I was originally planning to create a video version of this review, but since the video reviews tend to get very few views I can’t justify it right now. So if you’re interested in seeing something like that, just let me know. If the demand is significant enough, I’d be happy to put together what would probably be an hour-long video essay on this not very good movie.
I would love to just review this movie, as a movie, without addressing how most everyone else reacted it, but I don’t think that’s possible here, especially because the near-universal acclaim Little Women received had an interesting effect on me as a person and as a critic. I’d like to talk about that effect before we launch into the actual criticism.
Call it a disclaimer, call it navel-gazing, whatever. In reality, it’s a bit of both. But it’s something just too big for me to ignore when talking about this movie.
When this version of Little Women was released, I was indifferent. I hadn’t seen Lady Bird and the movie being released so late in the year signaled to me that the studio saw this one as serious Oscar bait.
When I finally watched Little Women, months later, I was kind of shocked by how much I hated it. And it wasn’t one of those times where you get through the first act of a movie and just realize it’s not your thing. It was one of those times where you sit staring at the screen with your mouth open, steadily drying out and you mutter, out loud, over and over, “Oh no. Oh NO.”
In fact, the last time I had this feeling was while watching The Rise of Skywalker, but I’ll save that discussion for when we get to the topic of pacing.
I got through the movie, just barely, and I started looking up review online. Like I mentioned earlier, just about everything everyone said about this movie was extremely positive. In particular, I remember Richard Brody of the New Yorker saying that Gerwig smuggled poetry into the movie. Mark Kermode of the BBC made no secret of just how me he enjoyed this movie, telling audiences it had great direction and really clever structuring.
Even the audience reviews I found on Rotten Tomatoes and Letterboxd basically said all the same things. According to everyone, this movie had a really strong emotional throughline and the filmmaking was impressive and effective.
I couldn’t possibly disagree more with this general consensus. Worse than that, I’ve had a really hard time understanding why so many people, from civilians to professional film critics, came to conclusions that were so drastically different than mine.
And this is where I have to start being very careful with my words. I can’t just talk about the movie. I don’t have that luxury. Every step of the way, I’m going to have to be articulate and accurate. Otherwise, I will immediately come off as a white male film geek who’s upset that a female-led Hollywood film was received so well. My worst nightmare is to attract incels and men’s rights cronies who think I’m doing my part to keep the patriarchy intact.
Yes, I’m a white guy film geek, and at times I can be pretty snobby about my tastes. But as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve tried very hard to be more open-minded and encounter each movie on its own terms. Ultimately, a movie’s messaging and the people who made it are less important to me than the movie itself and how well it says what it’s trying to say.
When it comes to the people involved with the creation of this movie, I like just about all of them. I like Greta Gerwig alright and I really like the performers. I like the original Little Women stories, and I’m 100% onboard with the movie’s messaging. Yes, it’s a period piece, but it also has very relevant things to say to all of us modern people, especially women.
I really didn’t want to mention any of this, but it’s just necessary. I’m going to be pretty mean to this movie, specifically when it comes to its craft and execution. Without all this extra context, I’m very worried that people will take all those mean things as proof that I hate this movie because of who made it and what it tried to say. This just isn’t true.
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself on the outside of a huge, beloved media property. A big chunk of my schoolboy days was marked by my lack of interest in Harry Potter. For a while, I wasn’t really allowed to read them, so I turned this into a distaste for the Harry Potter series as a whole.
I wasn’t part of the zeitgeist. Not such a big deal, really. I just couldn’t be a part of the movement and I stuck to A Series of Unfortunate Events as an act of impotent defiance.
Many years later, when I actually bothered to read the books, I disliked them for completely different reasons. I didn’t see the appeal at all, and I didn’t think the writing was all that great, either.
So Harry Potter gave me the chance to feel like an outsider in two very different ways. Round 1 was all about childish trend-bucking and Round 2 was more objective, more technical. Also, by the time Round 2 came around, I was an outsider with regards to age, too. I was no longer part of the target demographic.
I’m not mentioning any of this to say, “Woe is me.” Instead, I think it’s a great opportunity for me to sit in this feeling of being on the outside, looking in, trying to understand why everyone else enjoys something that I just don’t.
