Messing Around with "The Help"

The Help.  And no, it’s not about making babies with former governor Schwarzenegger.

Have I read the book?  Do I have plans on seeing the movie?   Now the mere fact that my mother-in-law likes The Help should have been damning enough.  But I digress. Let me explain, in a very roundabout way, why I will not see The Help.

Truth be told, the issue of whether or not someone can opine about whether or not they’d see a film based upon a book they’ve not read is moot, in my opinion.  But it’s not easy for anyone who is a teacher to readily dismiss either, simply because in some respects, the movement of source material from book form to movie form is something that, at times, we deal with in classrooms each and every year.  If you think about the “Harry Potter” films, the recent release of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” this summer, or last year’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, inevitably, for teachers, there is the struggle between trying to work between literature appreciation of the source material and a student’s understanding of it, and then, how it competes with the movie version of the story–particularly if an author’s vision of a specific character runs up how a film chooses to portray a character on film, especially given the actor chosen.  Think this versus this.

What I think teachers forget, is that often, the movies are not a reflection of the book.  Take Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “All Summer in a Day”.  Here’s how what the ending looks like, from a PBS/Disney project called WonderWorks:

Ok.

Not exactly the eviscerating ending of the original short story.  In my uninformed opinion, the story loses the power of the original work, in order to give the children a “feel good” experience at the end of the story.  Hollywood often operates in much the same way, for instance, in random conversation this past weekend, my wife and I were discussing the Disney denouement of The Little Mermaid versus the the original fairy tale.  Whatever the movie, whatever images or understandings that the reader derived through their interaction with the text gets replaced by the images to be found in the visual medium in which this story takes places on the screen, regardless of its size.  While I read fairy tales to my little girl, and she has several “wannabe” versions of princess cartoons as well, inevitably, the images or story wind up competing with the Disney version.

But that’s an entirely different subject.

Professor Carol Booth Olson, UCI Writing Project Co-Director in the Reading/Writing Connection (2007) notes “(w)hen people visualize, they often talk about making a movie inside their heads…” But, truthfully, while the meaning of a novel is controlled by only one person — the author — the meaning we get from a film is the result of a collaborative effort by a large number of people.   Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle sees it as a partnership:  “[y]ou create a partnership which creates a film together…you always look good as a director, you get all the credit, if you can achieve those good performances, but to do that you’ve really got to work together as a team.  When we start we always try to start as me, the writer and the producer, and then we expand it out into the cameraman and the designer and the editor. You try to keep as many people involved as you can, you know. Just from a purely practical basis, they work harder as a result if they feel involved. It makes it feel like it’s their project, and it really should because it is.”

For some viewers, film does not allow for the same freedom a novel does — to interact with the plot or characters by imagining them in our minds. This lack of interaction, for some, is often the most frustrating aspect of turning a novel (or short story) into a film.  On the other hand, a film’s visual images stimulate our perceptions directly, while written words do this indirectly. Reading the word “chair” requires a kind of mental “translation” that viewing a picture of a chair does not. Film is a more sensory experience than reading — besides verbal language, there is also color, movement, and sound. Yet film is also limited: for one thing, there are no time constraints on a novel, while a film must generally compress events into two hours or so–less, if we’re talking about a short story.

So, can I give my opinion about a movie based on a book that I haven’t read?  Yes, given there’s no requirement being made that I have to read the book prior to having bought my movie ticket, or prior to renting the DVD, etc.  Also too, having not read the book, I can therefore treat the film as a independent piece of literature, much as I would have done had I decided to have read the book.

Roger Ebert, ostensibly responding to the film “Thor”, but addressing the issues of film adaptations in general:

It is impossible for most critics to be familiar with the source material of most movies, and that doesn’t bother me. A movie must contain whatever the audience requires in order to enjoy it. It’s not required to be “faithful” to its source, as if adaptation were adultery.
And adaptation therefore means changes to the basic story line that might have originally emerged from the author.  HBO’s “True Blood” or Showtime’s “Dexter” are two examples of successful television programs, each derived from a series of novels that provide the world in which its characters inhabit.  But in both instances, the stories have diverged from its source material.  To expand upon what Ebert asserts, at that point, the audience must be allowed to enjoy the viewing experience on its own merits (or reject it, for that matter), as it stands alone.  That means that a character that has a small role in the books, might instead grow into his own in the television series, if the producers choose to take those characters into such a direction.  


For myself, I enjoyed the adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, while just hating the adaptation made of Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.  On the other hand, James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line, made into the film of the same name by director Terence Malick back in 1997, was a disappointment in that I could see that many components of Jones’ original story–for instance, a homosexual encounter by two of the soldiers in the story that leads to a deadly betrayal later on–appeared to have been filmed, but in a film that had hours of footage (the original first cut of the movie was five hours long!), it had to be honed down to a more manageable time frame.  Nevertheless, I can still enjoy certain components of the film by divorcing myself from the idea that there was more out there that could have been added.  I can also “fill-in” those gaps by the background material that serves as the gap filling provided to me by Jones’ original novel.  


By extension, on the subject of James Jones, this same technique is somewhat harder in reconciling his From Here to Eternity with the classic 1953 film.  


