'The Help,' adapted from Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller, is a story of friendship, rivalry, racial injustice, and female empowerment set against the backdrop of one of the ugliest periods in American history. While a lot of men out there might write it off as one for the women, those guys won't know what they'll be missing.
Here are our thoughts on the big-screen version of one of the most popular books of the past two years:
What's It About?
Set in 1960s Jackson, Miss., in the midst of the civil rights movement, 'The Help' is story of Aibileen and Minny, two African-American women who have worked as maids in white households their entire lives, and Skeeter, a white woman whose moral compass starts spinning after her friends strike up an initiative to build outdoor bathrooms for "the help." Just out of college and itching to pursue a career in journalism, Skeeter pitches an idea to a publishing house in New York for a book told from the perspective of Southern black women who spend their lives raising white babies only to have those babies grow up and become their new employers -- and, in many cases, tormentors. After getting the go-ahead, Skeeter convinces Aibileen and Minny to meet with her in secret to document their stories in the hopes of getting their voices heard, despite the considerable dangers to their safety and livelihoods.
How Does It Compare With the Book?
We've read the book and we liked it, but, surprisingly, we liked the movie more.
Tate Taylor's script, to its credit, stays quite true to the events and characters in the book that worked so well. While certain events have been moved around and some of the finer details are left out, nothing detracted from the movie as a whole. If you're a student who was assigned the book for summer reading, you might miss a couple points here and there, but you could probably just see the movie and still pass the test with ease. (Not that we recommend that!)
For the most part, the transfer from the page to the screen couldn't be better. The only downside of the adaptation is that, with so many characters and plot points to cover, the perspective jumps around an awful lot. The novel is also told from the varying perspectives of the three central characters, but the film sometimes feels staggered when certain characters find themselves in the spotlight at one point, then disappear completely for the next 15 or 20 minutes until the focus changes and their story picks back up. This would be a bigger problem if every actress didn't make the absolute most out of her screen time, but since that's a non-issue across the board, it's more something you just get used to than it is a glaring drawback.
As far as emotional roller coasters are concerned, this one does the novel justice and then some. Reading the book, we got a lump in our throat maybe once or twice over the course of some 500 pages; watching the movie, we were fighting back tears (along with everyone else in the theater) a handful of times over the course of two hours. While Kathryn Stockett did an amazing job of creating these characters in the first place, seeing them in the flesh really drives it all home -- which isn't a slight on the book as much as it is a compliment to the film. This really is a doozy of a tear-jerker, never careening toward the melodramatic and as genuine as anything we've seen all year.
Is It as Controversial as the Book?
Yes, but that's an element that we didn't have much issue with in the first place. Race relations is always a touchy subject, and when you consider the time, setting and different viewpoints from which the story is told, controversy was inevitable. In 'The Help,' we see full-fledged super-racists who worship the Jim Crow laws like they were scripture, but we also see an arguably stereotypical image of Southern African-American women. While some might have more of a problem with that depiction than others, we have a tough time pointing any fingers at the movie since it doesn't change or sugarcoat anything we read in the book.
How's the Cast?
It's one of the strongest ensembles we've seen since 'The Fighter,' and the best female cast we've seen in years. This one's all about the women, and they do an exceptional job all around.
One performer who now has a strong chance at an Academy Award nomination -- or even a win -- is Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark. Davis, who was robbed of an Oscar three years back for her incredible supporting role in 'Doubt,' turns in a raw, intense, vulnerable performance that shook us to the core time and time again. If only she'd had more screen time.
The biggest surprise is probably Bryce Dallas Howard as the pie-loving mega-bigot of Jackson, Hilly Holbrook. This is Howard's best role to date, and we admire how she sinks her teeth into such an insanely conniving and outrageously unlikable character.
Emma Stone does a fine job as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, even if she doesn't shine quite as brightly as her dazzling co-stars (Stone can do no wrong in our book after being so amazing in 'Easy A'), while Octavia Spencer is perfect as Minny Jackson. Jessica Chastain is utterly delightful as Minny's ditzy employer, Celia Foote, and the great Allison Janney is just that as Skeeter's mom. Sissy Spacek, as Hilly's mother, effortlessly turns an otherwise-minor character into one of the sharpest and most memorable roles of the bunch.
Like we said, this is a big cast, but everyone here really does deserve mentioning. Coming after 'Bridesmaids' earlier this summer -- another instance where the girls showed up the boys -- 'The Help' feels like a natural progression in a year in which actresses are raising the bar left and right.
Is it worth seeing?
Even having read the book, we weren't quite sure what to expect here, but long before the credits started scrolling, it became plain that this film is something special. Regardless of your gender or your familiarity with the novel, 'The Help' is affecting and well worth seeing. It's rare to find an adaptation that manages to trump its source material, but thanks to a clear appreciation for the book from director Tate Taylor and a powerhouse ensemble, it does just that.
8/10 Helping Hands
Photos courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.