I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help a few months ago having received a free Kindle download. I have to say I wasn’t that interested in it. I had heard a lot about the book since the 2011 film adaptation directed by Tate Taylor after it gained a lot of Oscar buzz but I didn’t watch the film and it took me a long time to get round to reading the book. Having rectified this, I want to share my thoughts on both of them.
The Help is set in 1960s Mississippi. The book is told from three women’s perspectives: Aibileen, her good friend Minnie and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minnie are both black maids working in the households of Skeeter’s (a white woman) friends. Aibileen is smart, well-read and respected by her community. She left school at a young age due to the need to earn but keeps up with her writing at which she is quite talented. Minnie is the firecracker of the pair, she has been fired from numerous jobs for talking back to her employers, but the one person she doesn’t stand up to is her abusive husband. Having just returned home from college, Skeeter begins to see the way in which her friends and her community treat their employees and decides to enlist the help of Aibileen and Minnie to publish a collection of their stories, exposing the true experience of ‘the Help’.
The film is very true to the book in events, characterisation and sequence. There are a few minor changes that I do think matter. I read the book first and my main criticism of it was that it seemed very sanitised. Terrible things happened, such as the enforcement of the rule that the maids had to use toilets outside, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of anger about it. Only one of the maids, Gretchen, was angry at Skeeter’s privileged position and this resulted in Aibileen telling Gretchen to leave her house. This was removed from the film. I think that’s a shame because it showed the reality of tension between the communities. For the most part The Help sticks rigidly to the idea that if you’re a ‘good’ person you’ll get along with anyone which to be frank, for the time it was set, seems a bit rose-tinted to say the least.
Another thing that irked me about the film was that I felt like Aibileen’s intelligence was dumbed down. She is a kind, nurturing woman, but she is also shown to be fiercely smart in the novel. One of the most famous lines in the film is the whole “you is kind, you is smart, you is important”, but Aibileen doesn’t say this in the book, she says “you are kind” because she has a strong grasp of language! It’s such a small detail but it seems like they were trying to make her seem less well read, more provincial even for no reason.
I guess the biggest criticism of The Help is that it is attempting to be the true story of black women in America in the 60s, but it is written by a white woman. Incidentally, a white woman who grew up with black maids. Of course she is going to have a certain bias. Even more disappointing is that the film is directed by a white man. The result is a perfectly pleasant book and film, but don’t assume that you’re going to get anything close to a historically accurate representation of black women’s experiences. The cast of the film is terrific but it’s such a shame that their source material was so weak. This was a cast that could has dealt with BIG issues with grace and integrity but instead they’ve produced a film that just pays lip service to the era.
Neither the book nor the film were my cup of tea, plus they’re so similar that I don’t think one is better than the other. If I had to, I’d say the book is superior due to the extra depth it gives Aibileen. I realise this might be quite controversial because it both are very popular, but I’d honestly say just skip both.
What did you think of The Help?