This week I look at 2019’s LITTLE WOMEN, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the much-adapted novel by Louisa May Alcott. The script was nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture. There’s some interesting things here, including interesting juggling of timelines, a couple of typographical conventions that I’ve already used. in a script of my own, and some great meta touches.
Here’s the links:
And here’s the script of the episode.
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every week we do a deep dive into a movie or TV episode. And to go along with this analysis, every week I publish a graph of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a graph I produced while doing the analysis. You don’t need to look at that graph – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week we’re doing LITTLE WOMEN, the version from 2019. LITTLE WOMEN is a period drama based on the Louisa May Alcott book. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, and Timothee Chalamet.
As usual, this podcast assumes you’ve seen the movie. There will be spoilers. And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points. So if you listen to this without knowing the movie, you’re out of luck: the movie will be spoiled for you, and you may not understand what I’m talking about. It’s basically the worst of all worlds. So go watch LITTLE WOMEN if you want to listen to this podcast. It’s a terrific movie. And hey, it got Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, so it’s not just me saying that.
Now clearly this is a little different than the kinds of movies we’ve seen before. Why, the deaders lane in this week’s analysis has only one name in it, and it’s a sad death from disease, not an exciting death from violence.
But aside from the fact that I like this movie a lot, LITTLE WOMEN has a fascinating structure. And at times it gets really meta, and I love meta. And there’s even some fascinating craft touches here, some of which I’ve already stolen for use in another screenplay. All of which is to say, even if a period drama about women isn’t your cup of tea, I think this movie makes for a terrific study. There’s a lot to learn here.
(I should note: this kind of movie is definitely my cup of tea. But then, I like just about any kind of movie. And I hope to cover a whole lot of very different movies in this podcast – I think there’s good things to learn in lots of places. There’s certainly good things to learn in LITTLE WOMEN.)
LITTLE WOMEN is the story of the four March sisters, Jo, Amy, Meg, and Beth. The film follows their lives during the 1860s, and it covers two distinct periods. Their later childhood takes place in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and their young adulthood is set in various locations in the late 1860’s.
It’s kind of hard to summarize this film in one paragraph. A lot happens, but it’s the day-to-day stuff of life. The sisters fall in love, get married, and in one case die. And they have various short-term conflicts among them. It’s a movie about living lives, little victories, little defeats, little conflicts. And thus, LITTLE WOMEN.
But the movie does something quite interesting, and here is where I should make a confession. I have never read the book LITTLE WOMEN. I don’t believe I’ve seen any of the other film adaptations of the story – and there have been many. So I can’t really speak to how the movie adapts the book, or whether a given piece of this story is from the book or only in the movie. I’m flying a little blind here, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I make some glaring mistakes. (Though do drop a note and let me know – I’m always willing to learn.)
That said, here’s what I find so interesting about the movie. The A plot of the movie is about writing the book that the movie is based on. This is an extremely meta movie. And there are times in this movie where what we see is clearly not the reality of these characters, but rather what happens inside the book that is written in the course of the movie. We’ll talk about this later, but it’s something that I believe makes this movie a fascinating watch, and the screenplay a fascinating read.
I should note one thing about this screenplay that’s key to everything I’m going to say about it. There are two distinct timelines in this film. One starts in 1861, when the March girls are young. The screenplay refers to this timeline as the Past, and so shall I. The other starts in 1868, when the March girls are young adults. This timeline is the Present.
Scenes from the two timelines are interspersed, but each timeline proceeds chronologically, with one possible exception which I’ll get to later. In the film, the two periods are visually distinct, with the Past having a higher saturation with brighter colors and a golden hue, while the Present is colder, more blue, and a little washed out. Which is intentional: the Past is seen through a golden hue of memory, the Present lives in the cold light of day.
This leads to one of the unusual typographical conventions in the screenplay. All the stuff in the past timeline is printed in red. So in the screenplay, you can see immediately what is present and what is past.
This is one of two unique typographical aspects of this script. The script also uses a special technique to identify when one character’s lines interrupt another.
In this film, characters often talk over each other. They are so full of life and know each other so well that they don’t need to finish their sentences – the listener just knows what the speaker will say, and often starts talking before the first speaker finishes.
That’s fair enough, and something that happens in a lot of movies. And certainly in real life.
But what this screenplay does differently is indicate exactly when the second person starts talking.