Ever since I started watching movies that could be considered “classics” or “arthouse,” I’ve understood critical hype much better. Every time Oscar season has its new critical darling, I can watch that movie and understand why it’s getting so many good reviews, and I can understand it on both a technical and emotional level.
In other words, it’s been a while since I felt pushed to the outskirts, and it’s a really striking feeling. It makes you feel gross and kinda dumb. I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to better understand people who feel like that often, especially with regards to movies. I now have a glimpse into how my friends feel when I try to show them a movie like Stalker without providing the cultural, historical, or filmmaking context that would make a viewing of that movie a lot more enjoyable.
Even thinking about saying negative things about Little Women makes me feel like a bad person. What’s the point? Why would I even bother talking about this movie? I’m probably not going to change anyone’s mind, and I definitely don’t want to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of this movie. I’m not speaking from any position of authority, and I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t like.
But I quickly found that analyzing and tweaking this movie was creatively stimulating, and in a time when I don’t have anything better to do, I thought it might be worth it to create a careful, highly specific review about why Little Women doesn’t really work, as a movie, especially when compared to other contemporary movies that share a lot of the same themes.
If that sounds interesting to you or if you just want to disagree with me on some finer points, please stick around. I’ve been working really hard on this, despite knowing not many people will end up seeing the review at all. Usually, still wanting to do something even when I don’t stand to benefit in any way, financially or professionally, that’s pretty good proof that I feel very strongly about it. It’s just something I wanted to do, and maybe it’ll make for an interesting discussion.
Tell, Don’t Show: There is No Subtext and Everything Important is Told to Us Explicitly
If you’re into writing and filmmaking, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “show, don’t tell.” It basically means that stories work better when the writer shows us something rather than just telling us.
Here’s an example:
There’s this great moment in Alfonso Curaon’s Roma, and yeah, there are gonna be some slight spoilers here.
Our protagonist, Cleo, experiences this really traumatic event, which is itself symbolic of a very important moment in history, but let’s stick to that surface-level story beat. That trauma is the result of a whole big terrible situation that was forced upon her. She didn’t choose to get into this situation, and when it came to a head, she then had to live through the worst possible outcome.
Following this traumatic moment, the movie gets quiet for a bit. Then we see post-trauma Cleo. She’s standing in her little room, looking out the window. Without even seeing the view from that window, we know that she’s not even really looking at anything. We, as the audience, know that she’s devastated, all without a single line of dialogue. The filmmaking and the performance perfectly communicate the emotional state of our lead character.
That moment is “show, don’t tell” in a nutshell.
Now, this doesn’t mean that characters can’t use really clear statements that tell us how they’re feeling or what they’re up against. In fact, towards the very end of Roma, Cleo goes through another very dramatic moment. When it’s over, Cleo finally comments directly on that traumatic event from earlier. She completely falls apart, admitting some deeply personal feelings, not to friends but to the family she works for who write her off way too often as The Help.
But this dialogue has a huge emotional impact on the viewer, particularly because we can feel that she’s been holding all this back for so long. We’ve watched her try to restrain herself, not bothering other people with her innermost troubles.
First the movie showed up, then it told us, and in both cases, it works. This is a great illustration of show, don’t tell, but it’s alsoa great counterpoint against this very common argument that I didn’t like Little Women because it wasn’t made for me. The movie is very clearly aimed at female audiences, so it makes sense that I just didn’t get it, right? The filmmakers couldn’t care less whether or not I like the movie.
It’s not a terrible argument, but here’s something that’s very important to remember: good storytelling and good filmmaking can make anyone relate to absolutely any character. Doesn’t matter if that character is a good person or a bad person, whether they grew up where I did or some other country, whether they’re human or some kind of crazy alien. When a moment of drama is properly set up and delivered convincingly, the boundaries of my personal identity dissolve and I can relate completely to the character on the screen.
No, I’ll never be able to fully understand what it’s like to be an oppressed woman in the 1800s, but a good movie can help me to better understand what that must have been like. Later on, I’ll even talk about a movie that succeeded in all the ways Little Women failed, and, you guessed it, that movie did a great job of making me understand just how miserable it can be to have society at large impose all these ruthless, petty limits on the person you’re allowed to be.
