Sony Pictures initiated the development of the film in 2013, with Amy Pascal coming on board to produce in 2015 and Gerwig hired to write its screenplay the following year. Using Alcott's other writings as inspiration, Gerwig penned the script in 2018. She was made director that same year, with the film being the second she had solely directed. Filming took place from October to December 2018 in the state of Massachusetts, with editing commencing the day after filming wrapped.
In 1868, Jo March, a teacher in New York City, goes to Mr. Dashwood, an editor who agrees to publish a story she has written. Her youngest sister, Amy, who is in Paris with their Aunt March, attends a party with their childhood friend and neighbor, Laurie. Amy becomes angry at Laurie's drunken behavior, prompting him to mock her for spending time with wealthy businessman Fred Vaughn. In New York, Jo becomes hurt when Friedrich Bhaer, a professor interested in her, gives critical feedback on her writing, angering her. After learning from a letter that her younger sister Beth's illness has worsened, Jo returns home to Concord, Massachusetts.
Seven years earlier in 1861 while at a party with her elder sister, Meg, Jo meets Laurie. On Christmas morning, the girls' mother, "Marmee", persuades them to give their breakfast to their poor neighbor Mrs. Hummel and her starving children. After returning home, they find a table full of food given to them by their neighbor and Laurie's grandfather, Mr. Laurence. Marmee then reads a letter from their father fighting in the American Civil War. Jo regularly reads to Aunt March, hoping Aunt March would invite her to Europe.
When Meg, Jo, Laurie, and John— Laurie's tutor and Meg's future husband— go to the theater, a jealous Amy burns Jo's writings. The next morning, Amy, wanting an upset Jo to forgive her, chases her and Laurie onto a lake where they are skating. They save Amy when she falls through the ice. Mr. Laurence notices Beth's quietness and invites her to play his late daughter's piano in his house. Meg sits down with John in the present after buying an expensive fabric they can't afford and expresses her unhappiness about being poor. Laurie visits Amy to apologize for his behavior, urging her not to marry Fred but instead marry him. Though in love with Laurie, Amy refuses, upset at always being second to Jo. Despite this, she also turns down Fred's proposal.
Mr. Laurence gifts his piano to Beth in the past and discovers she has contracted scarlet fever from the Hummels. To avoid the illness, Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March, who advises her to provide for her family by marrying well. John urges Meg to turn the fabric into a dress in the present to make her happy, but she reveals she had sold it and reassures him of her happiness as his wife. Beth recovers in time for Christmas in the past, and their father returns home as well. After worsening in the present, Beth dies. On Meg's wedding day in the past, Jo tries to convince her to run away, but Meg expresses her elation to marry John. Aunt March announces her European trip, taking Amy instead of Jo. After the wedding, Laurie proposes to Jo, who refuses, explaining she does not see herself married.
Marmee reveals Amy is returning from Europe with an ill Aunt March in the present. Jo wonders whether she was too quick to turn Laurie down and writes him a letter. Preparing to leave, Amy tells Laurie she turned down Fred's proposal; they kiss and later marry on the journey home. Jo and Laurie agree to remain friends, after which she discards the letter she wrote to him. Jo begins to write a novel based on her and her sisters' lives and sends the first chapters to an unimpressed Mr. Dashwood. Bhaer surprises Jo by turning up at the March house on his way to California.
In New York, Mr. Dashwood agrees to publish Jo's novel after his daughters demand to know how it ends, but he refuses to accept the protagonist remaining unmarried at the end. To appease him, Jo ends her novel with the protagonist, herself, stopping Bhaer from leaving for California. She successfully negotiates copyright and royalties with Mr. Dashwood. Following Aunt March's passing, Jo inherits her house and opens it as a school, where Meg, Amy, and Bhaer all teach. Jo observes the printing of her novel, titled Little Women.
In October 2013, it was announced that a new film adaptation of the novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was in development at Sony Pictures, with Olivia Milch writing the screenplay, and Robin Swicord and Denise Di Novi serving as producers. In March 2015, Amy Pascal joined as a producer on the new adaptation, with Sarah Polley hired to write the script and potentially direct. Ultimately, Polley's involvement never went beyond initial discussions. In August 2016, Greta Gerwig was hired to write the screenplay. In June 2018, Gerwig was announced as the film's director in addition to being its screenwriter. She had heard about Sony's plans to adapt the book in 2015 and urged her agent to get her in touch with the studio, conceding that while she "was not on anybody's list to direct this film", it was something she aspired to do, citing how the book had inspired her to become a writer and director. Pascal described Gerwig's pitch as "the ambition and the dreams that you have as a girl" and how they "get stomped out of you as you grow up" as well as "commerce and art and what we have to do to make things commercial." In addition to being Gerwig's first studio film she had directed, Little Women was her second solo directorial endeavor.
Gerwig began penning the screenplay during a trip to Big Sur, California shortly after the 2018 Academy Awards, using Alcott's letters and diaries as well as "19th-century paintings of young women" as inspirations. She had written "three or four drafts" prior to the production of Lady Bird. She also drew inspiration from Alcott's other stories for the dialogues. Gerwig wrote many overlapping lines of dialogue that would be "read on top of one another." In addition, she stated that a monologue in the film was inspired by a conversation she had with Streep about "the challenges women faced in the 1860s". To "focus the film on [its characters] as adults", Gerwig incorporated a nonlinear timeline. The ending differs from that in the novel by depicting "the pleasures of a romance inside a story about Alcott realizing her artistic ambitions", which Gerwig believed honors Alcott's true vision given that Alcott had to "satisfy the era's narrative expectations".
The film required "roughly 75 principal period costumes", each of which took "approximately 40 hours" to create. The costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, combined "a free sartorial spirit" and "the traditional Victorian stiffness" in costuming the characters. Wanting to make "vintage clothes look covetable to the modern viewer", she paired "woollen sontags" with "preppy plaid skirts", "long crimson capes", and "jaunty newsboy caps". She distinguished the characters' childhood and adulthood wardrobes while keeping in mind "the internal logic of each one" and maintaining "the connection between the two", with each character being assigned a "core color", including red for Jo, green and lavender for Meg, brown and pink for Beth, and light blue for Amy. She also had the characters share and reuse the same wardrobe pieces to reinforce their relationships with each other. In addition to styling Jo in "baggy cotton dresses" as well as "plain woolly skirts", Durran incorporated "modern references" and used "a young Bob Dylan", the Teddy Boy subculture, and French artist James Tissot's painting The Circle of the Rue Royale as inspirations to style Laurie. She also modeled one of Jo's looks after a figure in the 1870 painting High Tide by Winslow Homer.
The cast, with the exception of Pugh due to her filming commitments to Midsommar, began rehearsals for the film two weeks prior to filming.Principal photography began in Boston in October 2018, with Harvard, Massachusetts, serving as the main location. Additional locations included Lancaster, Harvard University in Cambridge, Crane Beach in Ipswich, and Concord, all in the state of Massachusetts. The Shaker museum in the Fruitlands of Harvard, a property in which Alcott and her family had once resided, was used as the location of Meg and John's home. The March family house was built from scratch on a plot in Concord; production designer Jess Gonchor intended for the exterior to exude "an old worn-out jewelry box that you found in your grandmother's drawer" while likening the interior to "a beautiful maze and flow and endless activity." Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum was used to shoot a scene set in a nineteenth-century Paris park with Pugh, Chalamet, and Streep.Castle Hill in Ipswich was also utilized to double for European scenes.
In the midst of production, Gerwig discovered she was pregnant and kept it secret throughout. She imposed a ban on cell phones on set during filming. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shot on 35 mm film. After principal photography wrapped on December 16, 2018, Gerwig began editing the film alongside editor Nick Houy the following day and later screened it for Sony Pictures executives in New York City on March 10, 2019, three days ahead of giving birth to her son.
French composer Alexandre Desplat composed the score. Gerwig had been a fan of Desplat's score for the film Birth and aspired to work with him, while he "loved" Lady Bird. Desplat said in an interview that Gerwig specified that she would like the music to be "a mix of Mozart meeting Bowie", with her later saying that she had enlisted him for the "beautiful but not saccharine" and "exacting" qualities of his music. He employed an orchestra that included a piano, harp, flute, clarinet, and celesta. The score was released on December 13, 2019.
Little Women was originally scheduled for a theatrical release in China on February 14, 2020, but this was scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was released digitally on March 10, 2020, and on DVD and Blu-ray on April 7. In May, Variety reported that it was once again intended for a China release at an unspecified date following the pandemic. The film was released in Denmark and Japan in June after both countries re-opened their theaters following pandemic lockdowns. It was eventually released in China on August 25, 2020.
Little Women grossed $108.1 million in the United States and Canada, and $110.8 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $218.9 million, against a production budget of $40 million. In April 2020, Deadline Hollywood calculated its net profit to be $56 million.
Released in the United States and Canada alongside Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level, the film was projected to gross $18–22 million from 3,308 theaters over its five-day opening weekend. It made $6.4 million on Christmas Day and $6 million on its second day, debuting to $16.8 million (a total of $29.2 million over the five-day Christmas period) and finishing fourth behind the two aforementioned films and Frozen II. In its second weekend, the film grossed $13.6 million, finishing third. It then made $7.8 million and $6.4 million, respectively, the following weekends.
In June 2020, the film grossed $495,000 and $255,000 during its opening weekend in Japan and its second weekend in Denmark, respectively. That same month, it passed $100 million at the international box office following releases in 12 other markets. The film made $4.7 million over the first six days of its August 2020 release in China.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 95% based on 425 reviews, with an average rating of 8.6/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "With a stellar cast and a smart, sensitive retelling of its classic source material, Greta Gerwig's Little Women proves some stories truly are timeless." On Metacritic, it has a weighted average score of 91 out of 100 based on 57 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale, and viewers surveyed by PostTrak gave it an average five out of five.
Writing for IndieWire, Kate Erbland highlighted Gerwig's "ambitious elliptical storytelling" and commended her direction for being neither "heavy-handed" nor "preachy".Anthony Lane of The New Yorker said that it "may just be the best film yet made by an American woman". The Associated Press's Lindsey Bahr also praised Gerwig's direction, deeming it an "astonishing accomplishment" and an "artist's statement". Awarding the film three-and-a-half out of four, Brian Truitt of USA Today lauded Gerwig's writing as "magnificent" and said it "makes Alcott's time and language feel effervescently modern and authentically nostalgic".Mick LaSalle, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, gave the film a mixed review, in which he complimented Gerwig's direction but criticized the nonlinear timeline and the "snooty" characters.
While the film overall received six Academy Award nominations, Gerwig was not nominated for Best Director, which was deemed a snub.Allison Pearson of The Telegraph labeled this a "whole new standard of idiocy", opining that it "belittles women's experience", while Slate's Dana Stevens theorized that Academy members believe that "women can only have a little recognition, as a treat" and that Gerwig "may now safely be ignored" since she had been previously nominated for Lady Bird. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, social psychologists Devon Proudfoot and Aaron Kay concluded that the snub was due to a "general psychological tendency to unwittingly view women's work as less creative than men's".