Many others have been as enthralled with Kathryn Stockett’s world as I was, so much so that they made her novel into a major motion picture…but do the two worlds jive with one another or conflict? And more importantly which Skeeter is better?
This is what the author, Kathryn Stockett, said about her book, The Help (2009) on her website:
“Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women—mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends—view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.”
The Help (2011) was adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor. The film stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Mary Steenburgen, and Allison Janney. Produced by DreamWorks Pictures and distributed by Touchstone Pictures, it opened to positive reviews and became a massive box office success. In February 2012, the film received four Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture and acting nods for Davis, Chastain, and a win for Supporting Actress for Spencer. On January 29, 2012, the movie won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
The movie’s website had this to say about the movie adaption: “The #1 New York Times best seller by Kathryn Stockett comes to vivid life through the powerful performances of a phenomenal ensemble cast. Led by Emma Stone, Academy Award®-nominated Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress, Doubt, 2008), Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help is an inspirational, courageous and empowering story about very different, extraordinary women in the 1960s South who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project — one that breaks society’s rules and puts them all at risk. Filled with poignancy, humor and hope — and complete with compelling, never-before-seen bonus features — The Help is a timeless, universal and triumphant story about the ability to create change.”
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
In the book I looked forward to when Celia and Minnie would have to tell Celia’s husband that it was Minnie making all the food and cleaning everything. I knew he wouldn’t mind, he married white trash after all and loved her still! This was my favorite storyline and I wouldn’t mind the entire book being from this point of view. It wasn’t so much about racism or beating anyone down so much as about love and acceptance. I could have read countless experiences and adventures with the two of them.
In the movie I loved Aibileen’s point of view. You didn’t really need to know much about her history because Viola Davis portrayed her with such power and emotion that her history was palpable on the screen. Of course I loved seeing Celia Foote in action as well and loved Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of the character. Amazingly, I really appreciated the emotional arc of Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, portrayed spot on by Allison Janney.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
A friend of mine read The Help and was telling me a little about it and I kind of hijacked her into letting me borrow her copy. I’m glad I did. Chick lit is not really my thing, I tend to feel preached at and well, it tends to be boring. I seem to fall into reading or watching things I normally would not be attracted to though. This is a good thing I believe as being exposed and open to ideas we might not normally relate to is a great way to grow.
We start the book from Aibileen’s point of view and I was sucked in right from the opening words. She starts her narrative with the most important person in her life - Mae Mobley. A white child that she was hired to raise and care for in every way a mother does today. There is something so powerful about this – from a writing perspective as well as a reader’s. You are hit in the gut with this black woman, from the south, from a time of great trial for every African-American, whose sole concern in her life is a little white girl misunderstood by her white mother. Right away from two words (and, of course, her narrative about the family and situation) you know that Aibileen is a triumphant example of black maids from the time period and someone of whom you must get to know better. As a writer, I long to create such a connection between my audience and my characters, so swiftly and so irrevocably.
Whether deliberate or not this sets us up with high hopes. Then by page eleven we are introduced to all of the pertinent characters. (Except perhaps Skeeter’s mother whom is hinted at on page five: “Miss Skeeter always look like somebody else told her what to wear.”) Bridge Club every fourth Wednesday a month is the vehicle to establish the status quo and introduce the white characters in a natural manner that gave rise to Aibileen talking about their black maids. I’m very admiring of this technique as it’s simple but natural. It takes skill to prepare the reader while not undermining the narrative and in fact supporting your story. Also, in this way we get tantalized by the different characters and what their possible roles in the story might be.
It sets the reader up to understand that this is a self-contained world, a specific world, populated by specific people at a specific time in the history of our nation. With another type of story you stick with the central characters and build out slowly only mentioning people specific to the current plot. That tends to be a long running story with possible sequels and a rotating door of characters. Another technique that supports this idea is the controversial dialect of the African-American point of view characters.
Let me say up front I champion this dialect technique and the author’s use of it. From the first page we are thrust into a different world from our own, again one with specificity and containment. Our world no longer has segregation and prejudice has expanded past the bounds of race to size, age and sex as well. Yet while we no longer are referencing the current world we can see from the specific direction of Aibileen’s point of view first chapter that there is still much to learn. I believe without the dialect we would not have felt thrust into a different world and without that shift in perspective we could not have felt the power of the characters’ messages. It would have seemed like just another book of historical fiction. Not only do we immediately relate to the different time period due to the dialect but you relate to Skeeter and her situation on the cusp of change.