Ok, so a lot of effective movies show the audience something instead of telling it to them. Little Women does the exact opposite. This movie tells us everything, in the easiest and most obvious ways possible.
A line of dialogue tells us that Jo wants to be a famous writer. A line of dialogue (in the same scene, actually) tells us that Amy wants to be a hugely successful painter. A line of dialogue tells us that Beth doesn’t have much time left. A line of dialogue tells us that women don’t have very many ways to make a living wage. Several lines of dialogue tell us that, for women, marriage is nothing but a financial transaction (more on that later). [A line of dialogue tell us that the March family doesn’t have much money.] A line of dialogue tells us that Amy has had a hard time processing Beth’s premature death. A line of dialogue tells us that Jo is in love with the French man we haven’t seen since the beginning of the movie and who we know next to nothing about. A line of dialogue tells us that Laurie isn’t living up to his potential.
Not everything needs to be communicated in clever, subtle, visual ways, but when all the important information is delivered through clumsy dialogue, I can’t help but wonder how it could have been better balanced.
So the movie takes the easiest possible routes to communicate important information about its characters: who they are, how they’re feeling at any given moment, their overall life situations, and the pressures placed upon them by a largely unseen (but heavily referenced) patriarchy.
Since this is a movie and since movies are a visual medium, let’s think about ways we could communicate these very important things through visual symbolism, rather than by having characters simply state an important piece of background info, historical context, or personal drama in extremely obvious dialogue. Obviously, some changes to the performances would also help these elements feel believable, but that’s a different topic.
Let’s focus on just one element that needed to be really well-established.
You could say that financial concerns are at the very core of Little Women. These concerns are the primary means through which societal limitations are placed upon women in the movie. A conversation that comes up over and over and over in the movie is how women need to get married even if they don’t want to because there are so few ways that women can make money on their own to support themselves and their families. Meryl Streep even has two different scenes with two different March sisters, telling them that they need to get married for money. What’s the phrasing they use? Jo even uses the phrase verbatim in that last encounter with the evil publisher man, and the way she delivers it sounds like a college freshman coming home for Thanksgiving and repeating something they heard in their poli-sci 101 class with a smug half-smile, hoping to get Uncle Barney all riled up.
I think it was something like, “marriage is a financial proposition.” And in two separate scenes, the male characters don’t think this is true because, from their perspective, it’s not. They have choice, so marriage is allowed to appear romantic.
Ok, so that’s a great point to make with this movie, and it definitely contributes to a much broader feminist statement.
But for the audience to really be put in the shoes of characters who don’t have a say in their futures and their romantic lives, that desperate need for cash needs to be visceral and well-illustrated in the movie.
As it stands, I kept forgetting that our main characters were supposed to be poor. I never saw any real proof that they were in need. So when characters say that women really do need to get married for money, my reaction is, “Really? You guys seem to be doing just fine without a man around.” I didn’t feel that external pressure at all, and so that message about how hard things are for women falls completely flat.
Very early on, there’s even a scene where the movie goes out of its way to show us a family that’s even poorer than the Marchs. Thing is, that really poor family actually looks poor. They have a terrible ramshackle house and there’s a crying baby. These are visual and audio cues that the audience understands from other media. This is what movie-poor looks like. Here it is, on full display.
So Laura Dern and all the rest give these really poor people their beautiful Christmas breakfast, and sure, it felt a little Hallmark-y, but it was still a moment of sacrifice, and it told us a bit about the characters. Great.
In a version of the movie that wanted to communicate the relative poverty of the March family, they would have all gone home, bummed out about not having a scrumptious meal of their own, then proceeded to make their own fun, knowing that all they really needed was each other. Or something.
But that’s not what happens at all. They go home and there’s already another gorgeous, nearly identical Medieval feast laid out on the table, gifted by that rich guy who keeps giving the Marchs elaborate gifts.
I swear, I need to watch this sequence again with a stopwatch. I want to see how long it is between their reluctant but charitable decision to sacrifice something and their karmic reward for that sacrifice.
Acts of charity and sacrifice in movies carry emotional weight when the person giving something up actually suffers in some way. Here’s a really corny but effective example:
At the end of Titanic (yeeeaaah, I know), Leo gives up his spot on the debris-door-thing so that Kate Winslet can stay alive and bob around the ocean and eventually get old and wrinkly. Leo makes a heartfelt decision and it kills him. Yes, it feels cliche, but boy does it make you sad. We have to watch the guy die, for Pete’s sake.
