From Little Women to David Copperfield: the films modernising the classics

Two of this year’s literary adaptations, Little Women and The Personal History of David Copperfield, have a distinctly modern feel.

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Standing centre-stage in Suffolk’s opulent Theatre Royal, David Copperfield reads from his “personal history”. This is how Armando Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens' novel begins – a nod to the fact that Dickens himself gave theatrical readings like this from his books. Iannucci blends Copperfield the fictional writer and Dickens the real writer from the beginning.

Another recent film, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, has striking similarities. We learn that yet another fictional writer, Jo March, is not so different from her creator, Louisa May Alcott. Both these snappy and lively literary adaptations use meta asides in order to rework two classics for a modern audience.

David Copperfield, a sprawling bildungsroman, is notoriously difficult to adapt. One of the best is Simon Curtis’s BBC serialisation (starring a ten-year-old Daniel Radcliffe), which captures the scope of plot but retains the quaintness of typical period drama. The BBC’s 2017 Little Women, though gorgeously shot, missed the mark for sticking adamantly to the book’s ending. Since Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2019 film The Favourite, the tone of period pieces has shifted from stuffy and nostalgic to the spiky and irreverent.   

David Copperfield stars Dev Patel in the title role. The film’s colour-blind casting takes its cue from the stage and makes a clear statement about the UK’s multicultural heritage while translating the class issues of Dickens’s work into the present day. “In Dickens’s time, it was all about class – for us, growing up in immigrant families, it’s about, ‘Do we fit in?’” Iannucci told the New Statesman. Diverse productions like this are much needed and long overdue.

It’s not just the racial diversity of the cast that makes this production seem modern. A worship of Dickens’ language is at the heart of this film, but it feels refreshed and updated – there are no parodies of Victorian dialogue here. And as Iannucci also told the New Statesman, his characters have a contemporary physicality: he instructed the actors to avoid cultivating a “period” style of movement: “Just walk! To the characters in the film, it’s the present day, they’re not ‘old-fashioned’.” The Personal History of David Copperfield is Dickens amplified, the creator of The Thick of It turning humour and physical comedy up a notch. Copperfield repeatedly thwacks his head against a low ceiling; in a fantasy sequence the golden curls of his beloved appear all over London, even on top of St Paul’s cathedral; his aunt presses her nose against his window (a detail, believe it or not, straight from the book).

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is similarly interested in how characters move – Gerwig has said of her approach: “No one walks around thinking that they’re in a period piece.” Little Women is a film packed with movement: punching, leaping, tousling. Saoirse Ronan’s boyish Jo, Emma Watson’s dutiful Meg and Florence Pugh’s defiant Amy clamber over one another. A bemused Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), seemingly awkwardly self-conscious of his male presence in an overwhelming female household, looks on while the sisters pile on top of each another in a fight. This is a type of female physicality rarely seen in cinema, let alone period drama.

Careful choreography of motion and dialogue is the foundation of Little Women. In an interview with NPR, Gerwig said that she “wanted the camera to be like a dancer”. Sweeping shots capture fleeting movements and familiar lines are uttered at “lightning speed”, a far cry from the measured, archaic dialogue of Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Little Women. Memorably, Jo and Laurie head-bang to Antonín Dvořák's American quartet. On set, the film’s dances were choreographed to the likes of Aretha Franklin, David Bowie and James Brown, swerving away from the inevitability of ballroom dances toward something youthful, vibrant and light. “I didn’t want to make a period piece that felt nailed to the floor,” Gerwig told Film Comment.

Inventive cinematic techniques abound in David Copperfield: retrospective film-projections, a Twenties-style silent sequence and, most innovatively, the meta bookends – an approach shared by the two films. Grown-up Copperfield gives us a walking tour of his childhood, stooping over his mother while she gives birth to him. In Gerwig’s non-linear narrative, we begin halfway through the novel, after the sisters have left home. Focus falls not just on Jo as a writer, but as an adult. Iannucci’s David Copperfield, likewise, is the first adaptation in which a grown man and not a ten-year-old orphan undertakes the epic journey from London to his aunt in Dover. (Both films were born out of their director's rereading of the book as adults: “When I read it in my thirties,” Gerwig said of Little Women, “it was a vastly different experience.”)

Though Gerwig and Iannucci did their research, taking the majority of their scripts if not from the novels then from letters, diaries or other books by Alcott and Dickens – the original material is noticeably altered. “Jo should have remained a literary spinster,” Alcott wrote to a friend; Gerwig takes her at her word. In Gerwig's adaptation, when Jo’s publisher tells her that her heroine must be married, Jo acquiesces on the grounds that she will have ownership of the book’s rights. What follows is a borderline-absurd romantic scene, culminating in Jo kissing her love interest, Professor Bhaer, undercut by shots of Jo the writer negotiating with her publisher about the ending. In the next scene, Jo surveys the stitching and embossing of her novel, Little Women.

Jo is not the only character with the ability to rewrite her story. Nearing the end of Iannucci’s David Copperfield, Dora Spenlow, the angelic but untalented love-interest, pleads with Copperfield, as he pens his personal history, to “write me out of it. I really don’t fit.” In the book, David and Dora commit to a strained marriage, which fails mainly because Dora cannot carry out household duties. To release David, Dora is killed off. Comparison has been drawn to Dickens’s own marriage; he had affairs after falling out of love with his wife at some point during the time she was having their ten children. By having Copperfield write Dora out, Iannucci avoids a sticky moment of misogyny, and happily Dora is saved.

Jo and David are more than a little conflated with Alcott and Dickens, and there is much of their writer-directors in the characters, too. The witty impersonations with which Iannucci would win over his classmates when he was young have made their way into his version of David Copperfield – which he insists is about the “struggle” (perhaps his own) “to be a writer”. Gerwig sees herself in Little Women’s exploration of that struggle, too. “I don’t know if I was like Jo, and that’s why I loved her, or I loved her and so I became like her,” she has said. “But who I am and who Jo March is are so linked.”

Little Women and The Personal History of David Copperfield have strikingly similar meta-fictional endings. By the films' conclusions, both Jo and David have successfully written and sold their novelisations of the events we have been watching on screen. They celebrate outside beautiful homes with their family and friends: a sunlit fantasy of their independence as writers. With these endings, both films subtly nod towards the enduring legacies of their source material, more than 150 years after both novels were published. But they also offer a hopeful, modern take on two familiar stories, emphasising the power ordinary people can find in telling their own tales of everyday struggle, and everyday joy. 

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