Universal storytelling is the bread and butter of modern cinema. It creates a global audience and reaches across borders to tell stories viewers may never experience in their own lives. Universalism, in some ways, works against the push for diversity and representation in cinema; if everyone is to relate to a character, why should effort be made to include lesser seen or minority groups? The root of universalism within stories is that the human condition, in all its forms, will relate to key base themes such as love, loss, death and family. Looking at this last point and, more specifically, at sibling relationships is an oddly interesting and rather unchanging relation throughout its many portrayals. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Edmund’s (Skandar Keynes) betrayal of his three siblings to win the favour of the White Queen (Tilda Swindon) is one of the most miscalculated actions in the Narnia series. This seemingly unforgivable act is, however, completely forgiven by Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), who welcome their brother back to their side with open arms. No one can fight like siblings and no one can forgive like siblings, and in this small sense, universalism may have a leg to stand on.
The interactions between sisters, although more niche, also has a trend running throughout its onscreen tradition. In two separate classic novels – both of which have been privy to many adaptations including BBC miniseries’, television films and feature films – the focuses on sisterhood run parallel. Whilst Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’s protagonist is definitely Elizabeth Bennett and her story is directed by her interactions and romance with Fitzwilliam Darcy, the book and 2005 adaptation is given life and Lizzie her personality by the inclusion of the four other Bennett sisters. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, written 50 years after Austen’s novel, is the second adaptation of interest. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film breathed new life into a much-loved story of growing up with sisters. For two groups of young women to strike similarity across continents and across decades, there must be something larger tying them together. Whilst both the Bennett sisters and March sisters are from similar socio-economic backgrounds, are white, of similar ages and both movies feature the aesthetic choices of costume designer Jacqueline Durran, how they interact between themselves feels strikingly timeless.
Both novels were seen as feminist works in their time and the 21st century reimaginings of both exaggerate this with how their main characters are portrayed. Where classic literature focussed less on the inner worlds of their characters, Joe Wright’s Lizzie Bennett (Keira Knightley) and Gerwig’s Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) are as assertive and expressive as their contemporary audience would desire them to be. Jo’s disdain for the idea of marriage, in line with the modern woman’s right to choose today, was not the desirable fate in 1868 when it would leave her without the ability to own property, vote or, indeed, make more than a basic income. Alcott had wanted Jo to remain a “literary maid” like herself (and Austen), but was pushed by publishers to marry her protagonist off by the end of the ‘Good Wives’ sequel. Austen also allowed her characters to make bold claims in her place as Lizzie Bennett in 1813: “determined that only the deepest love will induce me into matrimony. So I shall end an old maid and teach [Jane’s] ten children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill.”
Given this historical context and the plot of both films, it can be easy to lean into a discussion surrounding gender and marriage in the 1800s. However, it is the sisterly relationships within each adaptation which remain the hook for both stories. So often written off as classical ‘chick lit’, Jane Austen’s female characters are notably well rounded. In the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, each of the Bennett sisters is distinctly recognisable. Jane (Rosamund Pike), the oldest, is gentle natured and posed, Lizzie is good humoured, assertive and the apple of her father’s (Donald Sutherland) eye. Jane and Lizzie confide in each other and are often seen debriefing the day whilst getting ready for bed in their shared room. There is a tenderness and a maturity in this elder duo which translates into envy in the younger trio. Both Kitty (Carey Mulligan) and the troublesome Lydia (Jena Malone) personify the stereotype of the nature of women at this time: giggling and hysterical with little on their mind but flirtation and the next village dance. The serious and studious middle child Mary (Talulah Riley) is the ugly duckling of the family and remains quietly on the backfoot throughout the course of the film. Pride and Prejudice is first and foremost a comedy and the writing of Mrs Bennett (Brenda Blethyn) as melodramatic and ridiculous as her two youngest daughters is a subversion of the maternal trope portrayed so well through Little Women’s sensible, wise and loving Marmie (Laura Dern).
Each of the Bennett sisters showcase a different aspect of girlhood and, whilst together they are rowdy and argumentative, each stands her own ground when it comes to her part of the story. The youngest, Lydia, is encouraged in her vanity and silliness by her mother and dismissed by her father. This pandering is shown to be ineffective as she runs away and at just the age of fifteen is the first to marry the scandalous George Wickham (Rupert Friend). Lydia’s imprudent nature is matched with a keen eye as she is shown to play the game of society well. By contrast, the oldest and most considerate sister Jane nearly loses her chance of marrying Charles Bingley (Simon Woods) by remaining passive in action despite her affection. Jane’s genuine nature is paled by Lydia’s ribbons but they are cut from the same cloth. Throughout, Lizzie tries to restrain Lydia and encourage Jane whilst going along with her tumultuous courtship with Mr Darcy. The sisters know each other well enough to read the room and be in the loop without much explicit explanation, but not enough to not be shocked by each other. These girls, despite their different approaches, all believe in true and deep love, refusing, in their separate ways to marry for convenience. Mary, who remains staunchly un-betrothed, refuses to partake in any social game-playing at all. Known to be the plainest and least accomplished Bennett sister, Mary is an example of how society remained unforgiving to its women in this time, despite the forward-thinking Bennetts.
