The celebrated 1994 film adaptation of Little Women is turning 25 this year. The classic Louisa May Alcott novel it’s based on is just a bit older — its 150th anniversary was last year — but the story of the March sisters hasn’t lost its appeal for the millions of women who still see Jo March and her sisters as their own family. Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg were four American white girls raised by a strong mother in the 19th century, living their lives with the backdrop of the Civil War, and yet The Marches felt like family to me, a Black girl growing up in the suburbs of the GTA in the ’90s. A heroine who chooses her writing career over marriage? I had no choice but to stan.
For screenwriter Robin Swicord, Little Women became her passion project after a childhood of obsessing over the novel. She met Amy Pascal (acclaimed producer, former co-chairman of Sony Pictures and a name you may remember from 2014’s Sony Hack scandal) right out of college as newbies in Hollywood. The two shared a mutual affection for Louisa May Alcott’s story, and since Pascal was named after two March sisters (her middle name is Beth), their partnership felt like fate. The pair tried to adapt the book for 12 years before Pascal produced A League of Their Own and Groundhog Day and finally garnered the clout she needed to get the project made. “I thought, ‘Women need to see this movie right now,’” Swicord tells me over the phone while visiting her daughter, actress Zoe Kazan, in New York. “I had tried for so long and hoped for so long, and it felt like, if not now, when?” Once the film was picked up by Sony/Columbia Pictures, Swiccord says she and Pascal were met with an “aggressively against-us attitude” from the all-male execs. The shoot was plagued by a low budget, production days that were cut halfway through filming and a one-person art department. Still, they created a beloved movie that has held up for decades and feels just as timely now as it did in the ’90s.
Swicord wrote the 1994 adaption, directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale, and she’s a producer on Greta Gerwig’s upcoming take on Little Women, with current young Hollywood darlings Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Watson and, of course, the legendary Meryl Streep. Leading up to the release of Gerwig’s film, Swicord is looking back on her Little Women at TIFF’s Books on Film series.
Here, she revisits her seminal screenplay, dishes on how Ronan’s Jo March will stack up to Winona Ryder’s, and reveals how she really feels about Jo and Laurie.
The movie came out when I was seven years old and it was very formative for me. I watched it on VHS every day for four years.
You were the perfect audience. We made that movie for you, I just want you to know that.
Thank you so much. It truly felt like it. Let’s talk about your connection to Little Women and why it was so important to you.
Little Women was a book that I read as a child every year from the age of eight. When I first read it when I was eight, the second half of the book didn't as much meaning to me as the first half. By the time I was reading it as a teenager, I was completely riveted by the changes in the relationships that were introduced in the second half of the book. Jo’s decision to not marry Laurie was very powerful when I was 16. [The earlier film adaptations] felt like a real betrayal of the book because the focus of those movies was who would these women marry? In my repeated readings of the book, I understood that this was about who will these people become? So, I wanted for years to do a new adaption of Little Women.
Do you think it took you and Amy Pascal so long to get the film off the ground because it’s a movie starring women, for women and it isn't about a happily ever after?
You are absolutely on it, but that's a two-part reason. The first part is that it’s about women, for women. That was not something that people wanted to do in the 1980s and early '90s. That was box-office poison as far as they were concerned. Then, the second part was that it was not conventionally about a romance. It was about a woman who basically denied a romance. If you think back to the movies of the early '90s, none of those things were happening. The other thing is it was about women who were ambitious. A lot of the movies of that time who had an ambitious woman, she was viewed as evil, like in Working Girl. The woman who was the boss was bad. It was as though women weren't ready to have power. For us to make a movie in which these girls at the very beginning announce what they wanted to do with their lives and each of them had a separate dream, it spoke very much to the time.
Looking back is there anything in the script that you would change or that doesn't hold up? People talk about the scene with Laurie and Meg at the party where he's talking about her low-cut dress and, in hindsight, he’s kind of slut-shaming her.
Well, there was more to that scene in the script. [In the movie] he's kind of slut-shaming her for being dressed like that. She's just feeling incredibly caught and guilty because she's drinking, and she's pretending to be a kind of different person, and she knows that he can tell her mother. That was more about adolescence. It was more about a boy — the way I had brothers and if I went out of the house wearing lipstick when I was 14, they would get upset with me. It's this protectively brotherly thing, right? It was more like that, so the slut-shaming part of it was front and center in the film but it was part of a larger picture [in the script].
You said that Jo’s decision not to marry Laurie resonated with you. I remember being really upset by that decision when I was little, and now I get it. When Jo says, “I can’t just go be a wife,” I felt that. What are your personal feelings on Jo and Laurie?
Had they ended up together, there would've been something that felt incestuous, because they had literally grown up together. He had been a brother in that family — a motherless, fatherless boy who had tucked himself into the March family. Temperamentally, they were not that suited for each other. He was a little bit more of a Persian cat than she was. She was like the tomcat that's out there in the world: “I want to go to New York, and I want to see the grit, and I want to write about death.” And he's over here like, "I don't know if I want to work today, I think I'll play the piano." I mean, I adore him, and particularly the casting that was in our movie. You just kind of really want to see those two people making out. [ha ha]
Christian Bale will be Laurie forever. Winona Ryder will be Jo. But now with Greta Gerwig’s upcoming film, Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan are the ones we’re going to want to see make out. How much involvement did you have in casting?
I was not involved in casting. My part in the producing of it was to be the great encourager of Greta. To have meetings with her about her script, to hear out her thoughts, and be a sounding board. Amy did most of the heavy lifting as a producer.
How is the film shaping up?
Of course, any person coming behind any movie that has made its way into the culture the way this movie did, you don't want to repeat the past. And you don't want to do things just for the sake of being different. Greta had a real task in front of her to bring this new family to life, and these new men in their lives to the screen. I have to say that the family scenes that I've seen, she has so achieved that feeling of real life in a real family. It doesn't obliterate the 1994 Little Women, but it holds its own as a new movie. She's just done an extraordinary job of that.
Winona Ryder was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Jo. From what you've seen of Saoirse Ronan so far, do you think that can happen again?
I never am good at knowing about awards and all of that. I mean, I thought that Gillian Armstrong should've gotten a [Best Director] nomination for Little Women. I have no way of knowing whether or not somebody will give Saoirse a prize, but I can tell you that Saoirse does an incredible job as Jo. She is mind-blowingly good.
You consulted with Greta Gerwig on the script. How much input did you have?
It wasn't like we were standing on high, handing down the tablets to Greta. She's a very gifted and accomplished writer. She was working on it when she went off to make Lady Bird. We were just so glad that she wanted to come back to our project, when everything in the world, I'm sure, was being offered to her.
My last burning question: What do you think Jo would be writing about today?
Jo was only interested in writing for young girls after it became clear that was what she was going to be allowed to write. I think that she was really interested in action and violence and putting people through it in her stories. She loved drama. I think that Jo would be a screenwriter, writing Pretty LittleLiars, or something like it. I don't think she'd be writing The Fault in Our Stars.
This interview has been edited and condensed.