Gerwig describes the method of doing this in an introductory paragraph to the script. It reads:
“Where there is simultaneous or quick dialogue in the script, there is a SLASH in the middle of the speaker’s dialogue, representing where the next actor should begin. The following actor’s line will be started with a SLASH to indicate that it is interrupting another line.”
Check out the screenplay – it’s pretty neat, and obvious what is happening when you see it.
I really like this approach. In fact, I like it so much that I’ve already used it in a script of my own. I even stole Gerwig’s note describing the technique. (Sorry, Greta – I hope you’re okay with that!)
And I like the result. If you watch the movie, you see how fast-paced the dialogue is, and how well it overlaps. It’s one of the things that stood out for me the first time I saw this movie, even before I knew how Gerwig had specified it in the script.
But Gerwig did not invent this method, and doesn’t claim to have done so. I’ve heard interviews in which she says that she first saw this in the text of some stage plays.
But this is the first time I’ve seen it used in a screenplay.
Now, as I’ve already mentioned, the structure of this screenplay is a little odd. So the structure of this podcast episode is also going to be a little odd. Rather than diving into the main structure of the screenplay, I’m going to start with subplots.
There are a lot of subplots in this film. In fact, you could say that the whole film is just subplots. Lots of subplots, each of which is a story about the events in the lives of these women. Romance, successful and failed. Friendship. Marriage. Death. It’s all here.
If I tried to set up a separate lane in the Storylanes analysis for each subplot, I’d drive myself crazy. And the resulting diagram would be impossible to follow. And I’m certainly not going to try to talk about all those subplots here.
What I will do instead is focus on the character arcs of each of the four sisters. Because most of the subplots are encompassed in those arcs. I’ve added a lane for each of these arcs. There’s one additional subplot that I’ll discuss afterwards, but only because I think it’s the main plot of the film. And as long as I’m talking about their character arcs, I’ll introduce the sisters and the other key characters in this film.
So, the character arcs. Let’s look at them.
First, let’s recognize that two of the four sisters have bigger arcs than the others. Those are Jo and Amy.
Jo is the protagonist of this film. She’s a tomboy, obsessed with writing, and has a fiery personality.
Setting aside her writing for the moment, because we’ll talk about that in a moment, at a high level Jo’s arc is all about growing up and learning what she wants in life.
Jo starts out selfish and fun-loving, ready to jump into a fight with Amy at any moment. But when Beth gets sick while Marmee is in Washington tending to Mister March, Jo steps up to take care of her. In doing so, she gains maturity.
This continues when in the later timeline Jo comes home from New York to tend to Beth. Once again, Beth is sick. Once again, Jo steps up as the primary caretaker. Once again, she gains wisdom in doing so.
And what she learns this time is that she is lonely, she needs someone in her life. She regrets turning down Laurie’s proposal (which is something we see in the earlier timeline). And when she finds that she has lost Laurie for good, she is distraught.
She is finally persuaded to marry Friedrich and starting a school for children, thus giving a happy ending to her arc.
Though of course, that’s not necessarily her true arc. But we’ll look at Jo-the-writer shortly – because the Jo in the Jo-the-writer plot is a little different than the Jo in the Jo-the-wife plot.
Hoo boy, we’re going to have to dive into that. I promise, it won’t be long now.
But before that, let’s jump to the second sister who has a significant arc. That’s Amy.
Amy starts out a spoiled brat, but a practical one, the most practical and worldly of these sisters. This is in part due to her time spent with her Aunt March. From Aunt March, Amy learns that she must marry rich, it’s the only thing that will save the March family fortunes.
So she is resolved to marry wealthy Fred Vaughn. (And what is it about Louisa May Alcott that these bland and largely forgettable love interests are all named variations of Fred? There’s Fred Vaughn, who Amy ultimately rejects. And Friedrich Bhaer, who Jo marries in the Jo-the-wife plot and rejects in the Jo-the-writer plot. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that Meg doesn’t marry a Fred, but instead marries the more originally named John.)
But when it comes right down to it, and Amy sees an opportunity to marry for love, she turns down Fred and marries Laurie. So ultimately, she rejects Aunt March’s cynical world where she must marry only for money.
Of course, Laurie is also wealthy, if not so wealthy as Fred. So this is not exactly a great sacrifice on Amy’s part. Still, we should give her some credit for this bit of personal growth, for marrying the rich guy that she loves and not the rich guy who is only rich.
