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Oscars Book Review: "The Help" Is A Character Rich Book That Doesn't Translate On Screen

Laura Santana |
February 26, 2012 | 2:49 a.m. PST



Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" (Penguin)
Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" (Penguin)
This Oscar season, a surprising number of nominees were bestselling books before making it to the big screen.

One novel in particular is Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help.” Stockett’s debut novel was published in 2009, has sold more than five million copies and has spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking on Stockett’s door.

In an essay at the end of the novel, Stockett writes that she realized she never had the chance to ask her family’s own maid, Demetrie, what it was like to be a black woman living in Mississippi and working for a white family.

Thus, “The Help” was born.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan just received her degree from the University of Mississippi and has returned to her family’s regal plantation and mansion in Jackson, Mississippi. With her college degree in hand, Skeeter has one mission: to become a journalist. Her mother Charlotte and friends Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt prefer she just settle down and get married, but Skeeter has ambitions beyond what is expected of a Southern white woman in 1962.

When Skeeter scores a job as a cleaning advice columnist, she must enlist the help of Elizabeth Leefolt’s maid Aibileen, since Skeeter knows nothing about cleaning of course. 

Aibileen lives alone and has been a maid since she was a pre-teen. She is still reeling from her son Treelore’s death but manages to find comfort in the white children she raises (a total of 17 and counting).

Aibileen’s best friend Minny is the sassiest maid this side of Jackson, Mississippi. She has five children and an abusive husband. Minny ends up working for a slightly senile woman named Celia Foote, but their relationship ends up saving each other’s lives. Their moments together are definitely some of the most entertaining and humorous in the novel.

Working with Aibileen and hearing her racist friends’ conversations inspires Skeeter to write a book from the point-of-view of Jackson’s maids. 

The one problem is actually getting the maids to agree to speak with her. Jackson is still riddled with KKK murders and segregated buildings, so it’s not the safest place for a black woman to air the dirty laundry of her white boss.

Even though it takes over one hundred pages for Skeeter to even have the idea of writing her book, Stockett packs the book with moments of humor, sadness, fear and outrageous fecal and penile moments. 

The book weaves through Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny’s point-of-views. When authors switch point-of-view like this, they risk readers getting confused or their writing sounding choppy or incomplete. But Stockett switches at just the right time and still manages to develop each character to make them truly likeable.

Is the book better than the movie?

Of course.

But considering that the film is nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, it must be doing something right.

The all-star female cast (Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer) locked in three Oscar nominations for acting, and it cannot be denied that all of the actresses delivered emotional and powerful performances. 

However, some of the characters seemed to be polar opposites of the wonderful characters Stockett crafted in her novel.

There’s a reason why Stone wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. The Skeeter in the novel is strong-willed, kind and seems mature beyond her years. 

But the Skeeter in the movie is, well, a brat. Her huffy attitude and wide-eyed defiance gets annoying very quickly. She yells, pouts and runs out of rooms like a teenager. 

The Skeeter in the novel has a shy, nervous energy that makes her relatable and enduring, especially when she speaks with Elaine Stein, the book publisher. But in the movie, Skeeter comes across as bossy and entitled when she speaks with Stein and especially her mother, Charlotte.

One area where the movie simply fails is providing adequate time to explain each of these complex characters. This is a crime that most movie adaptations commit though. Considering the book is over 500 pages long, it’s only expected that the film could only scratch the surface of the characters and certain relationships.

Skeeter’s relationship with Stuart Whitworth, the devastatingly handsome and rich senator’s son, is so complicated that Stockett could write a whole novel dedicated to just that subject. The couple’s heavy emotions of past loves, first loves and family honor allow Stockett to interweave romance and betrayal amongst the complicated black and white relationships.

Two of the best relationships that Stockett writes are the relationships between Skeeter and her maid Constantine and between Aibileen and Elizabeth Leefolt’s adorable toddler Mae Mobley. 

Skeeter and Constantine’s relationship is pretty much nonexistent in the movie but is given beautiful attention in the novel. 

Aibileen and Mae Mobley’s mother/daughter connection, on the other hand, is given adequate attention in the movie, with the added spice of Mae’s mother Elizabeth giving them envious looks tossed in for drama. 

One of the greatest lines in both the novel and the movie “The Help” is Aibileen’s continued mantra to Mae Mobley: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

Nothing is sweeter than actually seeing Viola Davis’s Aibileen cuddling little Mae and repeating these lines to her. 

It’s moments like this that make Stockett’s book become so much more than another blockbuster movie or bestseller. “The Help” becomes a story about how the connections people make with one another are so complex and complicated that they can never truly be defined in simple black and white terms. 


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