Due to the times we live in and the spotlight on racial prejudice, we as a people tend to frown severely on treating anyone the way Aibileen, Minny or any of the other maids were treated. So the writer needed to frame Skeeter in such a way that the reader knew, without being told straight out, that she has a dilemma, one of which we can’t really understand. What the dialect did was say – this is a different time, a different place so please give Skeeter the benefit of the doubt. To offset this almost sappy appeal to the reader, the writer firmly established to which group Skeeter belonged – the popular group as a childhood friend to socially powerful Hilly. Yet she can think for herself as she feels awkward due to her size and looks. In fact, even Aibileen describes Skeeter in the first few pages as seemingly awkward and out of fashion with her social station.
Of the detractors, there were many complaints that the white ladies in the book didn’t speak with a southern dialect. True and there are still white Southern ladies today who speak with those drawls. And that was the point – back then black women were treated differently than women in general are today. We were to feel the timelessness of the white women’s actions and treatments between nowadays and the 60s through the lack of dialect with the same. For example, today some women are ostracized like Celia, some are dominated by their mother, like Skeeter, some are abused by their husbands, like Minny, some endure the loss of a child, like Aibileen, some are bullies, like Hilly, and some are followers even though they know it’s wrong, like Elizabeth. If every character spoke in a dialect you would have felt zero effect and Aibileen and Minny would have felt like any random ladies. It would have been harder for the basic reader to get into the story, feel the time period, or get that the book’s setting is not the same world we live in today.
Detractors also had a variety of different complaints that can be rolled together. First, the world created is not a depiction that rings true. Second, the author took judicious licence with cultural and historical references. Third, the characters were not three dimensional (i.e. they were stereotypical). And finally, the world and it’s characters were formed to make a certain culture and viewpoint accessible.
Not to make fun of others but, I have to laugh at the idea that the world created doesn’t ring true! There is a simple concept behind the world the author formed – people don’t always treat people how they ought to be treated and it’s especially heinous when it’s about something, like color or race, which we can’t change. This rings true to me, really true. In the book’s acknowledgements, the author admits to taking creative licence with a song’s release, Shake ‘n Bake and the Jim Crow laws, which she abbreviated from different time periods in the South. This supports my idea that the world the author created was a representation of another world, another time, one that doesn’t quite exist that way any longer. It makes sense to me she would take subtle liberties because the lesson isn’t a stern lecture about how historically awful white people are today because African-Americans were treated poorly back in the 60s. No! The lesson is one of love and acceptance, to treat people as human beings, no matter if white or black, there are good and bad people. (This is why it was essential to have Minny’s husband, Leroy, abusive…)
I think the stereotypical comment was really about the white “villains” represented in the story. I have to go back to Minny’s husband. Just as we needed to see that in the author’s world not all black people are saints, we needed to see that not all white women are she-devils in disguise. A huge proponent of that is Skeeter, of course, but also Skeeter’s run in with Lou Anne near the end of the book. She didn’t fire her maid and said she never would no matter the pressure Hilly brought to bear on her. In fact the lady believed what the different maids had said about her white friends. This was to show that not all white women are villains in much the same way Leroy illustrated his point. I find the fact that not all the viewpoints were up and center a strong mark in the favor of the characters not being stereotypical. (That’s not to say that when every point of view is covered it means the characters are stereotypical but it does generally mean there are a plethora of characters involved. If only two characters cover the point of view of a subject in totality then definitely it points to stereotypes.) Perhaps my argument hasn’t convinced you.
That’s fine, read it for yourself and you decide. I think if you have a strong connection to the South you might very well take offense at your perceived view of the characters. Where as if you don’t have those strong connections then you are able to relate to those characters. This stereotypical complaint to me boils down to not wanting to be tared with the same brush. And it all feeds into a failing to see the point of the story. It’s not about white people being bad, made to feel guilty or black people being dumb and abusive. It’s about specific people who due to their circumstances and backgrounds are able to see the world in a societal changing way. Sure, the book was written to make a certain culture and viewpoint accessible. Isn’t that the definition of a book? Through the eyes of the characters we can experience new futuristic worlds, a present day China or South America to a 1962 Jackson, Mississippi Junior League.
The thing is a well setup story is really nothing extraordinary in itself. Many writers establish the world and the characters with a frightening expertise. The real question is can they keep it up through the entire story? And does the ending measure up to the start? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes!