Where Mary’s quietness is seen as a failing by her mother, in Little Women Beth March’s (Eliza Scanlen) gentle but similarly quiet nature marks her out as the ‘best’ March sister. There is a connection between Amy March’s (Florence Pugh) simultaneously self-assured and desperate need to not be left out by her older sisters which makes reference to Lydia and Kitty’s personalities. The almost exclusive closeness of Meg (Emma Watson) and Jo is also similar to the older Bennett girls. However, whether it is the war-time spirit, their slightly younger ages or American nature, the closeness of the March sisters is more distinct than that between the Bennetts. Whilst Lizzie encourages her sister’s affections, Jo abhors Meg’s, determined to remain in a childhood state for as long as possible. Gerwig markedly places a flashback to Meg’s wedding just before the scene of Beth’s funeral to heighten Jo’s feelings of ‘losing’ her sister to marriage. Especially during the flashback scenes, the March sisters are seen playing, walking and always sitting together. Their fights are furious and forgiven quickly. Everything feels like life or death; the burning of a manuscript, not being invited to the theatre or to ice skate, the need to perfect a play performed to their wider family unit. The Marchs going their separate ways as they grow up is marked with mourning with Beth’s death being the cumulative death of this innocence.
Despite this, the sisterly love within both sets of girls which is marked with emotion and action. Where so much of the romances within these films are about waiting and watching, the sisterly love is practical; Lizzie treks across the countryside on foot when she learns that Jane has fallen ill and Jo moves back home from New York to nurse Beth. In fact, for Lizzie, it takes Darcy’s intention of protecting his younger sister Georgiana for her to soften to him in the first place. Contrastingly, the lack of compassion extended to Jane by Bingley’s sisters halts their early courtship. In Little Women, the juxtaposition between Meg’s interactions with her sisters and her interactions with her wealthier friends who view her as their token poor friend highlight the unconditional sisterly love she has at home. For Lizzie, in the famous rain proposal scene, her first reasoning for rejecting Darcy is the fact she “could not accept the man who ruined the happiness of a most beloved sister […] who barely shows her true feelings to me.” Showing her fierce loyalty here, this scene is countered with the anguish later in the film when Lizzie learns Lydia has run away with Wickham. Again she turns responsibility inward, blaming herself “for not being more open with my sisters” about Wickham’s character flaws. These cases, rooted in family ties, are Lizzie’s most emotional outbursts, more so than any surrounding her personal troubles throughout the film. Little Women, set 50 years later, shows the beginnings of transcendentalism in the American psyche, particularly in Jo – whose big meltdown is about her own feelings of loneliness and feminist beliefs.
The youngest daughters’ homecoming as married women resets pace for both sets of sisters. Amy’s marriage to Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) marks a new maturity between the March sisters, whilst Lydia’s to Wickham is an avoidance of irreversible scandal. Following the death of Beth, Amy and Jo are no longer at odds with each other. Where the younger versions of both these characters competed as two sides of the same coin, the older girls show empathy. This means that actions – such as Amy marrying Jo’s closest friend – no longer feel like acts of revenge but that of pure intention. It is Darcy’s generosity to her sisters, in ensuring the Wickham marriage and Bingley’s long-awaited proposal to Jane, that gains him Lizzie’s trust.
Whilst Lizzie grows to love Mr Darcy and Pride and Prejudice is inherently this story, her family and their happiness ultimately comes top in her priority list. This is a mindset that Jo learns in Little Women, having to accept that whilst her sisters’ “dreams are different from [hers, they are] not…less important.” These lessons learned and principles held are truly universal reasonings which can easily be understood in the modern day by audiences with or without sisters. In worlds of etiquette, these sets of girls quarrel and disagree, wrestle and confide in each other. Each of them is learning to find her place in the society around her to varying degrees of success and, whilst she does, the relationship with her sisters is the most comfortable, interesting and recognisable to their audiences today.
Header image courtesy of StudioCanal and Columbia Pictures