The other big part of Amy’s arc is her ultimate rejection of the life of an artist. In this film, where a commitment to creation is the key value, this marks Amy as less than Jo. In all ways, she compromises. Her love isn’t as pure as Meg’s, because Laurie isn’t exactly a pauper. And her art certainly isn’t as pure as Jo’s, because Amy is too willing to give it up after not finding herself a genius after a few art classes. (Yeah, Amy, that’s rarely how it works.)
Amy is also the voice of feminism in this film. She’s the one who gives a great speech about how limited a woman’s life is. And she’s the one who stands up for Jo writing about their lives, about the importance of women’s lives.
Next we have Meg. Lively Meg, popular Meg. Young Meg has a rather vivid character arc. She loves fancy things, loves being the belle of the ball. But the good and kind John Brooke wins her heart by his kind service to her family, and she marries him in spite of his poverty. A choice which Aunt March derides. And one which parallels Marmee’s choice to marry the poor preacher Mr. March, and which she seems to regret a little, as shown when she says after one of Aunt March’s digs at Meg: “You are not entirely wrong.” What a thing to say at a wedding!
Of course, Meg in the present barely has an arc at all. She buys some silk for a dress, regrets spending all that money, returns the silk, and appreciates her husband for his goodness. Not exactly thrilling!
Still, Meg gets more of a character arc than Beth. Young Beth’s arc is: she’s nice, she plays the piano, she makes friends with the old man who lives next door, she gets sick, she gets better. Still, that’s better than her arc in the later timeline: she gets sick, she dies, she is remembered when someone plays her piano.
There’s two other things to note about Beth.
First, her arc is not that she is nice and she gets sick. It’s that being nice leads to her getting sick. When Marmee is away tending to the father, Beth is the only one who remembers to care for the poor Hummel family. And that’s where she comes down with the scarlet fever that almost kills her in the past and that weakens her heart and ultimately kills her in the present. I’m not sure what message LITTLE WOMEN is trying to give. That being kind and charitable will kill you? Certainly the other March sisters do better by being selfish.
Second, Beth serves a key point in the Jo-as-writer plot. Because she is Jo’s muse. That, ultimately, is Beth’s function in LITTLE WOMEN. She certainly doesn’t do much else.
Some of the other key characters: there’s Marmee, the girls’ mother. She’s generous, a bit bohemian, and kind, but with a fire that she keeps under wraps. There’s Aunt March, a rich spinster and mean old thing. There’s Laurie, the directionless but likable neighbor boy. And there’s his grandfather, Mr Laurence, a nice old man. There are a few more characters around, but none really leap off the screen.
So now let’s talk about the Jo-as-writer plot. Because I think this is the key plot of this film, the plot that gives the movie its spine and that makes it so damned interesting.
Essentially, LITTLE WOMEN is the story of how Jo writes LITTLE WOMEN, the book on which the film that we’re watching is based. And Jo, in this case, is clearly a stand-in for Louisa May Alcott. Which is fair, because in the novel Jo was a stand-in for Louisa May Alcott, and the other March girls Alcott’s sisters.
The key arc of the film is how Jo goes from a nervous young woman selling a pulp story to being the author of LITTLE WOMEN. Accordingly, the teaser of the film is a short scene where Jo sells that pulp story. Everything else proceeds from there.
The correspondence of what we see in the film to what is in the book is not entirely clear. The past, the happy memories of youth, is clearly part of the book. Everything is presented in a rosy and literary glow. It’s all happy memories, with all conflicts quickly resolved, and all problems finding happy resolutions.
But the parts in the present are a little less certain. As presented, they are part of the meta story, the story in which Jo writes the story of their lives. But the story of the book clearly includes them as well. After all, the ending of the book within the film is Jo marrying Friedrich, and that rises from the scenes in the meta story, where Jo meets Friedrich, Amy marries Laurie, Meg has children, and Beth is dead. So it can be a little confusing to figure what’s in Jo’s book and what is not, if you care to worry about that.
But aside from that, this plot has several key beats. Jo sells a story to Dashwood. Friedrich tells Jo she’s a good writer, but her writing isn’t good because she writes on the wrong subjects: she needs to write something that comes from her. He’s right, of course, but Jo does not take it well. And for a while, Jo gives up writing.
We next see scenes of Jo in the past developing as a writer. She writes the plays that the girls perform for neighboring kids. She works on a novel, a novel that Amy burns up in a successful attempt to hurt Jo. Because Jo cares about her writing more than anything.