The entire story is centered around collecting the stories of the African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi and to record the bad and the good of their time in service to their white families. Perhaps the best part of the middle of the book is the very different paths each woman takes in their life to fulfill their part in Skeeter’s project. Skeeter is, of course, the editor of the maids’ stories and the instigator of the project as a whole. She must sacrifice different relationships and challenge others in order to hold onto this project. Aibileen is the first maid to step forward and acts as the leader in gathering other maids and in keeping the project moving forward. She has this passion to move forward due to her love of her white charge, the loss of her son and the vast experience of raising seventeen other charges. Minny to me represented the future – one in which any person of any color could speak their mind and have an opinion. She strummed against the present and in doing so created a situation that saves the lives of each and every one of the maids that participated in the project.
In reality, Skeeter is the central character as she is the most changed by the circumstances in the book. This is not readily apparent as Aibileen, the biggest instigator for that change, takes the lead in the marketing of the book. I found though that Minny and Celia Foote are the ones who touched my heart. Their relationship was out of time and space yet I’m sure that such a relationship existed in some form back in the 60s. Again the balance between the circumstances and the backgrounds of the characters played such a huge part in making these characters and their interactions work for the story. I loved that Celia was white trash and struggled against her physical difficulties while dealing with the social bonds that tied her, it mirrored so lovely Minny and her ties as an abused woman, besides being a woman of color in the 60s. In spite of their backgrounds they form this great friendship, one not understanding the lines drawn around them (Celia) and the other understanding but not certain she feels safe enough to cross them (Minny).
One of the most compelling characters is Constantine. My writing partner read this book before me and Constantine was the most fascinating character to her. I could see what she meant. You wanted to learn more about this woman who helped raise a child who didn’t revert to her mother’s mindset. We didn’t really get the details so much as Skeeter’s love for Constantine. I have to admit I really wanted to know as much as Skeeter did – just what happened to Constantine and why in the world hadn’t she written Skeeter? The answer is obvious once you find out but up to this point you can’t possibly fathom why. Many complaints about the book were that Constantine had a while child with two relatively dark parents. Nowadays there are many cases where a mixed racial couple has a white child or in the case of twins, one of each. There are also rarer cases of couples both with dark skin having a white baby. It’s a simple matter of each parent having a trace of white ancestry in their genes. So in other words both Constantine and her husband had an ancestor who was a product of a mixed racial couple. Unfortunately more than likely an ancestor whose mother was a slave on a southern plantation. It’s really not that out there as it might seem. During the 1960s though mixed race couples were not the norm they are today and so the phenomena had really never been heard of even in the medical field. This is simply another way in which the author emphasized this story being set in a world different from our own.
And what about my second question - does the ending measure up to the start? Yes, certainly. Skeeter can’t fulfill her own dreams and her mother’s and in attempting to do so must take a stand. In doing so she finds her mother’s respect. She might have lost all her friends and her fiancee but in doing so is on the path of her greatest desire – writing in New York City. Aibileen starts on a new career, maybe not a glamorous writing job but a step in the right direction writing directly the Miss Myrna column she’s been writing through Skeeter for several months. Best of all though, she did her part in changing the world for her final charge, Mae Mobley. She might not get to raise Baby Girl to adulthood but she imparted to her all a mother’s love. Minny finally leaves her abusive husband, all due to the fact she found her place, loved and protected, in the Foote household.
One final complaint that is common among detractors – no way could anyone eat a pie with an ingredient like shit and not know what they are eating. I, of course, totally disagree. It was made clear, from almost the moment Hilly was introduced, that Hilly wanted to steal Minny from her mother because Minny was known to be the best cook and baker in the county. The junior league wanted ten of Minny’s cakes to auction off every year. It would be a coup to “own” the maid who made those pies. It was the goal to which Hilly was concentrated on at the beginning of the book and if Minny wouldn’t come into line then no one would have her. To illustrate Hilly’s ruthlessness, you see that she threw her own mother into a nursing home even though she was doing fine living on her own with Minny. So to see Minny coming up her walk, eating crow so to speak, with a pie in hand, the cherry on top, it makes perfect sense that Hilly didn’t even bother to taste the pie. She was eating satisfaction for a plan well done, she was eating her dominance over the smart-mouthed Minny.
Now with that aside, of course the pie wasn’t solely shit. She didn’t shit into a pie crust and spread it out. She used shit as one of the wet ingredients with other baking ingredients. The author didn’t feel a need to explain this fact because it was so obviously that it didn’t matter either way. For those skinny women who just wouldn’t believe this is possible she made Hilly with a weight problem. Certainly it makes sense. Hilly strikes out at anyone who might touch this insecurity as only those who are truly insecure do. That’s the beauty of a well developed character and background (just to emphasize my point about the characters not being one-dimensional).
