When translating a work of literature into one of film, many directors deem it necessary to change the plot of the original slightly or substantially. Even with these alterations, however, it is still entirely possible to create a film that accurately reflects the overall tone of the adapted book. Unfortunately, there are situations where the plot of a movie remains largely the same as the novel, and it is the delicate tone that has been lost instead. Author Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help certainly has its lighter moments, but overall, it offers a serious look into an important issue and causes one to think about the problems that it presents. Film director Tate Taylor, however, removes key episodes in his translation and thereby offers a much more light-hearted examination that does not pack nearly the same weighty, emotional punch as the book.
Stockett’s novel was published in 2009 and quickly became an international literary sensation. This book tells the tales of three women residing in Jackson, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Skeeter is a privileged twenty-two-year-old Ole Miss graduate who dreams of writing something that will make a difference, Aibileen is a strong and wise black maid who has devoted her life to raising the children of white families, and Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is a sharp-tongued cook who is determined to help her new boss who seems to be hiding a few secrets of her own. Together, these three women begin a dangerous project aimed at revealing the hidden worlds and hardships of the help of the white and wealthy through the creation of a tell-all book. Putting themselves at risk through their very interactions, these women will stop at nothing in order to ensure that their stories, as well as those of their friends, are heard.
The novel The Help is warm and well crafted, presenting three unique and important voices and points of view. All three protagonists are written equally, with much depth of character and evenly positive and negative traits. Skeeter is not a perfect protagonist, demonstrating moments of unconscious racism herself, and Aibileen and Minny have their own flaws as well, although none stray into the dangerous land of caricature. Although this novel is ultimately a pleasurable read, it does not avoid addressing tough situations or shy away from disturbing suggestions. The novel overall is not uncomfortable, but moments of discomfort are present throughout, as they should be in a book about the civil rights movement. I believe that Stockett’s The Help crafts a perfect balance between warmth and disturbance, and that these two elements are not paradoxical in any way. The result is a novel that is enjoyable, but still creates real emotion and depth of thought.
The film version of The Help certainly has its own merits as well. Strong acting dominates, and the wonderful Octavia Spencer even won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her turn as the spirited Minny, an accolade thoroughly deserved. Emma Stone presents a feisty and determined Skeeter, while Viola Davis’ Aibileen is a resilient yet heart-rending individual who will linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled. These characters seem to come to life right from the pages of Stockett’s book, and many of the performances were convincing and emotionally touching. The talented actors were bolstered by a detailed film with undeniably high production value. Many of the main comedic events from the novel appeared in the film, as well, and there were moments of genuine humour. It is not the story that was altered here, so much as the overall feel and tone.
A few key changes turned a book that was focused on equally promoting three points of view in an unblinking manner into a lighter story that glossed over many of the harsher moments. For example, in the original book, Aibileen explains the reason why she has raised so many different white children: eventually, her charges grow up and begin to exhibit the racist tendencies that they have learned from their parents, forcing Aibileen to move on to the next. This tragic reality is never addressed in the film, so that Aibileen’s long list of charges seems charming and a testament to her nurturing nature. In another scene in the novel, a seemingly sympathetic character exacts a shocking punishment onto another in order to prevent this black individual’s daughter from passing as white and entering into white society. In the film, however, the punishment is due to an offence not related to race, and this disturbing example of appalling racism is completely ignored. Finally, the horrific rape of a black maid by a white man was also censored out in the translation from book to film. Seemingly small decisions such as these begin to add up as the film progresses, and every time a moment of uncomfortable racism from the original is overlooked, the film loses an opportunity to deeply affect its audience.
The film version of The Help may offer a more comfortable story than the novel, but that’s not what this important tale should be about. An audience should be forced to squirm; even if the story ends on a hopeful and uplifting note, the conclusion feels all the more redemptive when compared to the injustices that came before. By choosing to remove some of the more hard-hitting moments that Stockett included in her novel, Taylor created an undeniably fluffier tale. Unfortunately, due to this change of tone, the film does not have nearly the same affect as the work that came before it. Although the film does have a lot to offer, particularly in its acting performances, here is a case when it is appropriate to repeat the old cliché: be sure to read the book first.