Any avid reader will tell you that books are traditionally superior to the films that they spawn. Filmmakers seem to have of way of ruining a perfectly good story and by altering it in some manner for the big screen. One of the most flagrant examples of this occurred in the 1995 screen version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter,” starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. In this disastrous movie, the filmmakers apparently disagreed with the way Hawthorne saw fit to conclude his masterpiece, and they changed the damn ending!
On rare occasions, however, the people in Tinseltown get it right and give us a film that approaches the greatness of the book upon which it was based. Three prime examples are “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Green Mile,” and “A Time to Kill.” Certainly there are others, but the bottom line is that if you read a lot, you know that nothing is more engrossing than a good book.
Back in 2009, after at least 65 rejections, Kathryn Stockett finally found a publisher for her superb first novel titled “The Help,” and, as they say, the rest is history. Shortly after it was released, the book hit the bestseller lists, and this month sales of the novel surpassed 5 million copies. Whenever a book has this kind of success, it is almost inevitable that it ultimately will be adapted for the silver screen, so it should come as no surprise that the film version of “The Help” opened nationwide last Wednesday. And the good news is that this is one of those rare cases where the movie is almost as good as the novel because it adheres closely to the story as Stockett wrote it, and it features a number of Oscar-worthy performances by an incredibly talented ensemble cast.
The year is 1962, and the place is Jackson, Miss., where white families still routinely employ African American maids to cook, clean, and raise their children for them. Here we find Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a Southern society belle who has just returned home from college and who is eager to begin a career as a writer. Like many of her childhood friends, Skeeter grew up in a home where the family maid tended to many of her needs while she was a youngster. Constantine (Cicely Tyson) served the Phelan family for 29 years, and Skeeter loved her, but Constantine is gone when Skeeter returns home, and no one seems willing to talk about what happened to her.
In order to launch her writing career, Skeeter accepts a job at the Jackson Journal writing cleaning tips for housewives. But because she has no clue how to answer the questions posed to her, she enlists the help of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the maid who works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). As Skeeter talks with Viola, she becomes interested in what it must be like to be a maid, and she gets the bright idea of interviewing a number of them and publishing their stories in a book. She pitches the idea to New York book editor Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who shows some interest in it, and she finally convinces Abileen to participate in the project after the Elizabeth insults her by having a special bathroom built for her in the garage.
At first Aibileen is understandably reluctant to share a lot information with Skeeter, but when something happens to her best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) at the hands of the wealthy white Holbrook family, she opens up and ultimately convinces Minny to do the same thing. Soon more maids are lining up to tell their stories, and Skeeter has the opportunity to write a book that will rock the very foundation of her hometown. And that’s exactly what she does.
“The Help” is a truly remarkable movie because it is capable of alternately making you seethe with anger one moment, weep with compassion the next, and double over with laughter the next. The film is at once a commentary on and indictment of racism in the South during the early 1960s, but it’s also a story of the love and devotion the maids of that time had for the children of the families they served. Aibileen tells Skeeter that she has raised 17 different white children during her career, this certainly transcends the duties we normally associate with a maid. Also, throughout the story, Skeeter never lets us forget her undying love for Constantine.
You absolutely will not find a film in which the acting is any better than it is here. The cast has not one weak link, and the major performers are nothing short of brilliant. Bryce Dallas Howard (She’s Ron Howard’s daughter.) is convincingly despicable as the leader of the crusade to oust the maids from bathrooms inside white homes. She is so good that she makes you hate her, and when Minny — portrayed with a superb combination of wit, intensity, and flair by Spencer — finally does something “terrible awful” to her, you want to stand up and cheer.
Although she has a very small part, the incomparable Tyson will rip your heart out as Constantine, and Jessica Chastain is a hoot as a blonde airhead who married above her social status and desperately seeks acceptance in Hilly’s elite circle. Additional notable performances include those by Allison Janney as Skeeter’s terminally ill mother, Steenburgen as the streetwise book publisher, and Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s cantankerous mother.
But Davis and Stone are the ones charged with carrying the film, and they do so beautifully. Davis, who deservedly earned a best-supporting Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance in “Doubt,” imbues the beautiful character of Aibileen with the indomitable emotional strength and courage characteristic of so many African Americans during this time period. She also has the rare ability to convey her thoughts and feelings without uttering a word. You will fall in love with Aibileen, and in the film’s production notes, Davis offered some interesting insight into the film and her character.
“For me it felt like a movie where it wasn’t just a chance for me to create a character that was interesting and complicated, but it was also a chance for me to be in a movie that illuminated a part of our history that we have a tendency to be silent about. I see Aibileen as being a reluctant hero. She is just getting by after her son dies, just being invisible, until Skeeter enters the picture. And what Skeeter stimulates in her is the excitement of having a purpose, something else to drive her life, which is telling her story. I want to honor Aibileen.”
Stone is suddenly one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood, and she has a range that belies her age of 22. She has the poise and the presence of a veteran, and her portrayal of Skeeter is exactly the way I pictured the character as I read the book. In the production notes, Stone presented a thoughtful analysis of Skeeter.
“She’s a bit of a misfit. Someone who has never been rebellious, she has always conformed to the laws of her society, her family, her friends. But, when it comes to writing, as time goes on, and as the story unfolds, she begins to understand that her way of thinking is more progressive than the people in her town. In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story for Skeeter.”
“The Help” (Give it an impressive nine.) definitely is one of the must-see films of the year. The acting, the sets, and the costumes are truly outstanding, and the film’s message, of course, is timeless. Perhaps Howard, who plays the shameless racist Hilly, offered the best explanation in the production notes of what the film does.
“What I find so remarkable about this story is that it really, holistically depicts the time period. It’s not necessarily vilifying anyone, but rather vilifying certain mentalities and belief systems that were evil at their core.”
Nicely stated, Bryce.