Sure, this is chick lit but so well formed that it’s a delight to read no matter your race, sex, size or age. It’s message is one that transcends time and space – love one another, find a way to relate to that which is different, don’t get caught up on hang ups that have no real bearing on the overall picture of life.
It took me quite a while to find a copy of The Help (the movie). I’d missed it in theaters, not even starting the book until it was in the cheap theaters. I felt it was really important though to see it in it’s visual medium. It’s a rather late then never scenario as I’ve already read then watched The Hunger Games. Still with the friends who raved about the movie to me I wanted to gauge for myself.
Okay, first let me say I’m going to talk about the movie here as if it were separate from the book, as if there were no source material and as if I hadn’t read the book. (Difficult but not impossible.)
I loved, loved, loved Viola Davis as Aibileen. She overpowered the movie with the sense of her history and background through her sheer presence on the screen. She’d just be standing there framed in the shot and you knew what she’d gone through and how she carried the weight of her regrets and sadness on her back. I can’t rave about this performance enough. She so embodied Aibileen, in a way even more than what I imagined. Her last moments were stunning, saying goodbye suddenly to Mae Mobley and the fear of leaving behind what you’ve always known and loved. This to follow a dream you might fail at, but either way your hope and faith says you must take the opportunity in the name of all you have lost. In her walk down the road to the bus you know without her saying that taking part in the writing of The Help she has done all in her power for Mae Mobley’s future and because of that she has the opportunity to pursue her son’s destiny to become a writer herself. Through love and letting go of the hate and disgust she’s put herself on the road to a better future no matter what roadblocks she faces. Hehe, yeah I got a lot of unspoken messages out of Viola Davis’ performance.
Jessica Chastain rocked Celia Foote! Even though a lot of what I loved about the character was slimmed out of the movie I thought Chastain really took every moment to embody Celia. The screenwriter did a solid job keeping enough about the character that her arc didn’t feel choppy or all over the place. This gave Chastain a good foundation for the character but I feel like the actress worked well not only as her character but in conjunction with Octavia Spencer as Minny and with the cast as a whole. Her role was a rather physical one in comparison to Viola Davis who had to stand around and emote. Chastain really excelled in this aspect. Balancing seems to be a skill she excels at. Watching the second time I found myself even more moved by her entire story as her relationship with Minny was a powerful as Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley.
Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters rocked it! Wow! I could have watched an entire movie with her and Minny in some kind of Odd Couple or Grouchy Women knock off. She added such dimension I believe to both Minny and Hilly. In fact, I think she made the movie version of her character pop in ways the book version washed out. Cicely Tyson as Constantine Jefferson did the same thing for Skeeter except she only had one scene to do it. Talk about a master! From that one scene you got the movie version of Skeeter’s motivation and the root of her ability to withstand her family and friends opinions and disapproval. The moving scene where she packs her belongings and touched Skeeter’s height markings…wow, nothing even need be said how much she loved Skeeter. I hate to write so little when the performances were so powerful but a lot of their acollades are directed to those they supported.
Ahna O’Reilly as Elizabeth Leefolt and Allison Janney as Charlotte Phelan were fine in their respective roles. O’Reilly portrayed Elizabeth as what she was a follower. Janney very subtly worked her role as Skeeter’s mother. There were a lot of changes to her story arc and so there were changes to the character. I didn’t love these changes but I feel like they were no reflection on the actress.
Now for the performances I thought were good but flawed.
The first is Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook. Howard is a really stellar technical actress that has a really hard time connecting to her audience. (In fact, the only time I connected with her character, even as a villain, was at the very end of the movie when Aibileen proudly speaks into Hilly’s face.) Howard embodies her parts well but doesn’t make that last push. The same is true for her part as Hilly. She went through the motions but emotionally I felt like she was going to wink at me at any moment. Like it was a joke that she sent a woman to prison and attempted to throw a couple more there too or better yet under a bus. Maybe she thought this was a parody or a satire or something? This kind of woman actually existed and it wasn’t all in fun either. She’s really a lot better than this too.
Octavia Spencer played Minny spot on after she meets Celia Foote. I also thought her performance with Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook in regards to the pie was inspired. I didn’t really like Spencer’s Minny with Davis’ Aibileen. Their friendship was one of opposites, not commonalities. Aibileen had one son who was killed due to neglect, Minny had a slew of children and specifically a daughter who was entering service. Aibileen was a quiet seething sort of emoter, while Minny flares up then deflates. Once Aibileen makes a decision she’s committed, Minny vacillates as circumstances change. I can go on and on. In the movie though they seemed to share energies. I can see why because Spencer seems to take her cues from her scene mates. Due to the nature of their friendship I felt like there should have been a heightened energy when they were together.
