The post contains minor spoilers for The Help, the book and the film.
The Story: In early 1960s Mississippi, a forward-thinking young white aspiring writer works with African American maids to anonymously tell their life stories.
The Book: Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help is a well-written, moving exploration of the humanity at the heart of racial tensions of the 1960s. The book deftly blends the first person points of view of its three main characters: Skeeter Phelan, the young white woman, Aibileen Clark, a middle-aged maid who works for Skeeter’s friend, and Minny Jackson, a maid whose sharp tongue causes her trouble. These three characters spring vividly to life through their narration, and their switching viewpoints make the novel well-rounded. The supporting characters are equally complex; my personal favorite is outcast Celia Foote, the clueless, uneducated, and caring white woman who comes from poverty. There is also a wonderfully hypocritical villain, Hilly Holbrook, the leader of the society women. These characters put a human stamp on the issues at hand, and The Help is truly more about them than about representing the racial issues of the time.
The Film: Written and directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett’s, the 2011 film of The Help is a serviceable adaptation of the novel that hits all the right sentimental notes. Sometimes, however, the film overdoes the sentiment, and scenes like the storm as Skeeter asks to interview Aibileen appear forced. The film also tones down some of the more harrowing scenes, including those involving domestic abuse, and it entirely cuts what I thought to be the most intense scene of the book: Celia and Minny fending off a would-be attacker. The film, though, has one giant plus: its incredible ensemble cast. The Help won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble Cast, and it’s easy to see why: with strong performances across the board, the film is most easily defined by its acting. Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) are considered frontrunners for Oscars; Davis carries the emotional weight of the film, and Spencer provides humor and heart. Also noteworthy are Jessica Chastain as Celia and Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, who elicit, respectively, warranted sympathy and hatred. Even when the film slips into forced sentiment, the acting is strong enough to save it, and despite – or perhaps because of – this overly earnest tone, The Help is a rousing crowd pleaser.
The Bottom Line: Read the book for its multifaceted character studies and its absorbing plot, and see the film for its powerful performances, even though it sometimes veers towards cloying.