Guest Review: The Help is a faithful adaptation

Special thanks to my friend & colleague Susan Martin.

While I read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help, almost three years ago, seeing the movie adaptation a few weeks ago truly reminded me how much I loved the book. I appreciated the fact that the movie stayed true to the novel in every sense.

The Help is set in the segregated and hierarchical deep South, nearly half a century ago, and writer-director Tate Taylor’s film adaptation captures the time and place in perfect detail. The story starts with Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, just graduating from college and returning home to Mississippi in the 1960s.

The town is divided by racial lines – black and white – and nowhere is this more evident than in Skeeter’s circle of friends, young women married right out of high school, having children who are raised by the black maids who work for them. This isn’t the life that Skeeter wants, however. She wants to be a serious writer, but she needs a strong story to shop around New York so she is taken seriously. So Skeeter, having gotten a job at the local newspaper writing a housecleaning column, asks one of her friends’ maids for help with tips. But what she really wants is to know how “the help” is treated, about the world from their perspective.

Viola Davis plays Abilene, the maid who originally helps Skeeter with her cleaning column and eventually begins telling her story. This is definitely Davis’ movie, as her acting is phenomenal. Davis and Octavia Spencer, playing the sassy maid Minny, give names and faces to a group of women who were so much more than what they did for a living.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays the villain of the movie, Hilly Holbrook, to perfection. When I first heard that she was being cast as Hilly, I questioned this decision as I pictured someone more villainous to play that role. Someone a little more icy, like Elizabeth Banks or Anne Hathaway. But Howard captured Hilly’s cool and snotty demeanor spot-on.

Another delight was Jessica Chastain, playing the blond, bubbly Celia, who tries to force herself into the social circle only to be ostracized for being “white trash.” Chastain is empathetic and funny as Celia, and I found myself rooting for her as she got her revenge on the evil Hilly near the end.

In terms of its basic plot points, The Help only skims the surface of one of the most painful and violent periods in our country’s history. But it definitely worked on me as a tear-jerker with a terrific cast, and I thought it was the summer’s only decent drama.

Have you seen this movie? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.