Maybe this is splitting hairs for most movie-goers. It bothered me in most scenes, especially in the beginning when they were together. I just couldn’t leave it alone so since I watched this as a DVD I decided to rewatch the movie specifically watching Spencer. I HATE rewatching movies, sorry if this seems stupid or ridiculous but I have so many interests that I really feel like I’m wasting time. I’m not an overly sentimental person either which to me are the ones who love to rewatch things. Anyway, I found a really subtle performance by Octavia Spencer and based on that I can see why people are so wowed. For me though it just felt limp compared to Davis’ Aibileen. I stand by my opinions of Spencer’s acting style and in fact am now able to articulate better my problems with her performance.
One of the most essential scenes and the one I had the real problem with is with Missus Walters and Hilly at Hilly’s home after Hilly sold her mama’s house. Missus Walters just had a moment of dementia and Hilly is unmoved while Minny is solicitous. Now, remember splitting hairs here, I wish we could have had a look of censure directed at Hilly after the pang of concern for Missus Walters. Now having read the book I know how Minny feels about what Hilly has done to her mother but I don’t know that from a purely movie point of view. Another thing I’d have liked is a focused look directed toward Missus Walters after she says Minny can go use the indoor bathroom. Hinting if she looked at Hilly she’d have jumped her or done some other such sassy thing and/or as if Minny is thinking back to better days when she worked only for Missus Walters. I just didn’t get the power of Minny’s personality (specifically in pre-Foote scenes, this being one of them); it should have been as apparent as Aibileen’s past was with Davis. So Oscar worthy performance? Hmmm. I go back and forth. Let’s say I appreciate her winning, I don’t get a vote anyhow.
The most disappointing performance was Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan. I have to preface that it was probably so because of my own expectations from the book – perhaps if I had laid these aside then it would have been more satisfactory than disappointing. First, her hair and dress were rather too pulled together so visually she didn’t look or feel like an outsider so much as the curly haired woman of the group. We needed these visual clues to be stronger, it’s why we want to see it in a theater!
Second and more important, I really felt like her energy was too happy, too collected and too passive. It was as if knowing what happened to Constantine mattered and nothing else. Perhaps this is the movie version of Skeeter. If it had to do with Constantine she was passionate but not one of the other characters seemed to really effect her. Perhaps all that mattered to the director was her connection to the African-American in her life and not her character arc. In the book she became so passionate about her feelings toward Aibileen, Minny and the other maids that she wouldn’t compromise to make her own life easier. For most women of the time she would have lived and died in Jackson, Mississippi. A mate would have been found from the area, her friends from high school her friends for life, their children friends to her children. Without this her life looks pretty bleak. I never once felt this. In fact when her mother was sick it rather felt like she knew her mother would get better.
Emma Stone was another I concentrated on in my rewatch of the movie. I found that indeed the actions went through the motions of passion in the beginning, they just felt fake and forced. Indeed the best scene was near the end when her mother finally tells her the truth and you could finally feel her sincere love and connection to Constantine. So I find I still rather stand by my opinions leading up to this point. It wasn’t that Stone didn’t act. It was that she would make a face, pose and hold. One face does not emotion make, if you’ve ever watched anything about modelling, what you think about while “making a face” matters. As you think tiny changes effect your expression and add a sense of realism to the whole moment. The static acting face homogenized her character and sapped any power out of her performance. With a group of lesser actors she would have done fine but with a movie whose strength lies on the embodiment of characters it wasn’t enough.
Perhaps this disconnect for me is exasperated by her lead partner, Davis as Aibileen. Davis was so powerful and so spot on that Emma Stone floundered and couldn’t rise to the occasion. Also she felt limper during the second half of the movie where Octavia Spender was so powerful. Perhaps Stone was weak across the board and only appeared less so because Spencer wasn’t as spot on in the beginning. Or perhaps (more or less likely I don’t know as Stone is not one I’ve seem before now) the director wanted Aibileen to be the more powerful of the two characters – perhaps the changes in Skeeter mattered less to him. Whatever the reason to me the story flounders because of this. Skeeter should have been the one most changed and I didn’t see this let alone feel it.