I’m not saying that Little Women needed more melodramatic moments, but this little two-scene thing is representative of a consistent problem in the movie, the problem of having something supposedly dramatic happen, only to have that potential drama be immediately erased or glossed over.
But that’s taking it back to the issue of pacing and tone. I need to keep moving here.
The movie wanted me to believe that this family was struggling to get by, but instead, I felt like I was watching a suburban family sit around looking at college brochures.
I really did want to feel like the March family was struggling. For one, we could get some really valuable character development as we watch them coping in different ways. They’re all trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of cosmic unfairness, but all of that is reserved for the very brief post-death scene.
If I really felt like one or more of the March sisters had to get married for money, it would have made the feminist messaging a lot stronger. And even better, when all of the living March sisters get to avoid that fate by the end of the movie, each finding men they genuinely love, I would have felt relieved and so so happy for them.
It’s about stakes. Yes, there are technically stakes in the movie, but they’re only ever told to us, not shown.
How can we establish the stakes through visuals, specifically the March family’s desperate lack of cash?
I’ve had a few ideas. An easy one is through the house itself. Set design can be a really nice way to establish background information and it can even tell us things about a character’s state of mind. So here’s my pitch.
The March house is a huge missed opportunity in my mind. It never looks or feels anything other than happy, cozy, warm, and picture-perfect, albeit in a rustic kind of way. And yeah, I get that the house is a safe place for all of them, where they can be whoever they want and act all wacky, but they act that way just about everywhere. Amy does it in France in one of the early scenes. Amy does it on the lawn of the Lawrence home. Jo does it wherever she is at the time. And there’s even that scene when they all come into the Lawrence home for the first time and they’re already yelling and falling over each other, just the way they do at home.
So how ’bout we let the March home do some storytelling work, rather than having it look like the wish-fulfillment setting of a Christian Western Historical Romance TV show.
The March family is poor, so make that house uglier. Like, have it actively falling apart. Maybe in the middle of one of those big dialogue scenes that are supposed to be impressive, someone’s stocking gets caught on a nail coming out of a floorboard. Maybe we see the sisters occasionally making necessary, makeshift repairs.
Too obvious? Ok, just let the place be mildly ugly and don’t address it all that much. Maybe we see the sisters wrapped up in tons of hand-knit blankets when it’s cold out. Maybe the sound design mixes the wind a little louder. Maybe the house suffers routine damage and the sisters shrug it off. They’re used to it by now, and they’re more than capable of taking care of it themselves. Maybe they argue over who has to be the first one out of bed in the chilly mornings to get the fire going.
You could even do something dark. Like, after Beth dies, one of the girls doesn’t have to share a room anymore. But the idea of taking Beth’s room and the added stress of grief convince that sister to continue sharing a room. Maybe all the sisters decide to start sleeping in the same room, or even in the same bed, at least for that first night. Then we could get this lovely overhead shot of all the sisters huddled together, indifferent blue light coming over them on one side, with warm firelight coming from the other direction, symbolizing the comfort they continue to find with each other. It’s just them against the world.
Instead, we got a daytime shot with awkward blocking where some of them are sitting in chairs in the middle of the room, and one is just slumped against them on the floor.
And if the house really does look shabby throughout the movie, then we could get some interesting moments where the sisters move into other homes with their shiny new husbands. This is their new life, their new house, and it’s what they always wanted, but they’re a little uncomfortable with all this opulence. This would be a moment of change, and the audience would feel the bittersweet sensation of growth and aging.
I had one idea for an evocative visual that I actually think is pretty good. It’s still about communicating financial woes, but it also does a whole lot of work to communicate other things, too.
In the movie, there’s this weird repeated gag where Joe burns her dress. I think it only actually happened once, but given the weird structure of the movie and that completely unnecessary opening sequence that proceeds a flashback that apparently makes up most of the movie (see Structure section), it felt like it actually happened twice.