And now we get to a key point, on page 71 of the screenplay. In the later timeline, ever since Jo left New York, she gave up writing. But the dying Beth asks Jo to write something for her. Beth encourages Jo to write.
But Jo doesn’t write her usual bombastic adventure tale. She writes about their family. She writes one of the stories that we’ve seen from the March girls’ childhoods. And Beth is charmed.
Beth has become Jo’s muse. She has led Jo to write the thing that Jo should write, this story that we’re watching. And after performing that major service to the story, Beth has fulfilled her purpose and has nothing left to do but die. Which she does, just five pages later.
But it takes a little while for Jo to follow this muse. First she buries Beth. Then she pines after Laurie. Then she decisively loses him. Only then is she driven to an extreme of loneliness, so lonely that, after Beth’s death, she bonds with Mr Laurence, perhaps the most lonely figure in this movie. (Aunt March is all alone, but it suits her.)
So now, as a way to escape from her lonely existence, in a nice little montage Jo finally sits down and writes Little Women. (If only writing a book only took a montage!)
To her surprise, Aunt March leaves Jo her house in her will. When talking to her sisters about this, Amy asks what Jo is writing. Jo is nervous to confess that she is writing about their childhoods. And to everyone’s great surprise, Amy is the most encouraging. She is the one who says this subject has value, that writing this book will help give it value. It’s a strong feminist statement, which by this point we’ve come to expect from Amy. But it supports Jo, which is a little surprising, given that Amy has been Jo’s antagonist through much of the film. With this bit of encouragement, Amy makes herself Jo’s strongest ally. It’s a key moment in both character arcs, and a key moment in their relationship. Curious, given that Meg used to be Jo’s ally. But Meg is largely a non-entity by this point.
Jo then meekly sends the book to Dashwood to publish. At first, he refuses it. But after his daughters are engrossed by the book, he agrees to take it.
And now Jo fully grows into her own power. She negotiates strongly for the book. Most importantly, she keeps the copyright for the book, refusing to sell it to Dashwood. And by doing so, she cements her future fortune.
Which, we should note, is something that Louisa May Alcott did.
Finally the book is published. We actually see the process of publishing the book. And in the last image of the movie, we see the published book.
But there’s one more thing to discuss in this plot, and that’s why this movie has two endings.
Because it does. In the Jo-as-writer ending, Jo never marries but instead publishes a novel. And it’s implied that she will go on to write more books, which no doubt will also be successes. She has achieved what she wanted from the beginning, to be a self-supporting author. Marriage is superfluous.
But that ending would not satisfy Dashwood. In his very first scene, he tells Jo that the protagonist of her stories, if they are women, must end up either married or dead. And when negotiating over the sale of the book, he insists on it. So Jo writes an ending to her novel in which the Jo character marries Friedrich. And that Jo, the fictional Jo, gives up writing to found a school and live happily ever after as a married schoolmaster.
We see that ending. But it’s shown in the glowing tones that we’ve come to associate with the scenes from the earlier timeline, the happy-rosy scenes that are a combination of Jo’s memories and scenes from her novel. Thus we know that this version of Jo’s story is fiction, a fiction that she puts in her novel. Because, as she notes, mimicking an Amy line from earlier, “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition. Even in fiction.”
I’ll also note, the intercutting between author Jo negotiating with Dashwood and fictional Jo living out her fairytale ending is wonderfully done, with author Jo later watching her book being published even as the other ending plays out. It’s a terrific way to provide both the ending from the original novel and an ending that feels more real for Jo – to become a successful author, even if she never marries.
Now as I said, I haven’t read the original novel. But I have heard several interviews with Greta Gerwig about this movie. And she said that Alcott originally wanted Jo to remain single, but her publisher insisted on the marriage, just as Dashwood does here. So Gerwig is faithful both to the original novel and to the author’s intent. It’s a nice little balancing act, and quite well done indeed.
And so there’s the key plot of LITTLE WOMEN. It’s a movie about making itself. I absolutely love this kind of thing, and other than the works of Charlie Kaufman, most notably his script for ADAPTATION, I don’t know of any other movies that do such a nice little job of being about their own creation.
So, those are the various plots and subplots of LITTLE WOMEN. Now how is this all structured?
Well, this was a tricky one. When I first sat down to analyze the plot, I didn’t see any clear mileposts. Part of that is that the film is such a tapestry, with four major characters each with their own plots, and with a variety of other subplots popping up and then quickly resolving. With all those subplots, it’s hard to point to a single structure that applies to the entire movie.
But on further study, I believe this film has four acts and a teaser. The teaser is that first scene, the one where Jo sells a story to Mr. Dashwood. It identifies Jo’s writing as the central plot of the film, and Jo as the central character.
Then we’re in act one, and we meet the March girls. What follows is a sequence in which we meet each of the girls in the present. First Jo and her life in a New York boarding house. Then Amy and her adventures in Paris, where we also meet Laurie. Then Meg and her purchase of expensive cloth for a dress, cloth that she can little afford. And finally Beth, playing her piano and seeming ill. We get one more glimpse at Jo, encountering Friedrich at a performance of Twelfth Night, and the sequence is done.
So note: Jo gets both the opening and closing scenes of this introductory sequence, cementing her place as the central of the sisters. And, of course, Jo is the only one of the four to appear in the teaser.
But Amy gets a substantial scene as well, one that introduces the key supporting characters of Laurie and Aunt March. She’s not far behind Jo in importance. Meg gets a briefer scene, and one that’s not as complex as the others, and Beth gets the smallest scene of all, one that doesn’t even have any dialogue.
Then there’s a sequence where we see how the girls were in the past, an energetic bunch full of conflict and love, and we see how Jo first met Laurie. Here’s the family at its best, but still in set-up mode.
And finally, we get scenes in the present of Jo and Amy, showing how complicated their lives have gotten. Amy has an angry confrontation with a drunken Laurie at a party, Jo gets serious criticism from Friedrich and then gets a telegram that Beth is sick, leading her to leave New York for home.
And that’s where I think the act ends. We’ve met the characters in both past and present, established the dual timelines, and introduced the main challenges of the two central sisters, Jo and Amy. And Jo is now on her way home.
Act Two is interesting, and I think it’s the source of a lot of my confusion about the structure of this film. It contains some distinct sequences, but they are largely standalone stories of the Marches in the past. These are separated by collections of scenes from past and present that push along the various subplots but don’t add up to significant sequences. So there’s some movement in the main plots, but there’s also a lot of separate sequences that feel like short films or short stories.
The first of these opens the act. It’s Christmas Morning with the Marches. And as it happens, this is the opening scene from the novel. There’s a nice series of events where Marmee asks the girls to give their Christmas breakfast to a poor family. And their good deed is rewarded, because their wealthy neighbor, Mr Laurence, sends along a luxurious breakfast to make up for their loss.
That’s followed by a collection of individual scenes that don’t really add up to a sequence. In the present, Jo comes back to her home town to tend to Beth. In the past, the girls banter their way through a walk through town. Jo tends to her Aunt March. Amy gets into trouble at school. Mr Laurence invites Beth to play his piano. Meg meets John Brooke. The girls invite Laurie to join their amateur theater troupe.
It’s all just little moments in their lives.
Then we’re into another longer sequence from the past, another of those sequences that feel like a short film. Jo and Amy have a fierce fight in which Amy, in an effort to hurt Jo, burns up Jo’s draft novel. Jo is incredibly angry at Amy, an anger that lasts until Amy falls through the ice when skating. Jo rescues Amy, then feels remorse at her anger. She shares this remorse with Marmee, who confides with Jo that she gets angry too. Jo is resolved to get better at handling her anger.
Note how complete this feels. It could be a short film, or a short story. It has its own complete structure. And it’s never again referenced in the film.
There’s a few others that follow, and some scenes from the present that push forward the plots. And that’s the feel of this act: short stories told about the past interspersed with short scenes in the present that push forward the subplots. The feel is that we’re seeing separate stories from the past showing significant event. But present events are not as well tied together.
So why does the film have these long past sequences without corresponding long present sequences? I think there’s a couple reasons.
First, it’s a necessary result of the fact that the girls are all living together and sharing a life in the past, while in the present they have largely gone their separate ways. While the choices that the girls make in the present affect each other, they rarely interact closely. Meg’s marital challenges don’t involve her sisters. Jo’s writing is a solo endeavor. Most of present Amy’s story happens an ocean away in Europe.
The one exception is Beth, who is central to Jo’s story. Jo tends to Beth as she is dying, and Beth becomes Jo’s muse. And for a significant part of the film, most of the time we see present Jo it’s with Beth.
By contrast, in the past the girls are bouncing all over each other. With the exception of Meg’s adventures in Boston, one of those short-story sequences, the girls are all a major presence in each others’ lives. And so the various plots of their lives more closely interact, and there’s more of a chance for large sequences to build.
The other thing that this accomplishes is that it makes the past events feel more literary. They come together in what amounts to episodic chapters that are largely standalone. This sets up the feel that these past sequences are part of a book, the book that Jo eventually writes.
Other sequences follow. Meg goes to Boston for a ball. Jo sells her hair to help Marmee get to Washington to tend to their father. All quite standalone, nice little events that add up to a pretty picture of a happy childhood and that reflect on bigger plots but mostly just illuminate character.
But then we get to act three, and we’re back in the world of plot.
A number of things happen in act three to create a continuous story. The central one is Beth’s illness. This plays out in both present and past. Beth become ill in the past, but recovers. She is ill again in the present, and this time she dies. These illnesses are intercut.
We also see Jo’s growing isolation and loneliness, and the culmination of the romance plots, Amy with Laurie and Meg with John Brooke.
Even then, these sequences are intercut with scenes from other periods, scenes from other stories. (Though there is a closer relationship between these stories, as when Jo decides to accept Laurie while across the pond Laurie and Amy decide to marry.)
At the end of this act, the arcs of Meg, Amy, and Beth are largely resolved, Meg and Amy in marriage, Beth in death. Just like Mr Dashwood predicted at the beginning. Jo, by contrast, is left at her low point: alone, isolated, feeing lonely and without purpose.
And so act four is all about resolving Jo’s story. Jo finally finds her path as an author writing about her family. And she follows that path: she writes the book and sells it to her publisher. And even the scenes from the past that appear in this act are all part of the ending that Dashwood insists be added to the book, Jo’s marriage to Friedrich. So after all we’ve seen before, this ending is tightly focused on the book.
But we also see another resolution to Jo’s story. And in this other version of the story, Jo marries Friedrich, abandons writing, and opens a school.
And the way this is crafted is fascinating. In the marriage story, we have an interesting moment, the moment where the past and present timelines come together. When Friedrich appears at the March house, it’s treated as part of the present timeline. But when he leaves the house, the chase after Friedrich morphs into part of the past timeline. Meanwhile, in the present, Jo starts negotiating with Dashwood, a negotiation that in the script is clearly after the Friedrich chase. (Though this is not as obvious in the film.) At some point, the Friedrich sequence becomes part of the past, and we also learn that it is part of the novel and not part of Jo’s actual life. This cements the idea that the past is the novel, while the present is reality.
The last couple scenes in the Friedrich/Jo romance are presented in red text in the script, indicating that they are part of the novel and the past. In fact, the script goes so far as to say in the slugline of that scene that “THE PRESENT IS NOW THE PAST. OR MAYBE FICTION.” And in the film, these scenes are shot with the brightly colored highly saturated style that were used for the past scenes.
I’ve already mentioned how much I love the way this film ends, how it appeals to my love of meta. But the details of how it’s done, the craft that goes into these scenes, is terrific. The morphing from present to past to fiction, all intercut with present scenes where Dashwood tells Jo that she needs to have a romantic ending, cements this meaning. It’s quite well done.
So that’s my analysis of the structure of this complicated movie. A teaser and four acts. The teaser introduces Jo-as-writer. The first act introduces the characters in present and past, and gives the first hints of their present problems. The second act has distinct sequences set in the past that tell standalone stories. Sequences that alternate with scenes that push forward the various subplots in the present. The third act resolves the stories of three of the sisters, focusing largely on the mirrored stories of Beth’s illnesses, ending in recovery in the past and death in the present. But act three also marries off Amy and Meg. And then in the fourth act Jo writes the novel that we’ve just seen, and we see both of her endings: author-Jo and wife-Jo. An interesting and solid structure.
Before I look at LITTLE WOMEN through the lens of other story models, let me take a moment to discuss all of the parallels that I see in this film. Because there’s a number of cases where events in the present and past parallel each other. Generally, the events in the past have a rosy glow to them, with happy endings. By contrast, the present world is a colder one, and things are not so easily resolved.
I’ve added a lane to the Storylanes analysis identifying some of these parallels. But let me point some out.
The biggest is the resolution of Beth’s illness. In the past, she recovers and all is good in the world. But in the present, she dies, which plunges Jo into deep loneliness and her low point in the film.
For example, early in the film there are two back-to-back sequences. In the present, Jo fights with Friedrich, a sequence that ends when she receives a letter with the bad news that Beth is ill. In the past, the Christmas Morning sequence ends when they receive a happy Christmas letter from their father. So both sequences end with letters, but the letter in the past is joyful while the one in the present is ominous.
A little later, on page 36 of the script, in the present Jo walks alone through the empty streets of Concord. Immediately following is a scene in the past when all the March girls walk those same streets, only now the streets are full and the girls together. The contrast between lonely Jo and Jo surrounded by friends and family is clear.
A little later, we see the Laurence house in the past, full of family, friends, and life, followed by a view of the Laurence house in the present, empty and forlorn.
This happens over and over, and it happens with all the characters. In the past, Meg is happy surrounded by wealth at a Boston ball. In the present, Meg can’t afford cloth for a new dress. There’s a sad funeral in the present paired with a happy wedding in the past. In the past, Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal so she can go off on the grand adventure that is life. In the present, Jo regrets her refusal because she is so lonely.
It’s nicely done, setting up the differences between the happy past and the challenging present. Everything is more complicated when the girls grow up. And when we’re not watching things through the lens of happy memory.
So, how do the other screenwriting models do with LITTLE WOMEN?
First off, if you don’t know three act structure, or Save the Cat, or the Hero’s Journey, you may want to listen to episode 1 of this podcast, where I introduce them. Otherwise, the following may be a bit confusing.
Back? Good. Three-act structure has some issues here. You can identify the three acts fairly easily – just merge my acts two and three into one act. So we have the following acts. Act one, we meet the Marches in past and present. Act two, life progresses, culminating in Beth’s illness and death and the resolution of Meg’s and Amy’s arcs. Act three, Jo writes her book and the movie has its dual endings.
And the inciting incident is fairly clear. In Jo’s original meeting with Mr. Dashwood, he tells her that he will consider more of her stories. “Tell her to make it short and spicy. And if the main character’s a girl make sure she’s married at the end. Or dead, either way.”
But for the life of me, I can’t identify a clear midpoint in this film. I don’t really think there is one.
I do have three midpoint candidates. First, there’s Jo’s talk with Marmee about her anger. This occurs on page 56, which is about the right page. But nothing really changes much – it’s dramatic, but there’s little lasting effect.
Second, there’s Beth starting to get ill. This happens on page 79 – certainly not at the middle of the film, more like two thirds of the way in. But this does shift the action into a new mode – it’s what I identified as my break between acts two and three. So this is probably my best candidate midpoint.
Finally, there is Beth’s death, which also leads to a big shift in the story. But this is on page 89, way late. In fact, from a three-act structure perspective, I think this might be considered the break into act three, even though I mark that as later.
So all in all, three act structure doesn’t seem as clear a model for this film as it has been in others that we examined.
How does Save the Cat do?
Surprisingly well, actually. Better than I expected. Sure, it has the same issues as three-act structure – there’s no clear midpoint here. And there’s not really a debate, unless you want to count Jo’s time when she gives up writing. But that’s fairly late in the film, certainly a lot later than Snyder’s debate section. And it doesn’t really feel like the hero showing doubt before accepting the adventure, it’s more the hero having abandoned something that she later returns to.
But there is a fairly clear statement of theme. Friedrich tells Jo, “No one gets ink stains like yours just out of a desire for money,” which speaks to Jo’s obsession with writing. There’s clearly a period when the bad guys close in, though in this case the bad guy is Beth’s illness. Beth’s death is an all-is-lost moment, and Jo’s growing loneliness is her Dark Night of the Soul.
The beginning and final images are interesting. The beginning image is meek Jo, entering the publishing office, hoping to sell her story.
But just as this film has two endings, the endings for Jo-the-writer and for Jo-the-wife, there are two final images. The first is the Jo-the-wife’s image, where we see a happy Jo is surrounded by family and children at her school. But that’s not the last final image, and it’s not really the true one. The true final image is the last thing we see on screen – Jo’s book, published and looking beautiful. That is the climax of this story, the story about the writing of this story.
The Hero’s Journey is also remarkably accurate on this film, though again there are some interesting twists.
Take the question of the mentor. Friedrich is first introduced about the time we’d expect her to meet her mentor. And he serves as a mentor – he encourages her with the gift of Shakespeare, then gives her solid advice when he tells her that the mindless adventure stories she’s writing aren’t good.
But it isn’t Friedrich’s advice that Jo really needs. It’s Beth who gets Jo to write again, and who inspires her to write about the family. And it’s Amy who tells Jo that writing about family and life make them important. Jo’s true mentors are her sisters. So perhaps it’s appropriate that she only ends up with Friedrich in the fictional ending.
