Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help may run close to 500 pages, but I managed to read it in an entire weekend-it's that good. Equal parts humorous and heartbreaking, the Mississippi native's dramedy exploring race relations in the '60s South immediately hit the bestsellers list when it first debuted back in '09, and the book hasn't wavered in popularity since.
Given this success, these are pretty high standards for a film adaptation to meet. But even so, the big-screen version of The Help doesn't disappoint, even for a diehard book fan like myself.
Staying true to the original tale, the oversimplified summary goes a little something like this: Emma Stone stars as Skeeter, a recent Ole Miss graduate and aspiring writer who returns home to Jackson unable to relate to her already-married housewife friends. Rather than being satisfied playing bridge and organizing fundraisers all day, Skeeter instead ghostwrites cleaning columns for the local paper but dreams of becoming a serious author.
Her plan? By secretly interviewing the local black maids about their stories raising white children, she intends to jumpstart her publishing career and at the same time, cause change in a segregated, Jim Crow-centric town.
Switching perspectives and narratives between Skeeter and "the help"- maids and best friends Aibileen and Minny- the film, like the novel, shows us the different motives behind telling these risky stories. For Aibileen and Minny , it's a way to rebel in a world that doesn't allow any defiance, whereas Skeeter soon learns how her project isn't just about her career- it's about empowering a community.
While the backbone of the story is undeniably emotional and sad, there's enough comedy to keep it from becoming too heavy. Most of this is courtesy of Bryce Dallas Howard, who stars as witchy debutante Hilly (the meanest of mean girls), and Jessica Chastain, as wannabe socialite Celia. Most of these funny moments are under-the-radar, but one hilarious culminating scene at a society benefit had everyone in the theater laughing out loud.
The movie's not perfect-it skimmed over some moments that warranted more attention- but after all, it's tough to cram in 500 pages of touchy material into a two hour film.
What we appreciated the most about the smart adaptation, though, was that director Tate Taylor didn't make this Southern society into a caricature or an exaggerated, over-the-top version of itself. Sure, it was filmed on location in Jackson, the outfits were great and the accents surprisingly believable. But besides all this, the emotion was real- and that's what matters the most.
The Help is now playing in theaters nationwide.