As for winning any of the Best Ensemble Awards I believe they are totally deserved, even with my criticism for some of the acting. This might seen hypocritical to some – I don’t think so though. The acting was solid in the movie. There was a lot of different elements to the characters and the plot to balance and if the director seemed to drop the ball at times that wasn’t really the actresses fault. I guess what I’m really saying is I think the missteps I perceived were in the acting upon my first viewing were not acting problems so much as direction problems. Perhaps he was too close to the material or the people involved. Perhaps balance is not his forte. As a story lover some of the characters didn’t quite jive with their arc on a specific level, but for most I believe it works on the more general one.
The movie was good. It didn’t blow my mind like the book though. I would have loved to have seen a little more of the finer details transferred from the written medium to the visual. Still I think everyone ought to at least see the movie if you aren’t one for reading. The cast is worth the effort.
Adaptions. I’ve commented on a few posts of this subject but have yet to write about it – until now.
In reality, as I said above, Skeeter is the main character, the protagonist if you will. Aibileen is the proponent for change, not changing much herself but inspiring it to huge heights in others. Minny, like Skeeter, is changed by Aibileen and actually Skeeter. In other words, if one or any of these women were stripped from the story the narrative would collapse. So the call to maintain the character structure was a good one. Yet Skeeter and her arc were very weak in the movie…is that the character or the adaption?
Ugh. I really hate when it turns out like this – my Sherlock Holmes 2 review got really messed up due to split feelings and now I feel like The Help is going that way as well. You can read the passion I hold for the story and how well developed the book was in my opinion. So it pains me to say that the movie was not a home run to me. Perhaps if I’d never read the book or if I was just passionate about the material then the movie would be great. Or if I’d watched the movie then read the book, or if I hadn’t read the book in a while then watched the movie. Maybe…
The fact of the matter is I did read the book first and the details were such they were inscribed on my heart. So I’m going to take a page from my Sherlock post as some changes I made to my initial format really seemed to help me gather my thoughts. I’m going to pick five ways I believe The Help was a successful adaption and five ways it was unsuccessful in my eyes.
Success #1 – Aibileen’s character arc and motivations were maintained even with details stripped down.
Really an essential tent pole of the book’s theme lay in Aibileen’s “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Aibileen said this to Mae Mobley in the hopes that Mae wouldn’t be weighed down by her mother’s negative opinions about herself. This is the major change that Aibileen wanted to make on the world so that what happened to her son would never happen again. (You change the woman behind the man, you change the man too.) The whole thing was made even more important by the fact she cared about Mae almost as much as she did her son because then you became invested in the present as much as the past and the future.
Fact of the matter is my second favorite detail, Aibileen writing her prayers in a book instead of saying them out loud and getting results, got reduced to one line of voice over and a nondescript visual of her writing in a spiral. This seriously disappointed me as a fan of the book as it made her character, yet I’m still fairly happy with the way Aibileen’s story was adapted. When you keep to the spirit of the book the movie is better for it. Top that with Viola Davis performance and most problems or defects in her adaption were overcome.
Success #2 – Including the majority of Celia Foote’s story arc even though she’s a secondary character.
The first step in an adaption, many times, is to delete any secondary character that doesn’t directly effect the protagonist of the movie. Celia Foote rates as a secondary character of a secondary character (as Spencer won for best Supporting Actress) and so would logically be the first to be cut down to size. Of course, she couldn’t be totally exorcised but she could have been seriously reduced. That would have been a mistake.
For me, she stands as the most fascinating of the white characters and she isn’t without effect herself, specifically on Minny whom she helps inspire to leave her abusive husband. This is a message all women can stand to receive, especially as most today have already incorporated Skeeter’s modern woman perspective. She supplied many of the funny moments in the film and lighted a tough subject with her heart.
Success #3 – The look, feel and sound of the film reminiscing the tone and spirit of the book.
This aspect I think could have been majorly botched. Too heavy on the side of darkness or realism and you loose the gooey center of the book. Too modern and the subject looses it’s perspective. This story was never about men stringing up men because of their race, it was about women loving and supporting other women, skin color aside but also playing into the time period.
The houses, costumes, vehicles all worked with the hair and makeup or lack thereof to give you a sense of where each woman came from and why they are in the position they are in. For example, it was essential Celia dress more “slutty” for the time when the other women took the more traditional, covered up approach. As it was important Aibileen and Minny sound like they came from the soci-economic level their characters originated.
Success #4 – Re-ordering events so their duplication and back and forth were limited in the movie compared to the book.
