September 28, 2011

September 28, 2011

Things I’ve Read: The Help

Whenever a book or other written work gets adapted to movie form, I try to read the book first. In 99% of cases, the book is better (the exception here being a novelization of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” but I probably should have seen that one coming). It has more time to develop the characters, more storylines, sometimes even a completely different ending. I’m of the opinion that it’s better to get the details first, and then watch the simplified Hollywood version with understanding provided by the book. (No surprise that I was not a fan of CliffsNotes in school.)

However, with Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” I ended up seeing the movie first and reading the book afterwards. Lemme tell ya, I’m glad I did. Without mental pictures of Aibileen and Minny, and without a gist of what was coming (Terrible Awful Thing, I’m looking at you), I daresay I would’ve been quite confused. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Wisconsin. Maybe it’s because I grew up long after the dawn of Civil Rights. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a city. But there’s not a whole lot I identify with in a tale of 1960s Mississippi. That’s neither a good nor a bad thing; it just is.

You may already know that the book’s about a white woman (Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan) who decides to write from the POV of the colored maids in her town. They tell her How It Is and she writes it down, sends it to New York, and gets it published (spoiler alert). This was a pretty radical thing to do back then and there, and everyone involved spends most of the book nervous about getting caught.

Of course, no good narrative is without a villain or two. The Help finds villains in pretty much all the white women people Skeeter. Her friends. Her mother. Her on-again/off-again boyfriend. It’s as if the town is universally clueless about civil rights. I’m not saying this is inaccurate; I’m just pointing out how much of a broad brush is used. Skeeter and the maids = good. Everyone else = bad.

As for differences between the book and the film, hoo boy. Things were certainly lightened up for moviegoers. The truth of race relations at that time and place wasn’t pretty. The book doesn’t shy away from that. The movie, of necessity, has to. You’re not going to make much money by showing people getting beaten to death. I was also disappointed that so many of the characters as described in the book look nothing at all like their film counterparts. Aibileen and Minny were pretty close. But Skeeter, her mother, Constantine, and Hilly I found to be completely different. Some taller, some shorter, some fatter, most uglier. Ah, real life.

The highest praise I can give a book these days is that it makes me look forward to my commute. Bus doesn’t show up? No problem—more time to read. Subway tracks on fire? I hope I can see through the smoke. “The Help” was one of those books. It made me realize that there have been worse times and places to be than a crowded Metro station.

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