Nora Ephron famously felt bad about her neck. I don’t feel bad about my neck, not yet. Instead, I feel bad about Little Women.

The reviews of Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation have been universally adoring. “Superb,” said Empire. “One-hundred-and-fifty-year-old literature never felt so alive,” agreed The Observer. Liking the film is now considered as much a part of being a thoughtful modern woman as supporting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Because this movie isn’t just good, people wrote with urgency on social media – it’s important. It’s about women and creativity and it stars women – four of them! It’s an adaptation of one of the greatest women’s novels, done by Gerwig, who, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was decreed by The Council of General Consensus to be An Excellent Thing. As Marmee says in the book, “I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”

So I went to the cinema, as excited as if I were going on a Tinder date with Prince Charming. Hell, the algorithm guaranteed a happy ending. Louisa May Alcott’s novel was one of my favourites as a child, and like every bookish girl (what other kind reads Little Women?), I over-empathised with Jo March, the tomboy who dreams of being a writer. Also, I hugely enjoyed Lady Bird, Gerwig’s previous movie with Saoirse Ronan, who plays Jo in this version. So this film could not be more up my boulevard if it was my actual house and I lived in it.

But to paraphrase another 19th-century novel much-loved by women, Reader, I did not love Little Women. Despite all the excitement, it looks as twee as the many other previous adaptations, while being more safe in the way it plays to the gallery. At the risk of being a Little Woman hipster (although all those homespun dresses they wear are quite hipster), every time someone coos over Ronan’s interpretation of Jo as an independent spirit, I can hear Katharine Hepburn, who played Jo in the 1933 version, hacking off her own hair in disgust.

Much has been made of the way Gerwig has blended Alcott’s biography into the novel, ending the film with Jo publishing Little Women. This allows the director to fudge the storyline even more than she does by making Prof Bhaer, who Jo ends up marrying, a young and dishy Frenchman – as opposed to the old and ugly German he is in the book. This might be more satisfying for Jo fans, but it sands down Jo’s oddness. If Gerwig were going to change something about Bhaer, I wish she’d changed how Jo falls for him when he says her stories are rubbish. (It is amazing how many novels feature a woman getting turned on by a man telling her off, from Emma to Jane Eyre to Fifty Shades. As messages go, I’d like this to go in the bin, alongside girls being told that, when a boy pulls their hair, it means he likes them.)

The novel ends with Jo and her husband opening a boys’ school, which doesn’t have quite the same feminist, individualist punch as publishing one’s own book. But imposing modern attitudes on canonical characters in the belief they must be relatable is just lazy. This happens a lot with the Bennet sisters in Pride And Prejudice, and here with the March sisters. A good literary adaptation brings us to the characters, not the other way round; in Emma Thompson’s Sense And Sensibility, Thompson and Kate Winslet don’t wang on about “the marriage economy”, as Gerwig’s Little Women do. Instead, we see how we would have thought in the 19th century. Because it’s one thing to fantasise that we are Jo, and quite another to fantasise that Jo is us. This tendency to overrelate to any fictional character, whether it’s Jo or Fleabag, is less about art and more about narcissism. We don’t have to make everything about ourselves.

I am an enthusiast, and being cynical when everyone else is cheering is territory as unknown to me as the moon. If I don’t like Gerwig’s Little Women, who even am I for heaven’s sake? As I left the cinema, I was reminded of a time when a bunch of friends fixed me up with someone they knew I’d love. He was a book editor! And Jewish! But I rejected him, and they despaired – what more could I want? Sometimes ideas you love in theory crash on the rocks of reality.

And sometimes they’re just overfamiliar. The trailers before Little Women were for the upcoming films of Emma and The Secret Garden. But there are many other great books about women – Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty – that are less cosy, less white and have not been turned into a film a thousand times before. As the March sisters say, when bemoaning their poverty in the book: no one likes to see the same old dresses again and again.

I didn’t marry the Jewish book editor – instead, I went off and had a fling with someone who was neither of those things. Similarly, I didn’t love Little Women, but instead fell for the next film I saw, Uncut Gems, an Adam Sandler thriller, of all unlikely genres. We don’t always want the dishy young French guy. Sometimes we surprise ourselves and prefer the ugly old German.


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