I’m not of the opinion that every moment should be kept from a book, nor should scenes be maintained in their entirety. This is just plain not possible. Sometimes a shorted bit of dialogue is much better at getting across the point in a movie where every second counts as compared to a book where repetition is expected to show the passage of time.
The adaption did a great job rolling together the scenes where that was needed and limiting the duplication that the book used to establish character. While I felt like there was a definite shift in when things happened in relation to one another, I felt like they made sense and for the most part worked. Many times cutting from a book can make a choppy movie. While I might not have loved the performances as much at different times in the movie I felt like things progressed in a timely manner.
Success #5 – Casting of the secondary and minor characters enriched the story with visual and sensory strengths.
Sometimes with books it’s the secondary characters you really love, their particular little storyline advancing you through the plot. While I thought all the secondary, and even minor characters added to the story in The Help, I didn’t really feel like I was going to die if I didn’t get to see them like Celia Foote. With this adaption, the arcs, of the secondary and minor characters, that were included, enriched the overall story, tone and spirit of the movie.
For example, Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters brought to life Hilly’s mother in ways that didn’t touch me as much as other characters. I mean I felt bad that she went into a home and her daughter treated her so rotten but I was wowed by the movie version of her character. The same can be said for many of the other incidental characters. While I adored Louvenia and would have loved her arc to be included, the movie isn’t bad off for not including her because the ones included were cast so well.
Failure #1 – Hilly Holbrook struggled with her weight…i.e. she’s fat, not skinny.
I believe this was an easy fix – the character was totally miscast. I thought it a lot more important that Hilly be more of a plump girl, like Sadie on Awkward. It was her motivation for much of what she did – being fat. It fueled her anger. Without that element she just felt like any old vindictive bitch for no other reason than to be a bitch. Hilly is so much more than run of the mill.
I believe unconsciously this sabotaged Howard some in her performance. You have to have motivation and it has to be more than she grew up in this time period. Elizabeth is the more typical, female, outlook on “grew up in the time period.” It showed in her going along with Hilly even though she knew it was wrong. Hilly was spoiled and it showed physically in her weight. Or at least it should have.
Failure #2 – Not including Lou Anne who had a certain white woman perspective that would have better balanced the sides.
I really loved this character arc. I felt like she epitomized the “good” white women of the time. Not everyone was like Hilly Holbrook, quite a few white women supported their maids or Negro counterparts to become equal in rights to themselves and they weren’t all forward thinking young women like Skeeter. Some ladies actually quite loved their maids as sisters and friends.
I said up above in the successes I accepted leaving out characters like Louvenia’s story arc with her son. True, but we already had several maids’ stories represented. I assume they felt Skeeter’s mother represented one of the white women’s point of views for the “good” but I don’t agree, she was redeemed but not really on the side of right. We needed Lou Anne who was a picture of a white woman of her time, a traditional woman to weight in and fact is it wouldn’t have been that hard to add her.
Failure #3 – Representing Aibileen’s faith and writing skills accurately would have enhanced her story.
I really thought it wouldn’t have been that difficult to more accurately show how Skeeter typed up Aibileen’s words. We didn’t need to see that she tried interviewing Aibileen first and then moved on to the typewriter…by all means start with the typewriter and show Aibileen reading from her own notes.
I also felt like a conversation or addition to a conversation about the prayers being written down would have done wonders. The voice overs were utilized too much to represent things in the book when the adapters got lazy trying to reinterpret these elements. Sure Davis’ performance overcame these difficulties. Readers remembered she wrote her own story and it wasn’t essential for you to understand the basic plot but it added so much to her journey. Physical representations of Aibileen and how she is a kind…smart…and important lady would have added so much to the overall theme and strengthened her story even more. (Like a cherry on top.) Utilizing the visual medium in this way is the job of the director!
Failure #4 – Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle, not being represented as white like in the book.
I have a problem with this because Skeeter’s mother always treated her help well. She might have been imperious at times but they weren’t overworked or mistreated. Yes, she needed to modernize her thinking and realize her help were her equals but she didn’t think of them as animals either. Where she got tripped up was in the unexpectedness of the daughter acting like a white woman. That’s because she looked white.
In a modern context a black daughter acting like an equal is nothing…but back then she more than likely would have been killed. The saving factor is she looked white. I don’t think things would have gone down as easily as they showed in the movie but because of our modern views we don’t see the fault of the change. Probably this was taken out due to casting and a “racist is a racist” attitude. I think the details matter though, no black woman in Mississippi from Chicago or otherwise would have acted like “Rachel,” only a woman who is technically black but is treated as a white.