We see her dress catch fire in an early scene, and the French man tells her about it. Then in that party scene where she tries not to say the word “capital” for some reason, she mentions that her dress is burned to Paul Dano, I mean Timothee Chalamet, and the two dance outside, in the movie’s second scene where the on-set audio fades a bit while the music track is brought way up to oversee a kind of dancing montage. And by the way, both of these dancing montage scenes happen within ten minutes of each other, and that ten minutes is very near the beginning of the movie. (For the love of God, why?)
But anyway, if it is indeed the same dress that got burned just once, I propose using this dress as a motif. It will represent all of the movie’s major themes while also helping the audience keep track of where we are in the timeline and where Jo is in her character arc, which I think is a pretty economic use of a single costume.
The dress could even be the visual cue that triggers the transition from that opening sequence to the “7 Years Earlier” flashback. Jo is living in the big city now, and she’s been so intent on getting this book published that she hasn’t even really unpacked yet. We see her pretty little apartment in a nice wide establishing shot. The walls are bright and clean. Lots of daylight coming through the big windows.
This place feels very different from the old March house we’re about to jump back to. While finally unpacking, Jo comes across the dress in question. Even without knowing the backstory at this point in the movie, it’s clear that this dress has been through a lot. For the most part, it’s still intact, but there are spots where the lace is starting to run loose. The color is slightly uneven (we’ll get back to the topic of color in a bit) and it even looks a bit dusty. Clearly, it hasn’t been worn for a while. And there’s this one stitch up on the shoulder that’s a completely different color. It stands out.
Reaction shot of Jo: she looks like she’s seen a ghost. Her face tells us a lot, and by the end of the movie, we’ll understand that expression fully.
Now we can cut to the flashback card. The dress doesn’t need to be the first thing we see. That’s a bit obvious, even if it would give us a nice visual transition between these two points in the timeline.
This is a nice easygoing part of the story, so maybe we see the sisters getting ready for that party where Jo will dance outdoors with Paul Dano, I mean Laurie. No wait, they also call him Teddy. Goddamn, this feels like a Dostoyevsky book all of a sudden.
In their excitement, the dress catches fire but Amy puts it out in time (this moment of fire-related kindness will later make Amy’s vicious burning of Jo’s novel even more hurtful), and they help each other get dressed.
The first shot we see at the party is this steadicam shot that follows the dress across the dance floor (I guess it could also be a really low-to-the-floor dolly shot. Camera Ops can yell at me about this.), and the burn marks very clear in the frame. We still get to hear Amy giving Jo pointers on what to say and do, as we pan up to see the sisters switch from comfortable family interaction to public-facing politeness. This would also give the cinematography some variety. Based on Jo’s whole character, she should feel uncomfortable in big fancy social situations like this. The immediate reason for her discomfort is the burned dress, but it’s actually symbolic of her disinterest in conforming to societal expectations for women. (The movie we actually got only communicates this in dialogue, so communicating it here, visually, seems like a nice improvement.)
We see her walking through the party, going to great lengths to hide that one part of her dress. This could even be a fun comedy moment: Jo puts on this fake fancy-person voice while twirling the dress as part of the act, just barely avoiding detection. This would also be a great time for the movie to give us some female characters who aren’t part of the March family. These other women are already locked into the roles they need to play, and their reserved, restrained movement and speech gives us some contrast that highlights how different the March sisters are when compared against societal norms.
The first person to see the burn is Laurie, but he’s unphased, which establishes his character and the role he will play in the lives of the March sisters, allowing them to act the way they want, society be damned!
But here’s my idea for the dress’s big, soul-crushing moment in the story. I actually kind of like this idea so bear with me.
Since the Marchs don’t have much money, this dress is Jo’s one fancy dress for special occasions, and so she ends up needing to keep using it, despite the burns. For a while, she just avoids fancy functions or wears much plainer dresses that look out of place. She confides to Beth that really, none of her clothes seem to express who she really is. We, as the audience, know that she’s really talking about societal constraints here, but it also just works on a literal level. Joe thinks it would be nice to have some clothes that make her feel strong because she really is strong.
