Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book-To-Film Review: "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett

The Principal Cast:
Aibileen Clark: A maid of considerable experience, particularly in the area of raising babies. She currently works for a white woman who neglects and emotionally abuses her 2-year-old daughter.
Minny Jackson: A maid with an unfortunate tendency to sassmouth her employers who goes to work for a social outcast when a vengeful former boss blacklists her among the more respectable members of society.

Skeeter Phelan: A privileged young white woman who recently graduated with a degree in journalism and is eager to write something meaningful as well as publishable - and winds up in something way over her head.
The Supporting Cast:
Charlotte Phelan: Skeeter's ambitious, disapproving, rigidly conservative mother.

Elizabeth Leefolt: A high school friend of Skeeter's, and Aibileen's employer. A weak-willed social climber who looks to Hilly Holbrook for advice.

Hilly Holbrook: Another soon-to-be former friend of Skeeter's, and the novel's principal antagonist. Founder of the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a program that requires people to install separate bathrooms for their coloured servants.

Celia Foote: A busty blonde rejected by Hilly and her friends for being a white-trash girl who married up. Slovenly and incapable of cooking, she hires Minny in secret in order to convince her husband she's capable wife material.

Constantine Jefferson: Skeeter's family's former maid who was fired under mysterious circumstances.

Stuart Whitworth: The son of the state senator who takes a shine to Skeeter.
The Word:
In many ways, I found The Help to be a lot like Room by Emma Donoghue, in the sense that a lot of my enjoyment with this novel came from the novel's use of changing perspectives, and all of their various limitations.

The novel starts from the perspective of the two black maids living in Jackson, Mississippi, Aibileen and Minny. We read their stories first (or rather, listen to their stories, as Ms. Stockett uses a surprisingly effective dialogue-type of writing style for their POV chapters that cannily captures their voices). Aibileen tends the house of Miss Leefolt and tends her employer's two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley, whom she loves and coddles in an attempt to make up for her mother's neglect and indifference.

Minny, meanwhile, is a maid with a reputation for heavenly cooking whose reputation is ruined when prominent Jackson socialite Miss Hilly Holbrook lies about Minny being a thief in order to hire her at a cheaper wage. When Minny retaliates by giving Miss Hilly her just desserts in the most appallingly literal way possible, the only work she can find is as a maid to an isolated, ostracized housewife the other wives in Jackson spurn for being white trash.

Through their eyes, we see the ignorance and weakness and cruelty and indifference of the people they work for, so that it comes as an interesting change of perspective when we get to Skeeter's first chapter. Skeeter, just returned from university, is friends with both Hilly and Miss Leefolt. Through her, we see the other sides to their characters, the shiny, public faces they show to their friends and their neighbours - not the private angers and pettiness they demonstrate in front of their help.

Skeeter, however, does not agree with her friends' treatment of their maids. She recently discovered that her own family's beloved maid, Constantine, apparently quit - although the circumstances are shrouded in secrecy. When the only journalism job she can find is as the writer of a housekeeping advice column, she goes to Aibileen for advice and comes up with the idea of writing about society from the perspective of the help. An editor in New York is tentatively interested in the idea, but Skeeter discovers that actually getting the maids to talk is another obstacle entirely.

As the book proceeds, the changes in perspective set an engaging tone. While on the one hand, I appreciated Skeeter's determination and drive to write an important book, her initial ignorance of the possible consequences of her actions (as viewed from Aibileen's and Minny's POVs) made me cringe. It's also worthy of note that I cared about each character's problems equally, even if in the larger scheme of things, Skeeter's problems (a disapproving mother, self-esteem issues) seemed woefully paltry in comparison to Aibileen's and Minny's.

Second to the perspectives, The Help's best element is its pacing. I started reading slowly, then sped up, then basically drag-raced through the book to the end. Stockett peppers her book with different mysteries and questions (why did Constantine leave? What's wrong with Minny's new boss, Celia?) that, along with the central plot, keep the tension high and the pace swift.

At the same time though, certain scenes and characters seemed a tad exaggerated - Miss Hilly foremost among them. Maybe this is my own ignorance and naivete, but I find it hard to believe a person as repulsive and yet cartoonishly comical as her could exist. She had some nuance in the first half of the novel (from her positive friendship with Skeeter), but in the second she was just an out and out villain, evil in pretty much every way it was to be evil.

But ultimately, I found the story immensely entertaining. I loved the differences in perspective and the sparks of humour and the excellent setting, atmosphere and dialogue.A.

The Help (2011, tarring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer)

WARNING: FILM AND NOVEL SPOILERS AHEAD
Not long after I finished the book, I had the opportunity to watch the movie with my sister. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, aside from a few changes, the movie was actually a pretty close, accurate, and entertaining adaptation from the novel. Having only recently finished the book, I recognized entire passages and pages of dialogue being spoken or enacted nearly word for word. I hadn't encountered that close of an adaptation since Sin City and the HBO television series Game of Thrones.

That being said, there were a few things the movie did change, and this is where my discussion comes in.

What did the movie change?

1. Skeeter's Ostracization
In the novel, after Skeeter revenges herself on Hilly by arranging for people to deposit old toilets on her front lawn (don't ask), Skeeter is ostracized by the white society women in Jackson at the behest of their humiliated Queen Bee. In the film, however, this shunning of Skeeter is never shown. We are told at the end of the movie that Skeeter lost all her friends, and there's one scene where Hilly removes Skeeter as editor of their League's newsletter, but we don't get to see how outcast she became, where even her longtime friends wouldn't speak to her for fear of enraging Hilly.

