Our ideas of romance have often been shaped by pop culture. How else does one justify the impossible standards and ideals that one holds when it comes to the ideas of "the perfect date" and "the perfect proposal"? Many a time, we find that reality does not match the rose-tinted aspirations that novels and films have dealt out to us. Stumbling messily through the façades and the foolish dreams, we reach Valentine's Day – our hearts either bruised with cynicism and hurt or brimful of finding 'the one'.
Little Women, the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott adapted countless times into films, is one of those stories I have found that wonderfully serves a dichotomous purpose – it at once serves up to us beautiful romantic ideals that we hope will be replicated in our own lives while also deconstructing those very ideals and providing us with alternatives.
The story of the four March sisters – Margaret "Meg", Josephine "Jo", Elizabeth "Beth" and Amy – has more often than not come to be seen as a bildungsroman, a coming of age of four women finding their place in society. Yet, it delightfully interweaves its romances into its larger themes of growing up, feminism, female rebellion, etc.
At the very core, Little Women is a film about love in all its myriad forms. Yet it doesn't take its romances for granted. Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig's stellar 2019 version) and Laurie (played by Timothée Chalamet) are the stuff romances are made of. There is instant attraction from Laurie's side, perhaps even driven by the fact that he is fundamentally lonely. She looks at him as a friend. Had this been any other film, we would have got the ending we wanted – Jo, who protests against matrimony for most of the film, would have given into Laurie's insistent ardour and we would see the two walking down the aisle. Instead, as an audience, we end up with broken hearts – Jo turns Laurie down.
He is eventually paired with Jo's less likeable sister Amy, but not before we are shown that Amy herself has no initial plans of marrying him. She is preparing to be engaged to the much wealthier Fred Vaughn. This is where Little Women differs from other romances. Instead of constantly projecting ideals of how true love alone should lead to marriage, the film provides its audience with a background – it brings to the fore the idea that marriage, for most part, in the post-Civil War era, was an economic proposition for many women. In fact, this continues to be the state of affairs for many women even today. The film doesn't shy away from showing us a so-called 'practical' heroine who is prepared to sacrifice love at the altar of financial stability. Unabashed and unapologetic, Amy March would be labelled a 'gold-digger' by romance purists but she has her reasons for doing so.
This is also perhaps one of those rare films where romance is explored from the eyes of a woman. The men play second fiddle, even in relationships. It is through Jo's perspective that we first meet Laurie, when she bumps into him while attempting to avoid the advances of another man at a ball. It is she who gives him a ring as a mark of their friendship. Amy too is the first to confess her love to Laurie rather than it being the other way around. Here too, she is unapologetic while also refusing to be the person he settles for upon being rejected by Jo.
The proposal, an important element in itself, is hardly flowery in the film. It is messy and complicated and is oddly relevant for today's times – a precursor to all our modern relationships where one side wants commitment while the other is still deciding and sorting out their priorities in life or clearly wants something else from life. Laurie proposes to Jo against a picturesque landscape but it is not a conventional, dreamy proposal. Instead the two of them descend into quarrelling and shouting, talking over one another, Jo desperately trying to convince Laurie of how unsuitable a wife she would make and he countering her with an ardent "I love you, Jo" for every reason she gives.
Even the most ideal romance of the film – the one between Meg and her husband John – is not without its rocky moments. Meg complains of being tired with their poverty while John struggles to make ends meet with the pittance that he earns. This is where as an audience we realise that love and marriage are not a bed of roses, as films and novels would have us believe. There are practical concerns and hard truths of life that one must face up to.
Yet Little Women doesn't forego all romance. It offers up to its audience beautiful moments where characters experience the throes of falling for someone. I watched with a smile every time Laurie looked ardently at Jo. One feels the pull of intellectual attraction between Jo and Friedrich. The romance in the film is quiet and mesmerising. It gives us a happy ending as well – Amy eventually marries Laurie, her one true love, and Meg and John come around to accepting each other's differing perspectives, going so far as to eventually make sacrifices and loving each other even more deeply as a consequence of that. It also contradictorily provides us with ideals that it has been deconstructing up till then. For example, I still believe very strongly in the 'best friends who fall in love' trope despite this film clearly showing me that this is not always the case.
However, the highlight for me was that this film was one of those rare works of art where audiences got to choose their ending. We see two simultaneous endings – Jo's book getting published and at the same time, Jo eventually leading a contented life with Friedrich and setting up a school for children. It is unclear whether the events are taking place in Jo's own life or in the ending she wrote in the book.
This is where the film triumphs. By allowing us to imagine that Jo could be single (as Alcott herself had originally wanted), it veers away from the conventional happy ending. Much as we adore the idea of 'someone being made for everyone', it unabashedly celebrates singlehood. It honours and respects its protagonist's choices. It tells us that it is okay if the heroine doesn't choose the so-called "romantic hero" but chooses someone different or even decides not to marry. Consequently, it sends out a message to viewers that it is all right if we aren't looking for romantic love. It celebrates the idea that love can mean different things for different people and, like Jo, nobody need 'fit in' with the idea of what pop culture has deemed love to be.
This non-conformist attitude towards love is subtly seen throughout the film in other ways as well. Much as the characters fall in and out of love with each other, they also go through varying stages of love in relation to their art. Jo and Amy are shown to be more passionate about writing and painting than about the respective men they eventually end up with. This is what defines them, rather than any relationship. In fact they experience love in relation to their art and creativity, which is what makes the film unique. Jo experiences seesaws of highs and lows – she is proud of the fact that she can write and make money but she is also deeply offended when Friedrich, whose opinion she values, criticises her work. Amy, who wants to give up painting, has a discussion on art and genius with Laurie, who himself is actually a musician (though not depicted in the film, he is given moments of playing the piano in the novel). Beth (who is the only sister sans a romantic angle in the film) experiences the warmth of paternal affection (which again could be said to be a kind of love) from Mr. Laurence because of her musical talents.
At a larger level, Little Women in itself is a symbol of love. Its eighth adaptation by Greta Gerwig itself highlights to us the love affair that audiences have had with the novel and its subsequent film adaptations, but more importantly with its world and the interesting characters that it is peopled by. My own romance with the film began almost one year before its release in India, when it was initially announced and subsequently I have only fallen further in love with not just the characters, the actors and their performances but also with the film in totality – the warm glow of nostalgia that it evokes, the feeling of awe that I am overcome by every time I watch something related to the making of the film, and generally the brimful feeling that fills one's heart every time one watches this beautiful work of art.
Little Women is a celebration of the unconventional, a deconstruction of romantic archetypes and ideals; it's about a romance with the self and a love affair with one's art. This Valentine's Day, if you are looking for a film that will free you from the limiting definitions of what love and romance have been made out to be, maybe Little Women ought to be your pick.