Later, on the night before Jo’s birthday, Beth takes it upon herself to dye the dress and make some repairs as a special gift to her sister. She dilutes some of Jo’s book-writing ink in a pail of water and dip-dyes the dress. Now the burn marks blend right in. But there’s still this one little tear in the left shoulder. So Beth removes some thread from her own favorite dress and sews the powder blue thread into the birthday gift dress. That one little thread stands out in a sea of dark: very convenient symbolism for Jo herself, or for the whole March family, doing their best under circumstances that are less than ideal, trying to shine brightly even when the world at large would prefer to keep them hidden away. If you really want to make it on the nose, then maybe the original dress was a bit too tight for Jo, and she never felt fully comfortable in it. (That inconvenient tightness is also a nice nod to the historical trend of making ladies wear very tight clothing to accentuate their breasts.) In that case, Beth would let it out just a bit so that it looks and feels great, both as a dress and as a symbol. A symbol of oppression is being reclaimed.
The dress’s last big scene in the flashback section of the movie is at Beth’s funeral, of course. Maybe that missing thread even had something to do with her getting ill, like her dress let in some cold air when she was walking to the Lawrence home to play the piano and she caught pneumonia instead of Scarlet Fever.
If you really wanted to have another big scene with the dress, it could serve as Jo’s wedding dress. Not the white that was expected of her, but a dark, strong color that defies conventions while also speaking to her personal identity and her family’s crucial role in helping her express her strength.
So all in all, the dress would start as a means of establishing negative factors like poverty and the oppression of women but would then be transformed by artists/loving sisters into something that affirms love, strength, and power.
It’s a Start
Both of these suggestions serve the purpose of more effectively setting up those very important financial concerns we were talking about earlier, but we could also find ways to visualize other elements, like Laurie’s back-and-forth thing with Jo and Amy.
If I haven’t already made this clear, it bothered me just how much this movie relied on obvious dialogue to do some really heavy lifting, keep the audience informed, and create dramatic moments. Removing all that awkward and immersion-breaking dialogue would let the movie tell its story visually while also giving the performances room to breathe. The rest of the dialogue would then have a much better shot at feeling subtle and believable.
Structure and Pacing: Adaptation Means Adaptation
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women reminded me of The Rise of Skywalker, which is a strange thing to say.
While watching each of these movies for the first time, I had the same very visceral reaction. It wasn’t just that the movies didn’t appeal to me. It was more than neither actually felt like a movie. The puzzle pieces had been thrown into the bathtub. They were all there, but they hadn’t been assembled properly and the images were all distorted.
These two movies had all the moments they thought they needed to have. On paper, they probably looked pretty comprehensive. But they have way too much in them. Way too much. So many things needed to be cut out of these movies, probably at the screenplay stage.
(Just as a sidenote, Rise of Skywalker is only 8 minutes longer than Little Women. If you’ve experienced that Star Wars bloat firsthand, then this fun fact is a real kicker.)
Instead of finding a simple, compelling story using pre-existing characters, both Little Women and The Rise of Skywalker tried to include as much plot as possible, as many dramatic moments as possible.
But when those dramatic moments aren’t properly set up or when they’re over in less than a minute or when the effects are not long-lasting, they don’t contribute to the narrative as a whole.
And I think the people who tend to notice this the most are people who are really into storytelling or have been deeply emotionally affected by movies in the past. They know how a movie is supposed to feel when it has genuine emotional impact, kinda like how people who collect luxury cars can very easily tell when they’re looking at a fake. Kinda like how you look at a bad CG human face and say, “That’s not quite right and I hate it.”
This section is all about pacing. Whether you’ve studied filmmaking or not, you already know that pacing is extremely important for storytelling. And here’s something else that’s important to remember about pacing: it’s pretty difficult to do well. Not only that, but different people prefer different types of pacing in their movies.
I’m an arthouse fraud, so I tend to enjoy slow, thoughtful, weighty pacing. A recent movie that achieved this kind of pacing beautifully was Midsommar, which is especially great because I think it introduced general audiences to how great that kind of pacing can be. Sure, it might feel a bit boring at times, but tension and compelling character writing keep us engaged.
There’s a pretty common belief that younger people tend to enjoy much faster pacing. Entertainment is getting faster all the time. Netflix wants to let you watch stuff at 1.5 times the speed. I think this preference is a symptom rather than a cause, but that’s a very different can of worms, and I already have plenty of worms over here.
But regardless of personal preferences, I do feel that the pacing of most movies should fall somewhere in between Really Fast and Really Slow, especially when it comes to big Hollywood movies that want to appeal to general audiences.
