either category (it’s all right, but that’s about it).


One place to see the difference in the direction is to look at the first party scenes at the Laurence’s. In the 1949 version, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, this scene is incredibly limp and boring. It really sags. And it’s a reflection of the movie as a whole. It never really comes alive.


However, look at the same scenes in the 1994 version, directed by Gillian Armstrong, and the 1933 version, directed by George Cukor (who always had a knack for this sort of storytelling), and one can instantly see the difference. These scenes are far more alive and exciting.


At the same time, we then get to the party scene in Greta Gerwig’s version of 2019 (she both wrote and directed), and this scene soars. In fact, the earlier dance scene after the theater is the place where this version really takes off. But in the party at the Laurence’s, it is so exciting and riveting, it is a signal of the quality that is to come.


At the same time, I still maintain that in the end, what ultimately makes Gerwig’s version the best is the superb screenplay (without it, I suggest the film, though still enjoyable and well received, might not be regarded as the best of the top three-probably just as good). It is far richer with more vibrant and more deeply developed characters. Where characters like Aunt May and Mr. Laurence are sorely lacking in early versions, Gerwig has made characters like these pop out and stand on their own by giving them more time and development. She even introduces a new character, the crusty curmudgeon of a publisher that Jo has to battle to become the artist she wants to become, who also has a vibrancy about him.


Alas, or it may be inevitable, she is not able to do more with Mr. March than in any earlier version. He has no real character and doesn’t seem to have any real purpose in the story except to show up in time to preside over the marriage of his daughter (he’s a minister). After that, he seems to disappear. And not only that, he is never missed.


Gerwig has also taken the feminism of the 1994 version and gone much further with it. It is very modern in its psychology of women’s role in society and what they have to do to become their own persons and achieve each their goals.


And she has given it a non-linear structure which, for me, further deepens the emotions of the film (some didn’t like this aspect of the film, but for me it is one of the ingredients that raise it above the other incarnations).


The earlier versions have screenplays by Robin Swicord (1994); Andrew Solt, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (1949); and Sara Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (1933)-I don’t know if Mason and Heerman actually worked on the 1949 version, or just get credit because much of their original screenplay was used. But of the group, Swicord is the next strongest, followed by Mason and Heerman (1933), and a the one in 1949 (the weakest, possibly because the directing is the weakest).


So for me, the real triumph of this new version of the Alcott classic is the superior and remarkable screenplay. And writers should perhaps take note of just how important they can actually be, if allowed, to projects like this.


  1. I’m always interested to hear your take because you have such a strong knowledge of film history. Unfortunately, you don’t explain sufficiently why you think the Gerwig screenplay is better than the previous scripts. I’m interested – did you actually read the script or just view the movie? Do you believe you can judge a screenplay without reading it? I’m not sure I do. Over and above that question, as you know, I am leery of folks who claim they employ objective methods to judge movies. And sadly, I have yet to hear anyone prove that one screenplay is better than another. But like everyone, I have personal favorites, which means I enjoyed the film, not that it is actually better than films I find uninteresting.

    • I said that the new version has deeper and richer characters. That the non-linear story telling deepened the story. That Gerwig continued on with the feminism of the previous version and enriched it. All that is what makes it a better screenplay. I don’t read the script. The script is not necessarily what is on the screen. It might be, but whenever you get the script, you don’t really know which version it is. The one on the screen is the final version, for better or worse. I don’t necessarily have to read a play to judge it. I can do that based on the what I see. This doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes and that some scripts read better than when seen on screen or read worse than is what on screen. But my opinions of screenplays are based on what is on the screen.

  2. Good answer(s). I just would have liked a little more description of the reasons you liked the Gerwig version (e.g., why does non-linear storytelling work better for you? how does a “contemporary feminist” POV work better in a story about 19th century women? How did Gerwig make her characters more interesting? In my view, these questions are worth more detailed discussion. I agree that it’s possible to judge a screenplay based on watching the movie, but when we do that, we can’t be sure how much of the credit belongs to the writer. Bottom line: I always enjoy reading your criticism even though I sound like I don’t. If your critiques were less thought provoking, I’d be a less critical reader. Like good Chinese food, your writing stimulates my appetite, and I often feel hungry soon after I digest your prose. Nonetheless, you are a five-star establishment!

So tell me what you think.

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