Why Gerwig’s Non-linear Structure Gives ‘Little Women’ More Life Than Ever

Images: Sony Pictures

I think everyone, now and then, watches a certain film that gives them a feeling they cannot explain. It’s a feeling that shoots through your entire body and leaves you speechless. It’s a feeling that you don’t experience every day, and so when you finally come by it you’re going to cherish that film forever. It’s easy to enjoy a film, but a film is special when it’s able to transcend beyond its own narrative and finds a permanent place in your life. These films shape who we are and what we value, even if we don’t realise that they’re doing it.

I experienced this rare feeling recently when I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. This film presents a story that made me feel emotions so intensely that it almost felt like a weird fever dream I never wanted to wake up from. Little Women felt as though it came along right when I needed it, and delivered a message that finally allowed me to exhale. It felt like coming up for fresh air, and I never wanted that feeling to end. Days after my first viewing I just couldn’t stop thinking about Gerwig’s film, and I started to rack my brains as to why that was. I mean, it’s no secret that Little Women is an adaptation of a novel for which there have already been countless films made.

So what was it that made this film so special? Why was it an adaptation in Little Women that gave me this special feeling, as opposed to the original, technical marvel that is 1917, or the bold and daring Parasite? I began to look at what Greta Gerwig did differently in her version of Little Women, and the answer to my question became abundantly clear. One of the main areas of discussion surrounding Gerwig’s Little Women is the non-linear structure that she decided to present it in. A lot of people believe that this structure made the story confusing and hard to follow, but I believe that without this structure the emotional goals of the film would not have been achieved. In this article I want to talk about how Gerwig successfully made this structure easy to follow, and how this structure is actually the heart and soul of Little Women.

In this version of Alcott’s tale we are jumping between two different timelines – the March sisters’ childhood and early adulthood. When we are first introduced to the little women it’s when they are adults. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is in New York, Amy (Florence Pugh) is with Aunt March in Paris, Meg (Emma Watson) is living with her young family, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is playing piano in a heavenly setting. This is effective because it means that there is an element of curiosity, which was always going to be a challenge for Gerwig, considering that the story is based on an extremely popular novel.

Through dialogue, we are given insight to some plot points that are going to be relevant later in the film. Just after Jo announces that her sister is in Paris, we are taken to Amy as she gets over-excited about bumping into Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in the park. Amy says to Laurie that she’s sorry that Jo rejected him. Just through this small amount of exposition alone, we have developed an interest in the story being told to us. We are already wondering why Amy is in Paris and what the history between the March sisters and Laurie is. This curiosity only grows stronger as the film grows longer, as all of the loose ends aren’t really tied up until the end. It means that beyond the façade of joy and warmth, we as viewers know that a harsh reality is awaiting the characters in the future. Our guard is automatically up, but not so much to make the experience unenjoyable. Because of how genuinely bubbly and lighthearted Gerwig makes the scenes of the sisters’ past, it’s almost easy to forget about the future that you know is waiting for them, leading to it creeping up on you just like cold winds on the beach.

The non linear structure doesn’t just provide mystery to the story of Little Women, it provides heart. A non-linear structure has the ability to give the viewer something that means something, and then snatch it away in the scene directly after. It is able to change your feelings drastically in a matter of seconds, and in turn make the story hit you a lot harder than it would if it were in chronological order. For a story that relies on its emotionality coming from change, loss and growth, the structure allows these factors to be more clear than ever. I could analyse the transitions in Little Women on a scene by scene basis, but I’m only going to talk about the ones that I find to be the most important.

