Last month, the Twittersphere was set ablaze with speculation that indie darling Greta Gerwig would be adapting Louisa May Alcott’s iconic 19th-century novel Little Women for the big screen. Reported to reunite the writer-director with fraught Lady Bird sweethearts Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, the film is said to have Emma Stone, Florence Pugh (who led 2017’s sensational Lady Macbeth), and the ineffable Meryl Streep in talks to costar.
Trailing a recent adaptation of the same work into a BBC miniseries, Gerwig’s Little Women will presumably trace the lives of Alcott’s famous March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—as they emerge from childhood and adolescence into the flush of womanhood; and its timing couldn’t feel more right. With a news cycle so rife with male folly, films and television shows centered on dynamic female characters, whatever the context, can take on the beguiling air of escapist fantasy—explaining both their increasing popularity and their wonderful variety. From the hooded renegades of The Handmaid’s Tale to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (aka GLOW), depictions of women living and working together—happily or unhappily—have gained a higher profile, reminding us not only of the rich dramatic potential of such stories, but also of their plain-and-simple entertainment value. Lest we forget Cate Blanchett’s rousing speech as she accepted the Oscar for Best Actress in 2014, a “niche experience” films driven by women are not. “Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money,” she declared. “The world is round, people!”
The female-focused films of this decade are also not without their precedents. Literature has proven a fertile source of complex female roles since the dawn of cinema, with Little Women generating its first feature moving picture adaptation in 1917. Since that time, fictive sisterhoods of all stripes (familial and otherwise) have been realized to wonderful effect, giving women the opportunity to commune and take up space in ways not always fostered by their surrounding culture. So, as we await further word on Gerwig’s sophomore feature and its dreamy cast, a celebration of just a few great adaptations hinged on strong female bonds:
Little Women (1933 film, based on the 1869 novel)
Katharine Hepburn was the headstrong Jo March in this adaptation directed by George Cukor. Together, she and her three sisters (played by Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, and Jean Parker) wrestle with love and loss in Civil War–era Massachusetts.
Le Amiche (1955 film, based on the 1949 novella Tra Donne Sole by Cesare Pavese)
Eleonora Rossi Drago plays Clelia, a fashion designer who falls in with a troubled group of women and their assorted lovers when she moves back home to Turin from Rome.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969 film, based on the 1961 novel by Muriel Spark)
As the freewheeling titular schoolteacher, an alluring Maggie Smith befriends and advises a small group of students at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls with both thrilling and tragic consequences.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975 film, based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay)
Peter Weir directed this gorgeous cult classic about four girls who go missing in the Australian wilderness.
The Color Purple (1985 film, based on the 1982 novel by Alice Walker)
Whoopi Goldberg made her film debut as Celie, a girl from rural Georgia whose relationships with her younger sister (played by Akosua Busia) and intimate friend (Margaret Avery) provide essential sources of solace.
Babette’s Feast (1988 film, based on the 1950 short story by Isak Dinesen)
If better known for her sprawling memoir (and its Oscar-winning adaptation) Out of AfricaKaren Blixen, as Isak Dinesen is also known, further established herself as one of the 20th century’s greatest storytellers with “Babette’s Feast,” a story about two sisters who take in a French refugee and are treated to an extraordinary gift.
Sense and Sensibility (1995 film, based on the 1811 novel by Jane Austen)
With a screenplay adapted by costar Emma Thompson, this Austen film boasts an incredible cast (Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant are also in the mix) and is the charming story of two close sisters burdened by difficult financial circumstances and a small stable of suitors.
The Virgin Suicides (1999 film, based on the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides)
In her feature film directorial debut, Sofia Coppola captures the five teenaged Lisbon sisters in their struggle for independence from a strictly Catholic household in 1970s Michigan.