While I enjoyed the novel this film was based on, I wasn’t as impressed by it as a lot of people around me seemed to be. Rather than go into why, or describe the overall plot again, you can head on over to my book review to catch up or refresh your memory.
Because of the issues I’d had with the book, I hadn’t been all that eager to see the film. But several trusted amigos had told me it was much better than the source material, so I rented it last weekend while down hanging out with Mom — figuring if it was going to be terrible, at least we could joyfully mock it together (our favorite past-time, as many of you are aware, is making fun of bad movies).
Instead, though, I was surprised to find I really enjoyed this one, and so did Mom (who hasn’t read the novel). I think that enjoyment was made possible by a couple of significant, yet subtle, presto-changos in the movie that helped undo some of the stickiest issues I’d had with the book.
One of the biggest of those problems was the way the author seemed to want us to think of Skeeter as a hero, a white woman there to save “the help” from their lives of misery by launching a project to collect and publish the true tales of a dozen or so black housekeepers working for wealthy white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. To me, though, Skeeter was just as exploitative as the rest — though she wasn’t openly disdainful like her friends, she didn’t initiate her project out of a long-burning desire to help the help. Instead, she only developed the idea when a New York publishing agent told her she’d never make it as a writer unless she came up with a topic that was juicier and more controversial than the first few she’d proposed.
When she was done and the book was a success, she shared the proceeds with the maids who had helped her, then promptly took off for a new life in the Big Apple. It seemed to me all those hours of listening to the maids of Mississippi hadn’t really impacted her terribly much — which brings me to my second issue with the book: a general lack of change in any of the characters by the end of the story. Skeeter left to begin her career, the black maids remained second-class citizens (and still do in places like Mississippi), and the racist white women in Jackson remained just as disdainful of their housekeepers as ever (while at the same time wholly seeming to believe their housekeepers loved them and therefore wanted to serve them).
I get that that’s the most authentic and least cheesy ending — it’s not exactly that I wanted an ending in which the maids united to fight discrimination and the white women suddenly realized the wrongness of their ways and began to change. That would’ve been trite. But still, a book in which none of the characters seem to grow at all is just, quite frankly, not a book that holds much emotional power. And that was the primary thing I felt was lacking in the novel: emotional power.
These elements were quite different in the film, however, thanks in large part to the incredible acting chops of the cast, including Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and the ever-delightful Sissy Spacek (both Davis and Spencer have been nominated for the Academy Award this year, by the way, and rightly so). The actors brought their characters to an emotional level the book was never able to achieve (for me, anyway). The movie is also paced well and made smart choices when it came to which parts of the book’s story to include or exclude.
I left the film feeling moved and even a little inspired — but I’d left the book feeling more annoyed and confused by its hype than anything else. That sentence alone ought to be enough to get this flick into your pile. Both lovers and loathers of the book will probably find much to enjoy here. Kid-tested, mother-approved!
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek