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Greta Gerwig’s fresh take on the old favorite ‘Little Women’

The classic novel “Little Women” has enchanted readers young and old for generations. Brought to the movie screen many times, a new version hits theaters nationwide on Christmas Day, featuring both familiar touches and a modern flavor. John Yang sits down with director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig to discuss the “sisterhood” of the international cast and how she stayed true to the text.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For generations, the classic book "Little Women" has enchanted readers young and old. It has been brought to the movie screen many times.

    And now, on Christmas Day, a new version hits theaters nationwide, one with all the familiar touches, along with some very modern ones.

    John Yang sat down with the director and screenwriter, Greta Gerwig. It's part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

  • John Yang:

    It's Louisa May Alcott's beloved 150-year-old story of the four March sisters.

  • Actress:

    This is Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo.

  • John Yang:

    They face love and heartbreak and chase their dreams and Civil War era New England.

    An international cast portrays these quintessentially American characters. Emma Watson is Meg, the eldest, the romantic, Beth played by Eliza Scanlen, the shy musician. Florence Pugh plays Amy, the boisterous youngest, and at the center of it all, Saoirse Ronan as Jo, the impassioned writer who tells their tale.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    The truth is, I saw myself in all of them. And I think that's something about a book you grow up with. You see yourself in different characters at different points.

  • John Yang:

    Greta Gerwig retells "Little Women" for a new generation.

    It is a dream cast.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    And in the scenes with the sisters together, it feels so spontaneous. It feels so natural.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    Yes. Yes.

  • John Yang:

    And I'm sure that that's the result of a lot of hard work.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    Well, I wanted all of these lines which are so famous to be said just lightning quick with the energy of youth and with the exuberance of sisterhood.

    One of the things that I wanted to do was have a very controlled cacophony of sound and movement. And I wanted it to feel like a ballet that was kind of violent.

  • John Yang:

    So that was the sisterhood.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    That was the sisterhood, these couple weeks we spent rehearsal just drilling all of that and spending time working on it, yes. It's the thing that brought them together.

  • John Yang:

    At first, Gerwig was hired only to write the screenplay. But then came "Lady Bird," her 2017 breakthrough directing debut.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    They came back and said, would you like to direct "Little Women"? And I was like, I have been asking for five years. I would love to.

  • John Yang:

    The film reunites her with "Lady Bird" stars Ronan and Timothee Chalamet.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    They're two of my favorite young actors.

    Saoirse told me she was going to play Jo. She said she knew I was working on "Little Women" and she wanted to play Jo. As soon as I knew it was Saoirse, I knew it I wanted it to be Timothee, because they're just so exciting to watch on screen together.

  • John Yang:

    Talk a little bit the working relationship between because Saoirse and Timothee, because I'm thinking particularly of the dance scene.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    I think, with period pieces, sometimes, you end up feeling like everything's just so and everything's so perfect, and everybody's waiting politely for someone else to finish talking.

    I wanted to bring that feeling of reverence for the text, but irreverence for the joy, allowing it to be spontaneous, a dance that was both a nod to the formality of the time and then had that bursting-out-at-the-seams feeling. The dance that Laurie and Jo do really brings that across.

    I actually hadn't read the book again until I was around 30. And I was gobsmacked by it. I thought it was completely modern and fresh and strange and spiky.

  • Florence Pugh:

    I'm just a woman. And as a woman, there's no way for me to make my own money.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    One of the things that is wonderful to do as an artist is that I'm allowed to take this iconography of "Little Women," of these famous moments and these famous scenes. And I'm allowed to deliver on them and give you those things, and then also subvert it.

  • Laura Dern:

    You remind me of myself.

  • John Yang:

    Compared with earlier film versions, Gerwig adds depth and dimension to characters, like March family matriarch Marmee, portrayed by Laura Dern.

    Marmee is a character who, in previous tellings, is sort of a plaster saint.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    You know, she could be quite bloodless in her piety.

    I went back to the book. And I was reading it. And the line…

  • Laura Dern:

    I'm angry nearly every day of my life.

  • Saoirse Ronan:

    You are?

  • Laura Dern:

    I'm not patient by nature.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    I thought, that's not true. Marmee is not angry. And I'm like, oh my God, she's been angry for 150 years. We have never noticed.

  • John Yang:

    At the heart of the story, women and their aspirations.

  • Saoirse Ronan:

    Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts, and they have got ambition, and they have got talent, as well as just beauty. And I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I'm so sick of it.

  • John Yang:

    In earlier adaptations, like the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, the happy ending is Jo finding a husband and also publishing a book.

    But in Gerwig's telling:

  • Greta Gerwig:

    It's the book. The happy ending is the book. I think there aren't enough movie romances between women and their books.

    I guess all of the cliches of a movie romance chase, of the girls and the carriage and the rain, and I got to do the camera on the crane, and I did all these sort of bells and whistles of what we think of as movie romance.

    But, for me, it was never with a heart of it was. The heart of it was about what it means to have authorship and ownership. And I wanted to have that emotional impact come around Jo and her book.

  • Meryl Streep:

    Someday, you will need me.

  • John Yang:

    Gerwig's Jo defies society's expectations embodied by her dowager aunt played by Meryl Streep.

  • Meryl Streep:

    You will need to marry well.

  • Saoirse Ronan:

    But you are not married, Aunt March.

  • Meryl Streep:

    Well, that's because I'm rich.

  • John Yang:

    And stands up to her publisher.

  • Actor:

    So, who does she marry?

    How does resonate with what's going on now in Hollywood, the push for gender equality?

  • Greta Gerwig:

    Yes, sure.

    I had wanted to include this whole story of her negotiating her copyright and also her back end deal, that she gets 6.6 percent, which is how much Louisa May Alcott got, which was higher than people usually got.

    But, honestly, the publisher gave her 6.6 percent because he didn't think it was going to do very well. And he was wrong. It sold out in two weeks. And then it was subsequently — it has never been out of print.

    So one of the things I wanted to do was introduce the idea of Louisa May Alcott herself as the author of "Little Women." And I wanted to collapse the space between Louisa May Alcott the writer and Jo March, the character.

  • John Yang:

    The modern-day struggle for women's recognition is reflected in the dearth of award nominations so far for this critically acclaimed film, just two from the Golden Globes and none from the Screen Actors Guild.

    Oscar nominations come next month.

    It's still notable that there is a movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring roles, the lead characters are women, produced by a woman.

  • Greta Gerwig:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    What does that say? Do you think we would have been beyond this by now?

  • Greta Gerwig:

    Period pieces are seen as risky or that people won't go. So that alone is already a hurdle. And then you add on top of it, it's all about women, it's written and directed by a woman, it is produced by a woman.

    So, in some ways, it feels like a miracle that this movie was made at all, and I can't help but be completely grateful that it happens, because it continues to feel unlikely.

  • Actor:

    Make it short and spicy. And if the main character is a girl, make sure she's married by the end.

  • John Yang:

    A fresh take on an old favorite from a rising star behind the camera.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Online, we have more from our interview with director Greta Gerwig. She shares which March sister from the story she most identifies with.

    That's our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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