“When did you become so wise?” says Jo to Amy, near the end of Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women. “I always have been,” replies Amy. “You were just too busy noticing my faults.”
Though Amy is speaking to her sister, I also feel as though Gerwig is speaking to the audience, for Amy March is most commonly the March sister people love to hate. I believe that this is in large part due to how she is portrayed in previous film adaptations of Little Women, which all minimize Amy’s storyline, framing her primarily as a bratty and immature little sister and reducing her character to one key moment: her childish but shocking act of revenge when she burns Jo’s manuscript.
It’s something I have always felt frustrated about, because the first time I read Little Women as a child, even though I got the impression that I was supposed to identify with Jo, especially as a writer myself, it was Amy I was drawn towards the most, the aspiring artist with a penchant for using big words and a strong desire to impress and be known.
Gerwig’s script subverts this characterization by telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, jumping back and forth between the sisters as adults and flashing back to their childhood. This is a brilliant move, as Amy is first shown on screen as an adult, rather than a child, which is in fact the part of the novel where her character shows the most growth.
By reframing the story and juxtaposing Amy’s actions as an adult against her actions as a child, Gerwig finally gives her character the room it deserves to breathe. Ironically, the section of the novel Amy’s first scene in the film is based on is called New Impressions.
The title refers to the new impressions both Amy and Laurie form of each other in Europe, far away from home, but judging from the waves of praise from both critics and audiences that I’ve noticed for Florence Pugh’s performance on social media, I believe it also accurately represents the new impressions that people who previously hated Amy March have of her now, after watching the film.
I always felt alone in loving Amy March. But now, thanks to Gerwig’s script and Pugh’s incredible, spirited performance, people finally see Amy March as I always saw her: confident and clear-eyed, with a shrewd mind and a big heart, someone who is keenly aware of her limitations, plays to win, and would do anything to achieve her dreams, who doesn’t care what others think of her ambitions.
One of my favorite flashback scenes in the film highlights this aspect of her character best, when all four sisters are sitting together in the living room and talking about their hopes and dreams.
“I have lots of wishes, but my favorite one is to be an artist and go to Paris and do fine pictures and be the best painter in the world,” Amy says.
“That’s what you want too, isn’t it Jo? To be a famous writer?” responds Beth.
“Yes, but it sounds so crass when she says it,” replies Jo.
But Amy is undeterred. “Why be ashamed of what you want?”
Amy has grandiose dreams and isn’t afraid to declare what they are to everybody, even though her family finds it silly and a little gauche when she does it as a child. But dreams become more real when you say them out loud, especially when you are growing up in a small rural town like Amy and I did, without easy access to opportunity.
Verbalizing them is a way to prove that you take yourself seriously, even if nobody else does, and that in its own way is a validating kind of power.
Gerwig recognizes this, and her directions allows the narrative and the audience to take Amy’s artistic ambitions as seriously as she does, providing an empathetic context for why she makes the choices she does, compared to her older sisters, rather than framing her as an intentional antagonist.
Amy will do whatever she can do to ensure she has access to art lessons because she understands that if she doesn’t, no one will, and she spares no energy in enthusiastically pursuing art.
In the novel, there is a chapter called Artistic Attempts, which details all of Amy’s creative endeavors, which include: pen and ink drawings, fire poker sketch drawings, oil paintings, charcoal portraits, clay and plaster molds and busts, and nature sketches. In the process, Amy suffers multiple colds, “sacrifice[s] her complexion”, and even ends up with a permanent scar on her foot after it gets stuck in a plaster mold and Jo nicks her skin while trying to cut her out.
Alcott describes her as thus:
“If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.”
While the film wisely chooses to focus on painting as Amy’s primary choice of creative medium rather than showing her exploring all her different endeavors, the script takes every chance possible for Amy to mention that being a great artist is her ultimate goal, above all else.
And still, she suffers from self doubt. Pugh’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal of Amy’s internal struggles is one of the best parts of the film, combining original dialogue with lines directly from the novel and resulting in an impactful scene that beautifully highlights the challenge of being an ambitious artist.
“Talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try anymore,” she declares to Laurie, replete with frustration.
While Jo questions the importance of the stories she wants to tell, she never questions her own ability. Amy, on the other hand, surrounded by artistic geniuses in Europe, comes to believe that no matter how much hard work she puts in, it might never be enough to achieve the goals she has set for herself — because she wants to be the greatest, or nothing.
It’s an extreme statement, to be sure, but one I have felt myself more than once, especially when I look around and see how many talented and accomplished writers are out there in the world, many far younger than me.
To be honest, I have never had a problem with the characteristics that have made Amy a controversial and unpopular character, because as a child, my intensity often irked people and made them extremely uncomfortable. Blunt straightforwardness can often cause discomfort for people who aren’t ready to confront it, especially when it comes from the mouth of a young girl.
What I love about Pugh’s performance in particular is how it highlights how many of Amy’s peculiarities and personality quirks are simply part of who she is as a person, but also how external circumstances shape her. I know how it feels to be young and powerless, with nothing but spite and ambition holding me together, at the cost of alienating my own peers, similar to how Amy alienated Jo — while impressing adults with my fortitude, the same way Aunt March ultimately rewarded Amy.
Still, unlike her, it can sometimes be difficult for me to openly verbalize my own desires the same way she does without feeling a touch of shame. I love that she never once apologizes for being so open and straightforward about her goals and that she is her own biggest cheerleader. I think the energy she brings to not only dreaming, but chasing after her dreams, is deeply admirable.
Like Amy says, there’s no need to be ashamed of what I want. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, one I soon hope to learn by heart, just like her.