Every year or so, a beloved title from the New York Times’ Best Seller List is greenlit for the royal Hollywood treatment. This fate is not always for the best. In fact, the proverbial glass is often half-empty. For every critical darling, there is also an ill-portrayed pariah. Thus, adaptations, like any surgery, must be done with great care.
For the record: The Help is far more than a tale of sisterhood. Any characterization as such unfairly diminishes the moral, spiritual, cultural and political elements that hang in the balance. Nevertheless, media outlets have branded the film as a light-hearted work of historical fiction, despite the fact that its primary focal point is the unveiling of hardships endured by black domestic servants – during a period of tense social and political transition – in Jackson, Mississippi. The unlikely friendship forged between Skeeter (Emma Stone), Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) is simply an elegant window treatment to a doctrine of courage we must challenge ourselves to embrace in the midst of life’s challenges.
Very few authors have the talent of Kathryn Stockett. She paints such vivid pictures with her words that it would seem impossible to capture their totality on the moving screen. Considering the wide-ranging social issues presented, from civil rights to positive parenting, any attempt to refine the raw elements would have had a compromising effect on the screenplay. Fortunately, the film provides a balanced account with conflicting perspectives – never once sugarcoating the worst or overplaying the best of Southern life during the Jim Crow era. The realistic plausibility of several poignant scenes will tinker with every viewer’s heartstrings – forcibly extolling a few laughs, tears, screams and shouts.
In the face of such weighty material, who better to write the screenplay for “The Help” than Stockett’s childhood friend, Tate Taylor? Only an intimate acquaintance has the power and insight to articulate the thoughts, desires and emotions as the original creator intended. Taking the novel’s length by the horn, Taylor collapsed multiple scenes into singular ones with magnificent ease – fighting to safeguard as much content as humanly possible within the film’s running time of 146 minutes. For example, the introduction of Aibileen’s prayer notebook runs parallel with her first interview session with Skeeter. While condensing of this sort does not wreak havoc on the plot’s cohesion, viewers who have read the novel may frown upon the absence of the humorous anecdotes connected to Aibileen’s powerful “super prayers.”
In addition to Tate Taylor’s focused direction, praise must also be given to Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee for selecting a cast above reproach. From the stars in the foreground to the extras in the background, every member played their part as if they were portraying their own lives. The casting of Cicely Tyson in the role of Constantine is significant and noteworthy. With over five decades of acting experience, she says more with her facial expressions and body language than with the scripted text. In each scene where Tyson appears, the spotlight is hers alone. Coupled with similar outstanding performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, these actresses delicately balance warmth and humor amidst the film’s serious undertones.
No matter the outcome of all forthcoming Oscar prospects or box office receipts, Tate Taylor’s masterful adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s work has guaranteed its status as a contemporary literary and film classic.
[SPECIAL NOTE - added 08/11/11: Authors of historical fiction tend to suffer a backlash when the issue of "accuracy" comes into play. Although I disagree with critics who speak of "The Help" negatively, there is much to be said about the lack of documented [non-fiction] accounts. According to the Association of Black Women Historians: during the ’60, “[u]p to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes.” Considering the singular commonality of the black, Southern, female experience, there is plenty of room in the social narrative of “The Help” for both – historical truth alongside literary/cinematic masterpiece.]