Let’s do a fun little writing exercise to explore how drama interacts with pacing.
I’m going to start with a very dramatic moment that I’ve just made up. Then I’ll outline how that dramatic moment would fit into different kinds of pacing.
Here’s the dramatic moment: Henry DeWitt died yesterday.
Wow, that’s pretty sad, and definitely dramatic. We don’t know anything about this guy I just made up, but we can all draw on our personal experiences and fears and use our imaginations to make that isolated idea even more dramatic.
Option 1: Really Slow Pacing
Henry DeWitt died yesterday. His heart gave out, at long last, and the EKG monitor went solid in the corner of the room. Not even a nurse stood by his bedside during these final moments of anguish. A greeting card falls from his hand and hits the floor where it opens. The little speaker plays a 10-second rendition of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. After his body has been removed from the room, a tired custodian tosses the card into the garbage can, where it will join many others like it.
So this gives the dramatic moment plenty of time to breathe. The audience gets to feel sad about it. But it’s also not very economical. In roughly the same number of words, we haven’t even managed to introduce Brian, Rachel, or Hazel or their relationship to Henry. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some people were bored by this pacing. It didn’t even leave that hospital room.
Option 2: Really Fast Pacing
Henry DeWitt died yesterday. That same day, Henry’s son, Brian, got a job promotion. He then went home, where his wife, Rachel, explained that her car got broken into. The thieves took her registration and she’ll need to get it replaced. Later that night, she told Brian that she didn’t love him anymore and that he’d need to move out of the house. Rachel and Brian’s daughter, Hazel, is distraught and she runs away, putting herself in immediate danger by going into the woods at night.
Ok, all of that is pretty dramatic stuff. We covered a lot of ground here, and if your goal is to include a lot of different plot points, like, for example, someone’s favorite parts of a book or book series, then this might look pretty good. Problem is, it all zoomed right by. We didn’t have the chance to get emotionally invested in any of these characters. So much happened that most of our concentration is dedicated to keeping up with all the different characters and events. For me, this is where Little Women sits.
Option 3: The Sweet Spot
Henry DeWitt died yesterday. He was alone when he died. The nurse felt guilty for feeling relieved that she’d have one less person to worry about. His son, Brian, was at home when it happened. His wife, Rachel, walked into the room and placed her wedding ring on the table, next to an empty glass still wet with condensation. Rachel tells him she’s going out. Their daughter, Hazel, watches from the staircase, already wearing her pink and purple backpack.
When we apply this kind of pacing to movies, I think it works well in most cases. We still get to see several different characters and events, though not as many as we did with Really Fast pacing. The audience has to do a bit of work to understand the relationships between these characters, but with the help of props, blocking, and visual language, the audience still gets really important information.
If it helps, we can even compare these types of pacing with music. Sideways made this excellent video that explains why pop music tends to have such broad appeal. To summarize, pop songs resolve musical tension every few measures, and each one of those resolutions gives the listener a tiny dopamine hit.
But when that journey from tension to resolution lasts much longer, the resulting satisfaction for the listener is much more significant. Sure, there’s only one big moment of resolution, but boy does it hit hard.
Does that make sense? It’s not the best writing I’ve ever done, but I think it illustrates the importance of pacing pretty well. Hollywood filmmakers need to strike a balance: holding onto viewers’ attention while also giving the characters and the viewers enough room to be affected by the story’s drama.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women isn’t an original story. It’s an adaptation, and that word is really important, especially when talking about the adaptation of books into films.
A lot of other people have already said this, but it’s generally not a good idea to adapt a book by including as much of the book as possible, in the same order. One of the most popular examples of this is the two separate film adaptations of Stephen King’s The Shining.
Stanley Kubrick made some serious changes to the story in order to make the movie he wanted to make. He had a vision and he messed with the original story until it fit into that vision.
Very famously, Stephen King thought Kubrick’s adaptation was bad, mainly because it didn’t adhere to his original intentions for the work. And also because he’s a hack. He went ahead and made his own film version of The Shining.
Now, which of these movies is better, as a movie?
Which of these movies is better than the other?
Which of these movies … is better?
Like pacing, adapting source material into a movie is really tough. Charlie Kaufman made a whole movie about what a miserable nightmare it is. And when you’re a big fan of the source material, it can be tempting to include as much from that source material as possible. You want to share this thing you love with a whole bunch of people, and that makes it tough to cut this, or this, or this.
Little Women is poorly paced because it was poorly adapted for the screen. The timeline is unnecessarily convoluted, and really important elements like Jo’s writing and her love story with the French man basically disappear. They show up from time to time, but they’re never actually developed. They’re just in there because they need to be in there.
It ends up feeling like the movie itself is just checking off boxes. Death in the family? Check. The sisters being mean to each other exactly once? Check. Jo saying that women are more than their looks? Check.
We can even tie all that telling-not-showing to the bad pacing, too. The movie needs to communicate so much, and using rich visual symbolism instead would take time, so it’s just no longer an option. Just say it. Whatever it is, just say it.
Let’s Talk About a Movie That Does All of This Well
There are so many other things that I’d like to talk about, but I need to limit myself. In particular, I wanted to talk about how the performances were not effective, but I think all that stuff is a bit too subjective. I don’t have a background in performance so I can’t tell you exactly why I don’t think they work. All I can say is that those big dialogue scenes with all the sisters were supposed to feel very naturalistic and believable, but they absolutely weren’t. They felt contrived and over-rehearsed. The dialogue overlapped, but just a tiny bit, that same tiny bit in every instance.
When it comes to really natural dialogue and delivery, you know it when you see it.
But I don’t want to nitpick the performances, and I do like these actors, even if I didn’t like them at all in this.
So instead of dipping into eighteen other topics and making this longer than any YouTube video ever should be, I want to close out by talking about a different movie from 2019 that actually succeeded in delivering strong feminist messaging and powerful drama, all while being wrapped in stunning cinematography.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was written and directed by French filmmaker Celine Sciamma. It takes place in the late 1700s. A woman, Marianne, is hired to paint a wedding portrait of another woman, Heloise, who has been removed from her life as a nun so that she can be married off to some rich guy in Milan, all without letting the betrothed lady realize she’s being painted.
Heloise doesn’t want to get married to this guy. She might not want to get married at all. We don’t even see Heloise’s face until 20 minutes into the movie!
This film is slow, it’s beautifully executed, and it accomplishes so much with subtlety and skill. It’s very much a movie about sexism and more specifically the Male Gaze. Men are almost entirely absent from the movie, and still we see just how much our characters are restricted. We see it in their faces, in the performances, in the way they move.
There’s symbolism all over the place, and the concept of seeing and being seen is explored in great detail via different scenarios and cultural touchstones. There’s really not that much dialogue in the movie, but when we get it, it has weight. When they talk, we’re paying rapt attention.
I have never been the daughter of a noble family in 18th-century Brittany, but the movie made me better understand what that felt like.
And by the time the credits roll, you’ll notice Portrait is significantly shorter than Little Women.
Maybe Little Women couldn’t be reduced to such a spare and focused storyline. Maybe American audiences wouldn’t have been interested in a female-led movie that didn’t have a lot of yelling and quick cuts.
But maybe the best proof I have that Portrait of a Lady on Fire actually succeeds as a movie for me in all the ways Little Women didn’t is this:
Over the course of putting together this review, I’ve had to go through both of these movies quite a bit to look for clips and all that.
Whenever I started Little Women back up, I just felt disappointed and frustrated and sad. But even just thinking about going back to Portrait turned my mood around completely. I was so excited to take another look at how shots were composed, and all the best moments flipped through my mind and I got choked up. I couldn’t wait to get back into that movie.
And yeah, movies don’t need to be in competition with each other, but if you watched and loved Little Women, I would be really interested to hear what you think of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I want to know if I’m crazy for thinking one works a million times better than the other.
I don’t enjoy being an outsider when it comes to Little Women. I don’t enjoy being the contrarian. But this has been a pretty interesting way to experience the movie. I’m kind of glad it didn’t work for me because then I looked at everything more closely. In the process I learned something about myself: regardless of their subject matter, I want movies to make me feel something, even if it’s something I wasn’t expecting.
Thanks for listening to me talk for such a long time. Even if you don’t agree with me, I hope this has been a solid illustration of a different viewpoint.