Some of the later Hero’s Journey beats apply as well. There’s the approach to the inmost cave, where the hero nears her goal. In this case, it’s when Jo first writes about her family. By doing so, she’s found her subject and gotten closer to becoming an author.
There’s her ordeal, which is dealing with Beth’s death. There’s the moment when Jo sees the light at the end of the tunnel, when she starts writing Little Women. There’s the challenge she encounters on the road back, her negotiations with Dashwood, negotiations that require her to create the false ending. And, of course, Jo’s prize is the published book. Take a step back, and Jo has become the author-hero who creates the story that we see. There is certainly something heroic, even godly, about that journey, even if it doesn’t involve fighting monsters.
So while there are certainly variations and twists, it’s curious to see how well Save the Cat and the Hero’s Journey apply here. Given how complex this screenplay is, that surprised me.
And I should step back a moment to note something. In coming into this project, I was skeptical of both Save the Cat and the Hero’s Journey. As models to use when constructing a story, they seemed far too formulaic to me. Surely story was too complex to be captured in simple lists of a dozen or so beats.
But seeing how well they apply to many of these movies has made me reconsider. If those two models fit this well for such an unconventional film as LITTLE WOMEN, perhaps there’s more to them than meets the eye. It’s something that I’m going to have to think about.
Now, I still don’t think a screenwriter should blindly follow these formulas. Although there’s been some strong matches between these models and the films we’ve looked at, I’ve yet to see a perfect match. And I still find Snyder’s prescribed page numbers to be ridiculous, seeming to fit these screenplays only by occasional coincidence.
But perhaps there is something to those lists of beats and the high level structure that they represent. Keeping them in my back pocket, one of the many conceptual tools I use when writing a script, is something that I now find worthwhile. That’s a big thing that I’ve learned through making this podcast. And, I suppose, I’d point to this as an important lesson to the screenwriter.
So, we’re nearing the end. Do I like this movie?
Yes. A lot. I love the meta aspects of it. And I really enjoy the complexity of the script. I also admire how Gerwig managed to stay true to the book while also staying true to the author’s desires. She walked a hard and narrow path, and she walked it well.
Do I see any problems here? Probably just things that were present in the original. It would be nice if Beth and Meg had better arcs, especially in the present timeline. Even their past arcs are a bit lacking. Beth’s especially, but Meg’s romance with John Brooke seems to be largely played out in the background of other actions.
And Amy’s marriage to Laurie isn’t exactly the strong declaration of an adherence to true love given that Laurie’s fairly well heeled. It would be nice to see her take a stronger action that has stronger consequences.
But I have no major reservations.
So, what are my three screenwriting lessons that I take from this film?
First, I very much like how Gerwig uses screenplay typography to handle quick overlapping dialogue. This is one of the first things that struck me on my first viewing of LITTLE WOMEN, how good is the overlapping dialogue and the feel of liveliness in the interactions. That has a lot to do with the acting and directing, but a lot of it comes from the script. And as I said, I’ve already used this method in a script of my own. So that’s clearly a lesson that I’ve taken.
Second, I admire the way this screenplay handles the intercutting of different realities. It does this on two levels. First are the different realities represented by the different timelines, with the different timelines having different tones. But second, the different endings are also different realities. This script does an excellent job of balancing those two endings, intercutting between them, but never confusing the audience on what is happening between them. Clearly not every story needs to balance different story threads like this one does, but if I ever find myself writing something that does, I’ll look back to this screenplay as a model.
Third, I like the way Jo’s ultimate mission emerges in this script. Her desire to be an author is introduced in the first scene, and it’s present in many of the past scenes, but she abandons it for much of the movie, only to return to it at Beth’s request. It’s nicely handled, as is the way that Beth, Amy, and Friedrich all push her toward being the author she should be. Plus, of course, we see the ways in which all the past scenes provide her with material. So that is well done – how the story tells of someone having a goal, abandoning that goal, and then achieving the goal.
And that’s LITTLE WOMEN. As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this as much as I did, and I hope you’ve learned something interesting. Next week I’m going to cover GET OUT, the 2018 horror film and winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Until then, check out storylanes.com to see the detailed analysis of LITTLE WOMEN, to find the script that I used, and to read a copy of the script of this episode.
This is Joe Dzikiewicz, of the Storylanes podcast. Talk at you later!