I read The Help (and reviewed it here) a little while ago and, ever since, have been looking forward to seeing the film. Not only that, it is part of my list of awards season viewings (nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress – Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress – Octavia Spencer & Jessica Chastain) so its recent DVD release allowed me to finally watch it!
Can I first start by saying that I try very hard not to be a 'oh it wasn't as good as the book' type. Being a film and a book lover, I can appreciate the immense difficulty in taking hundreds or thousands of pages and turning them into 90-180 minutes of film. How you can take chapters to establish characters, but in a film, it has to happen quickly so as not to lose audience interest. I love the Harry Potter books and films almost evenly and there are a lot of films that I like as much if not more as their original texts – Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Lord of the Rings, The Millennium Series (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al).
In this case, however, I have to say that although I enjoyed the adaptation, I was definitely left with a tinge of disappointment. For me, the book was so full of imperfect, three dimensional characters, the stories and situations that evolved throughout the story allowed a range of emotions as I read them. The relationships, in particular, were all so beautifully conceived and intricately woven and, in the movie adaptation, I found them to be a little rushed and not as natural, mostly because of the necessity of film making to establish the characters and story as early as possible. I do understand, and I think that, despite this, the film delivers the intended heartwarming result.
If you don't know the story, The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's. Aspiring writer, recent college graduate, and crazy-haired Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan starts to see feel a disconnect between herself and her fellow white friends and the way that they see and treat their hired help. She decides to write a book focusing on their side of the story – the good, the bad, and the ugly of how these African American women raise white children and end up working for them. Skeeter and her friend's maid, Aibileen, start writing and work to get others, including loud mouthed Minny Jackson on board and suddenly the three become unlikely friends during hilarious moments and the gritty (sometimes terrifying) reality of life in the deep south of America during the civil rights movement.
Although I missed the natural flow of the book, I thought the casting was impeccable. I have been watching Emma Stone closely as I think she is the Lindsay Lohan we never got to see (that is a compliment, if you can believe it) and she was solid in this but didn't feel as though she had the proper time to shine as Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan. Skeeter is an important character in the book who has a poignant journey herself but I felt in the film she served mostly as a catalyst for the maids to tell their stories, when she had one of her own in the novel.
I thought Oscar nominees Viola Davis (Best Actress), Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain (Best Supporting Actress) were perfect as quiet and humble Aibileen, loud mouthed and full of heart Minny Jackson, and naive and sweet Celia; as were Allison Janney as Skeeter's mother and Bryce Dallas Howard as the insipid Hilly Holbrook.
Possibly, in years gone by, The Help wouldn't get much of a look in at awards season, but this year it seems as though pickings were slim and the insightful story and beautiful characters got it over the line. I think it was a good adaptation and a touching film with strong female characters but I felt as though I was constantly waiting for scenes that didn't arrive and I just can't help but hope that Melissa McCarthy takes the Best Supporting Actress nod for Bridesmaids over Spencer and Chastain.
My recommendation: Watch the film with girlfriends or on a rainy Sunday because the talented cast did a great job of bringing Kathryn Stockett's characters to life, but do yourself a favour and read the book to get the richest experience from the story!
Here's the trailer: