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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.