One of the first changes between the past and the future is when Laurie takes Jo and Meg home after Meg hurts her ankle. This scene ends with Laurie looking up at Jo’s window, as he is clearly in awe of her. Jo is reading and looks peaceful and hopeful. The light in her room radiates warmth and we know that at that moment she is surrounded by her loving family. It then cuts to a shot in which we can see Jo through a window in her apartment in New York. We know it’s in New York because of the sign that’s positioned on the roof, and because of the clear change in her posture. She looks older now, and we know that she is far away from her family. This transition doesn’t just serve as a change between timelines, but as an insight to the development of a character. While she was once young and surrounded by a support system, Jo is now a strong independent woman who is looking out for herself.

This is similar to a scene that occurs when Jo is returning to her home. A tracking shot shows us Jo walking down the street alone, the street seems almost derelict as there is no one else around her. We then switch to a scene of the past in which Jo and her sisters are walking down the exact same street. This time it’s filled with life – people are everywhere and it is bursting with colour. This is giving insight into Jo’s mindset as a character. While in her childhood she was filled with joy and the company of her sisters who she loves, in adulthood she finds herself feeling lonely and isolated. Both transitions are there to show us the growth of Jo, but show them to us in very different ways. Through this we know that Jo is stuck in a tug of war in trying to be independent and the inevitable loneliness that comes with it, before we have even gotten to that conversation yet.

Another scene that does this successfully is the beach scene. We are shown a scene of the little women at the beach when they were children. They are all naive and innocent, having fun together. The colours they’re wearing are colourful and bright, as they relish in the bright blue sky above them. From this scene we are then taken to Jo and Beth on the beach. This time the sun has gone down and the sky is dull and dreary. Instead of the sand sitting still giving a sense of calmness, it is blowing around creating a sense of conflict. This again gives a look into how much the lives of the little women have changed, as beth is now sick and in danger of losing her life. In comparison to the happiness and fun that they were experiencing their first time on the beach, they are now experiencing a great amount of pain and worry. Because these scenes are shown back to back, it really leads to us missing the past, similarly to the characters, which creates a sense of understanding between us and them.

Perhaps the most impactful scene in all of Little Women, and the one that I believe that the non-linear structure impacts the most is Beth’s death. We are first shown when Beth picked up a case of scarlet fever when they were children. This shows how worried Jo was at the mere thought of losing her sister, and how strong their bond was. In the past version of this, Beth overcomes her fever as we see Jo wake up and frantically run down to the front room to find Beth sitting with her relieved mother. In one of the next scenes, we see the same set up as last time, as Jo is by Beth’s bed and opens her eyes to see that she is not there. This time it feels different, as once again the colours are dreary and everything is quiet. There is a complete change in tone, and this time it feels a lot more empty. Jo once again runs down to the front room, but this time she is greeted by her mother, sitting almost identically to last time, with tears in her eyes. As the camera looks behind her mother, we are shown an empty chair, the same chair that Beth was sitting in previously. The reason this scene worked so well is because there is a scene in between before transitions of the little women enjoying christmas together as their father came home. This scene levels out the emotions of other scenes so it does not feel like an overwhelming emotional response is being shoved down our throat, and instead feels like we have time to take a breath. It gives us enough time to relish in the happiness, but not enough time for us to forget about why the scene following it is heartbreaking.

Little Women was never a story that relied heavily on its narrative, but rather one that relies on the heart of its characters and the trials and tribulations of life, which will always be relevant no matter what timeline we live in. The non-linear structure allows for a story to fall together piece by piece, and for the strength of the character relationships to be highlighted more than ever. In order for the emotional goals to hit, we have to remember the good, the bad and the ugly, and the non-linear structure makes it possible for us to do that.

by Rebecca McCafferty

Rebecca is currently studying psychology at uni, but hopes to be studying film in the near future. She loves to analyse stories and characters, and look further into the meaning of films. Her favourite genres range between sci-fi and romance, and her favourite films are Interstellar and Little Women. Find her on twitter: @heyitsbcca.

2 replies »

  1. I don’t agree. I think Gerwig’s use of the nonlinear technique made Alcott’s story more confusing. Frankly, I’ve seen other screenwriters use this technique a lot better.


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