I was actually a little bothered by this, because Minny and Aibileen encounter the same repercussions they got in the novel, but we don't get to see Skeeter's. While I chalk this up to not enough screen time, I would have liked at least one scene where someone like Miss Leefolt refuses to talk to Skeeter.
2. Stuart's Dick-Ification
In the novel, Stuart and Skeeter get together after a number of mishaps and false starts. While politically conservative and indecisive, Stuart's a pretty decent guy. When Skeeter reveals she spent the last two years writing a book about the lives of black maids, Stuart breaks up with her, albeit respectfully, saying that he doesn't really know her.

In the film, an unshaven and tousled Stuart yells at Skeeter, "How could you do this to us?" and tells her she's better off alone, before flouncing off to his truck, never to be seen again. I disliked how the filmmakers used what time they had to make him selfish, petty and cold - which he isn't in the book. In one scene, everyone in Skeeter's house is watching JFK's funeral on the TV and weeping - except for an impatient Stuart, who leaves early so he can go to work. This scene was never in the novel, but was added in the film to clue the viewers in to what a dick he is before the ultimate reveal.

But he isn't a dick in the novel. Yes, he breaks up with Skeeter after learning she wrote Help, but it wasn't in a "how dare you care about black folk, Skeeter! You deserve to die a spinster!" way but more of a "I don't think I can marry you because I clearly don't know you," way. This is further supported in the novel by his troubled romantic past, where his last relationship before Skeeter, to his high school sweetheart and fiancee, ended with her cheating on him. It made sense that after enduring one woman lying to him, that he would be unwilling to marry another who had also hidden something important from him about herself.

But objectively I can understand that with the time limit of a movie, the filmmakers didn't have enough time to put this across, so they just decided to make him an easy villain instead. Doesn't mean I like it, though.
3. Skeeter's Mama's Sentimentalization
With Skeeter's mum, however, the filmmakers went in an entirely different direction. In the novel, she's a minor character, albeit one with a large influence on her daughter's life. She's critical, conservative, and obsessed with appearances and connections. She loudly disapproves of nearly everything in Skeeter's life - her physical appearance, her literary ambitions, her romantic life. She starts suffering from stomach ulcers midway through the book, and Skeeter only learns that her mother actually has cancer near the end. She's not a capital-E Evil person, but she's not really a positive force in the book at all.

In the film, however, her character openly lives with her cancer from the very beginning. It's an important aspect to her character and influences a lot of what she does in the film. Moreover, her sniping at Skeeter is toned down - it's depicted in the film as comical henpecking rather than the constant barrage of disapproval it is in the novel. In fact, in the film, she actually finds out that Skeeter wrote Help and praises her for it, saying she's proud of her, something the rigidly segregationist Charlotte Phelan in the novel would never have done. She also finds out about what Minny made Miss Hilly eat and makes fun of Miss Hilly for it - which, again seems incredibly out of character. I love Allison Janey (who plays Skeeter's mum in the film) but I couldn't help but wince at this cliched adaptation.

They significantly changed her character a lot in order to give Skeeter a supportive mother figure and once again I do not understand why. Skeeter suffered consequences and took a lot of risks in the novel to write Help - not only did she go against everything her friends believed in, she went against everything her mother believed in. But instead, the movie removes nearly every significant consequence to Skeeter's actions - her ostracization never happens, and her mother instead supports her work. How come Minny and Aibileen come under threat for Help in the film but Skeeter doesn't?

The Sentimentalization continues with the crucial scene in which Skeeter's mum fires Constantine, as mentioned below:
4. Constantine's Daughter's Backstory
In the book, Constantine's termination is a mystery for nearly the entire book. Skeeter comes home from university to discover that the beloved maid who helped raised her is gone, but her mother refuses to tell her what really happened and so does Aibileen (who went to Constantine's church group).

Eventually, it's revealed that Constantine gave birth to a light-skinned daughter, and later abandoned her at an orphanage because she didn't know how to raise a baby who looked white. While Skeeter was away at university, Constantine made contact with her now-grown daughter, who came down to see her - party-crashing Mrs. Phelan's DAR party in the process. Appalled at the idea of a black person infiltrating a white social event, Mrs. Phelan not only fired Constantine but revealed to her daughter the truth about how her mother abandoned her. It's an interesting mystery that's uncovered slowly, and it's a reveal that fits perfectly with Skeeter's mum's characterization.

In the film, however, Constantine's daughter Rachel is not only dark-skinned, but a family friend who accidentally walks in on Mrs. Phelan's DAR party at the wrong time. Mrs. Phelan "is forced" to expel Rachel and fire Constantine in order to impress her DAR friends, although the direction of the scene and how Mrs. Phelan reveals the story to Skeeter strongly imply that Mrs. Phelan is deeply ashamed and remorseful of what she did.

In this instance, I do understand the drastic change - the novel's reveal is a serious doozy of a backstory, but the book has the page count required to properly tell the chapters-long mystery. The movie does not have that kind of time, and they're trying to make the mum a good guy to boot, so I understand the streamlined mystery that makes Mrs. Phelan look somewhat less heinous.

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