There are some high-end commercial novels with inflated literary reputations that actually become better on screen. Karen Joy Fowler’s strained chick-lit novel The Jane Austen Book Club was improved in Robin Swicord’s lived-in film. Now The Help has become an even more effective, big warm bath of a crowd-pleaser than Kathryn Stockett’s megaselling novel, a book that flirts uncomfortably with condescension and caricature. The Help has no artistic ambition, but with one huge exception, the movie avoids the novel’s lethal pitfalls.
Stockett’s hard-to-resist story, set in Jackson, Miss. in 1963, covers every black-and-white base, both racially and in terms of simple lines of right and wrong. Who wouldn’t root for Skeeter, (Emma Stone), the enlightened, independent young white woman trying to forge a career as a writer, who along the way helps Jackson’s black maids tell their true stories in her book, revealing the racism, the arrogant disregard and disrespect, that their employers blithely take for granted? But the maids’ dialect in the novel creates the slightly queasy effect of a white author trying to channel black women, especially when the kindly Aibileen tells a neglected little girl she cares for: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Whenever white writers praise their black nannies (as Stockett has said she set out to do) it’s hard to avoid the image of them patting themselves on the back.
But on screen, with the same dialogue, the actresses who embody the maids raise them above caricature. Viola Davis (Doubt) plays Aibileen, who bravely agrees to tell her story to Skeeter; the fear on Davis’s face convinces us of the danger of saying too much long before the news of Medgar Evers’ murder does. Octavia Spencer plays the constantly seething Minnie, who is fired by Hilly Holbrook, the horrific social arbiter of Skeeter’s circle of bridge-playing girlfriends. In a running theme of comic relief, Minnie takes her own sweet – literally, dessert-sweet – revenge. Stone is winning and comfortable as the cute yet fiercely determined Skeeter; it’s Stockett’s fault, not Stone’s, that Skeeter’s untamable curly hair is a too-blatant sign of her rebellious nature. But Davis and Spencer are the soul of the film, bringing their characters a dignity and fullness far beyond the novel’s.
The supporting actors also breathe life into the novel’s characters, notably Allison Janney as Skeeter’s socially timid mother, Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s slightly addled mother, and Jessica Chastain as outsider Celia Foote, a bottle-blonde (as they called it in the 60’s) so clueless that she actually sits down at the kitchen table to have lunch with her maid.
Only Bryce Dallas Howard, in the unfortunately large role of Hilly, goes completely over-the-top, playing to the most cartoonish elements of her smug, narrow-minded character, who proposes a new law that insists the maids have separate bathrooms. The film’s broad comedy includes an episode in which Skeeter mischievously arranges for dozens of toilets to be dropped on Hilly’s lawn; the character shouldn’t be as broad as that joke if her scenes aren’t going to topple into caricature, which Howard’s always do.
The Help comes with such a strong template and such a built-in audience that all first-time director Tate Taylor had to do – other than be Stockett’s childhood friend – was turn in a competent movie and not mess things up. That’s pretty much what he came though with. Despite its period touches – the flouncy flowered dresses and lacquered bouffant hair – The Help is not especially stylish, and it’s certainly not innovative. But it has mainstream hit written all over it.
And if you haven’t been paying attention to the movie’s marketing, here’s a link to my post about the weird Home Shopping Network extravaganza.