Failure #5 – Skeeter.
Yeah one word. The entire character. I came to realize when I watched the movie a second time that this character verged strongly on being a vehicle…even in the book version. It’s less noticeable in the book because she was made real through her opinions and thoughts and feelings as expressed through her narrative. Just because a character acts as a vehicle at times doesn’t mean they feel fake. People are the sum total of their specific feelings after all. Yet the movie shone a spotlight on her fakeness.
Part of that fake feeling was the actress, no doubt about it. On the other hand I feel like the details that made up Skeeter’s character were the specific feelings expressed in the book. The movie Skeeter fell flat since her scenes didn’t illustrate those specific feelings. In the adaption, a better choice would have been to specify, through new scenes or more pointed interactions, Skeeter’s position and thoughts at the different points in the story.
Yes, Skeeter’s motivation for the changes in her life was all about Constantine. She gave rise to the passion in Skeeter that caused her to hold out against her family and potential husband. What Skeeter lost in the name of her love of Constantine though was important to her too at one point in her life and she must mourn that loss as you would anything to which you have to say goodbye. Where the adaption totally faltered was around the time the book came out. This is when Skeeter’s story became the most vital – will she give way to the peer pressure surrounding her? Will she give in under the censure of those she loves?
Any scene involving Skeeter after Constantine, seemed to be included due to another character’s story. For example, the scene in the soda shop seemed to resonate more for Hilly than it did anything for Skeeter. The “power” scene in the car when she went to buy short skirts didn’t communicate anything except perhaps a need for a filler shot to represent the trip to New Orleans. Another example is Stuart – we see him fleshed out in this scene with Skeeter – “…things are fine around here.” Rather than defining Skeeter as a modern woman, a rebel of her traditional upbringing or even someone passionate about their work we see that Stuart is stuck in his upbringing. Even when she meets with Minny and Aibileen to tell them about her job offer at the end it seems to be more about the two of them rather than Skeeter herself.
Really all I can say is the book Skeeter felt real…motivated and conflicted while the movie Skeeter felt modern…shallow and empty. Perhaps this was a fault or a skill of the writer, depending on how you look at it, either way the protagonist needed to succeed for the movie to be top rate.
On Amazon of the almost 5,000 reviews for the book, The Help, 90% of them are positive with only under 200 being negative. The negative criticism of the book, such as it is, is stingingly virulent. While I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion I can’t help but feel these negative critics are missing the point.
Stockett wasn’t trying to portray an accurate well rounded view of the South during segregation. She wasn’t trying to make white people feel bad for what happened to black people at the time either. It wasn’t even really a commentary on racism but rather a vehicle to talk about how we as women ought to treat other women. No matter their race or any other factor, such as weight, physical beauty, age, background, level of income, etc.
Honestly, this is my own guess, I believe many of these detractors do not have a powerful example of womanhood in their life. If they did they would understand all of these points. They would have felt the love I believe Stockett honestly holds for the black women she’s known growing up and the powerful impact they had on her.
My such example, my Minny or Aibileen, was my mother. She’s had a hard life. At first I listed just the less horrifying of her experiences and it made me queasy so I left them off…but you get my point that no matter her color or whatever she’s had her share of tough experiences. As a child I would have never known she went through any of this…she did not pass on any of these fears or hangups to me.
In fact, I can trace back to her some of my best qualities in which she lay the seeds that took root in my personality. She was instrumental in my belief that I can do literally anything I put my mind to. She taught me to stand up for myself and respect the authority figures around me. She illustrated to me that by comparing myself to my siblings that I wasn’t winning anything but taking on their weaknesses. And most important she urged me to follow my dreams no matter the condemnation of the world.
By internalizing the negative we lose out. Period. Let’s discuss and analyze it instead and improve for the future…why take on someone else’s baggage?
Even with my doubts about Skeeter, I have to say this book is successful on every level. It’s message is timeless, about more than just race but about love and acceptance. The Help book uses Skeeter to show us no matter if you have a foot in the traditional or the modern we must treat our fellow women with respect and understanding no matter their differences from us.
As adaptions go this film wasn’t horrible but it wasn’t totally successful either. Due to her representation Skeeter in the movie version of The Help failed. This doesn’t mean though the movie as a whole failed, it’s the cast that made this film a must see, either now, or in the future.
What did you think of The Help? Who was your favorite character? Did you mind the voice over moments in the story? How do you feel about racism or other prejudices? Do you have that Aibileen or Minny in your own life?