Good screenwriters consistently use the same tools of their craft to achieve similar outcomes, and Greta Gerwig does not disappoint in her screenplay for LITTLE WOMEN, which is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book of the same name.
The opening scene of the screenplay is not the opening scene of the book.
Being an adaption of a book, and even more than that a classic, and even more than that a classic book that has been successfully adapted for the screen more than once; there is added pressure on the writer to both be faithful to the original material and to craft a good screenplay. Adaptions always come down to decisions made by the writer, and generally they only work if the characters in the screenplay are authentic and the intention of the story remains faithful to the original material. Retention of detail is often impossible for a range of reasons, (not the least of which is time restrictions,) but also more often than not inconsequential.
One of the obvious differences in this version is the decision to change the structure of the way the story is told. In the book the story takes place in a linear fashion and we are introduced to the sisters in their younger years, which are filled with hope and optimism. But in the screenplay Gerwig decided to split the timeline into two and run the two timelines (set seven years apart) concurrently; starting by introducing them to us once they are older, when they have had the weight of societal responsibilities crush their dreams.
The result of this contrast is that the audience is better able to understand these characters, their ambitions, their motivations and their resignation (or not), as they go about their adult lives. This is one of the reasons that the film has been heralded as a boldly modern retelling of the story.
VISUAL INTRODUCTION BY A CHARACTERS ACTION
In the screenplay the writer introduces us to the main character Jo March, in the first frame of the film. To top that she presents Jo with a visual description that tells us oodles about what type of person she is; “…she exhales and prepares, her head bowed like a boxer about to go into the ring.” This is no ordinary women, she’s different, brave, a fighter, determined and strong willed.
Jo lives in a world where female independence in a patriarchal society is neither tolerated nor understood and in this opening scene she enters a room that is a microcosm of that world, introducing us to the oppressive 19th-century values, traditions and morals that the film will explore.
Here is the first scene from the original screenplay which plays out almost word for word in the first scene of the film;
THE OPENING DIALOGUE
Jo’s first words are a deception; a fib, which is not a characteristic you would normally want in a main character, but in this context it speaks volumes about the conflicted life she lives; “Excuse me. I was looking for the Weekly Volcano office… I wished to see Mr. Dashwood? A friend of mine desired me to offer a story, by her, she wrote it – she’d be glad to write more if this suits.”
A few lines later she reveals her ploy of offering Dashwood her own work as that of a so-called “friend”; “I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.” Like the audience, Mr Dashwood isn’t fooled, which is clear from his sarcasm in the line; “Perhaps mention that to your ‘friend’.” But his tacit acceptance of the ruse paves the way for the audience to find it acceptable.
Aspiring screenwriters often dump exposition, but this scene is crafted in such a way as to offer a plausible opportunity for the writer to slip in some background information about the character. “… she has sold to “Olympic” and “Scandal” and got a prize for a tale in the “Blarney Stone Banner.”
OPENING AND CLOSING IMAGES
Opening and closing images do not always literally mean the visuals we see. Sometimes they can mean the impression the content makes on our memory.
At the end of the opening scene Mr Dashwood introduces an issue that is very important not only in the context of the world and story, but also as a real issue that author Louisa May Alcott struggled with in her own life.
“Tell her to make it short and spicy.
And if the main character’s a girl make sure she’s married by the end.”
In Alcotts’ preferred draft of the book, Jo did not get married at the end; however she eventually bowed to pressure and changed the ending to accommodate the publisher. Greta Gerwig though, has cunningly crafted the ending of her screenplay to be different from that in the book, and yet it is a homage to the author and an acknowledgement of the struggle that she lived through.
VIEW THE OPENING SCENE FROM LITTLE WOMEN