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Saturday Night at the Movies: Never Go Full Markle
The Worst Film of the Century
Something different this week. Instead of sharing a favorite movie, allow me to get on my soapbox and rant about one of the worst movies of the century – with a special tie-in to today’s coronation! Now, nobody needs to warned away from Sharknado 2 – you buy that ticket, you know what you’re in for. But what about a critically acclaimed (94% positive on Rotten Tomatoes!), star-studded, Oscar-nominated adaptation of one of the nation’s most beloved books? Reader, don’t buy the hype – it’s a stinker.
The key critical question: is Greta Gerwig’s hit 2019 adaption of Little Women worse than The English Patient? An admittedly high bar of awfulness, but the answer is unquestionably yes. The English Patient tortures only its audience – Little Women desecrates one of my family’s favorite novels, and that cannot be forgiven.
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Please see here for a refresher on the theme of selfless duty that characterized so many Hollywood classics. What these old movies understood – because, at the time, most in their audience understood it, too – is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Aubrey Hepburn’s Middle European princess, like Ruritarian royal Deborah Kerr, takes it as understood that service to crown and country comes before personal romantic fulfillment. Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine honors that same sense of duty. Not everybody is a self-denying royal or resistance leader, but even us ordinary schlubs used to be honored by America’s great filmmakers for placing our duty to our family and our God before our desire to get our groove back.
That was before Generation Me, and “finding yourself,” and, yes, the bleeping English Patient (collaborating with Nazis is not romantic, people). Today, thanks to decades of this rot, our culture has no standards left, aside from one universally acknowledged truth: always follow your heart – or the organs a couple feet below it – no matter the consequences to your children, your conscience, or your country. Nobody represents this mantra better than Meghan Markle, who, without even the excuse of being unwittingly born into duty, made the conscious choice to wed into, then wiggle out of, service to Her Majesty’s dominions. She got the fairytale wedding to the handsome prince – the dream of so many little girls – and then washed her hands of the obligations of princess life. That must be some delicious cake (lemon elderflower, with buttercream frosting, if you’re curious).
The ex-highness has well known Hollywood ambitions, and, who knows, like many a talented actress, may harbor dreams of a career behind the camera as well. Unfortunately for her, Greta Gerwig beat her to it. For if Meghan Markle ever made a movie, it would be 2019’s Little Women.
Alcott’s novel is about the slow, difficult maturation of selfish children into admirable young adults under the tempering influences of time, love, and God. Gerwig makes the bold choice of telling their story without time, love, or God. Nonstop flashbacks and flashforwards – bound to perplex anyone not deeply familiar with the novel’s plot – ensure that any chance at depicting characters learning lessons and growing up as the years pass is abandoned. Love? Well, in Alcott’s slow, gentle telling, Jo begins to fall for a stout, unattractive, middle-aged German as she witnesses how fearlessly he stands up for his principles and how tenderly he raises his orphaned nephews. In Gerwig’s reimagining, Professor Bhaer has no principles to defend and no dependents to raise… but he is a very handsome young Frenchman who eye-flirts adeptly, so there’s that.
As for God, well, in a couple of scenes you can make out a steeple in the background – does that count? I can’t even get mad at the secular mess Gerwig made of one of the most profoundly Christian American classics. Like the New York Times reviewer who admitted he just didn’t get the religious symbolism in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, it seems our post-Christian cultural overlords simply do not understand the language believers like Alcott use. I feel pity for Gerwig; she is looking at a brilliantly technicolor world, but seeing it only in the grainiest black and white. Imagine adapting the Harry Potter books for the big screen, only without any reference to magic, and you’ll get a sense of the dull, confused mess that she has created. It’s not just the obvious things that are missing from her adaptation, though of course all of these are sent to the waste-heap: the personalized Bibles the girls get from their mother on Christmas, the family’s reliance on The Pilgrim’s Progress for moral succor, Professor Bhaer’s spirited defense of religion before a roomful of atheist intellectuals, Beth’s honest discussions of faith as she faces dreadful illness, and on and on. It’s that even the plot and characterizations that Gerwig leaves in simply do not make sense outside of the worldview, steeped in piety, that permeates Alcott’s original. As Dostoevsky would write a few years after Little Women, if there is no God, then everything is permitted – which makes an aggressively secular adaptation of a Christian novel of manners a rather foolhardy proposition. Why is it wrong for Meg to enjoy going to parties with her wealthy friends? Gerwig can’t say, as Alcott’s reference to Vanity Fair is unintelligible to her, so instead the camera focuses on Meg drinking too much. Why is it wrong for Teddy to fall into despair? This is another sin that Gerwig cannot comprehend, so instead we are treated to invented scenes of Teddy’s over-the-top drunken boorishness (it seems Gerwig, while perhaps not a Christian, is a fervent teetotaler). Why is it wrong for Jo to write sensation stories to make ends meet? To Alcott, and Alcott’s original Professor Bhaer, the answer is as close by as the family Bible – search its index for millstones and necks. To modern-day denizens of Hollywood, however, such sermons are as foreign as the servants who clean their bathrooms, so one of the pivotal chapters of the book – celebrating the salutary influence Professor Bhaer’s gentle but firm “moral spectacles” lend to Jo’s work – is transformed, via a total absence of moralizing, into an incoherent shouting match. Gerwig’s Bhaer doesn’t like Jo’s stories, but he can’t explain why, he just says they’re “not good.” Jo gets understandably flustered by this completely unconstructive criticism, and Oscar-nominated shouting ensues (not to worry, the pretty boy eye flirting will resume momentarily).
If Gerwig strips all the morals out of a thoroughly moral story, well, at least the flick will be short, right? Not exactly. For it seems she removes Alcott’s beliefs for the sole purpose of having more room to shove in her own. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad, except that Gerwig goes full Markle. Alcott’s characters have to make hard choices, to sacrifice parts of themselves for those around them; this used to be called growing up, and is how little girls and boys become little women and men. Not if Gerwig has anything to say about it. She wants to have her cake and eat it, too. She leans in and gives her movie a postmodern fantasy of an ending, buying into the great self-worshipping Markleian lie of total professional and personal fulfillment. It’s like another Meryl Streep movie, Sophie’s Choice, except this time the heroine gets to have two of them.
Perhaps it all wouldn’t have been so grating if not for the hypocrisy. Gerwig, who clearly identifies with budding artist Jo, invents another lengthy scene, in which Jo shrewdly negotiates a book deal with her publisher. Pressured into giving up the copyright, she boldly refuses: “I want to own my own book.” A bravura moment. She will not allow her artistic vision to be compromised. Three cheers for integrity! Wait… hold on a sec… isn’t the book in question Little Women? That is to say, Louisa May Alcott’s artistic vision? The very one that Gerwig is so brazenly gutting and retrofitting with her own completely different sensibilities? I guess while Gerwig’s Jo gets Oscar cheers for owning her fake book, Alcott does not get to own her real one. Talk about chutzpah.
The only good news? Thankfully, Gerwig paints herself into such a corner with the ending that the chances of us having to endure her take on Little Men are slim to none. If she’s looking for other 19th century works to adapt, and doesn’t want to spend all that effort whitewashing their worldview, Nietszche has a few books that might be up her alley. And I know just the person for the voice over work…
Next week: my vote for best literary adaptation ever. Feel free to nominate your best and worst below if you’d like, and enjoy the (Markle-free) coronation day!