Reversing the idea of book to film, there’s also the notion of seeing the film first, and then becoming interested enough to pursue the book afterwards.  Public Enemies , Michael Mann’s 2009 film, starring Johnny Depp, is one such personal example for me.  Another was Gustav Hasford’s book The Short-timers, which was the influence for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  In this latter instance, you can see how even minor deviance from the source material can change the book’s transition to the screen. 


Now the entire idea of even seeing The Help was never on my radar.  It generally is not something that I would seek out.  My wife, having the read the book, has expressed a desire to see it.  In fact, this past weekend, with Kate at Grandma’s, we are spent our entertainment dollars at the cinema, to see this.  The Help is playing at the same theater.  But the wife and I have agreements about what we’ll see together, which, thusly, frees up certain films for her to see with her friends.  


But my decision to eschew The Help, even if I had been attracted to the subject matter, would come down to a similar decision that I made when the 2002 John Woo-directed film Windtalkers was released.  I am the type that tends to measure his entertainment time by not simply going upon how a film might be hyped, but through the idea of reading film review and notices, especially if a film is supposed to be based upon a historical time period.  In Roger Ebert’s review of Windtalkers, he notes:  


“Windtalkers” comes advertised as the saga of how Navajo Indians used their language to create an unbreakable code that helped win World War II in the Pacific. That’s a fascinating, little-known story and might have made a good movie. Alas, the filmmakers have buried it beneath battlefield cliches, while centering the story on a white character played by Nicolas Cage. I was reminded of “Glory,” the story of heroic African-American troops in the Civil War, which was seen through the eyes of their white commanding officer. Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories?


For whatever it’s worth, I liked the film Glory.  But it’s a point well-taken that I had not considered until I was doing the research for this response.  As much as I enjoyed Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes in the film, they truly should be secondary players.  Interestingly enough though, prior to considering the earlier film, Ebert’s concerns about Windtalkers are many of the same concerns that I have about The Help.  Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories?


Now Ebert actually liked the film but had this to say:

I was drawn into the characters and quite moved, even though all the while I was aware it was a feel-good fable, a story that deals with pain but doesn’t care to be that painful. We don’t always go to the movies for searing truth, but more often for reassurance: Yes, racism is vile and cruel, but hey, not all white people are bad. 

Nevertheless, this point is reiterated by Matt Seitz at Salon.com: 

American historical films are forever refighting old wars, congratulating themselves for being on the right side, and encouraging viewers to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side, too. They view the war from the general’s tent up on a distant hill and imagine that they’re right in the thick of it. That’s how Paul Haggis’ “Crash” swept the Oscars in 2006 — by serving up a contemporary story of Los Angelenos who said and did brazenly racist things in public constantly, as if it were 1967 and everyone was wearing love beads, Afros and hard hats. The characters seemed crude and primitive, lacking in self-awareness, unenlightened; this made them easy to label, judge and dismiss. A variation on this strategy has enabled another race drama, “The Help,” to become an instant hit, a likely Oscar contender, and yet another reminder that when mainstream cinema depicts discrimination, it tends to ask the same two questions: “How did this affect white people?” and “Aren’t you glad you’re not bigoted like the creeps in this movie?”

 But what drew me to Seitz’s point-of-view was how he connected The Help to a long line of Hollywood “white-washing”–all the way back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and that includes incredibly popular films like Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side.   In many respects, it’s almost as if the minority character(s), be it Windtalkers, or The Help, are less important as characters, and more important as part of a story’s setting.  They remain static, rather than dynamic, because the “hero’s journey”, so to speak, can never involve a person of color, especially if such a story can’t be expected to draw all that well at the box office.  

After Seitz’ denunciation, comes this Kimberley Egonmwan broadside, in effect, trying to provide a response to some of my friends who are fans of the The Help, and who have asserted how the film speaks about friendships that crossed the barriers of the time.  I’m immediately taken aback from the standpoint that I find it difficult to see how a friendship between employer/employee could be seen as “equal”, especially given the historical time period, or the power relationship vis-a-vis intimidation, but Egonmwan is even more succinct on the same point:

It’s tiring that no matter how much she is abused, the black maid on the silver screen (in The Help, Viola Davis takes on this role, along with others) is shown to love her boss’ family as much, if not more than, her own. She takes care of their children as if they were her own, teaching and spoiling them. Her character finds her place in the household more honorable than anything she goes home to, because her home life is never developed to stand on its own merits. This is a total fantasy. This woman never existed in real life; why is she always in a movie?


Contrary to every blindly devoted black maid you’ve ever seen on screen, when a black woman took care of another person’s home and children, it was to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to ensure the continued survival of her own family. There’s no question that these women quite often suffered indignities and slights at the hands of their superiors because, in truth, especially before and during the civil rights era, domestic service was only a few steps away from slavery. It was just about the only work a black woman was allowed to do. She cleaned other people’s homes to raise and educate her own children.


She knew firsthand – largely from the example set by the family for which she worked – that money did not equal class, and that pedigree did not ensure good breeding. She had to carry herself a certain way to combat the stereotypes that continually dogged her skin color. Her struggle produced the generations of black women that live today. And, just as I’m sure she would want, it’s time to put that character to rest.

Ironically, the idea of a family home life for a story involving a main black character, was something that was the critical motivation for Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog It’s rare that one might mention a Disney animated film for trying to be more sociologically deep than a live-action Hollywood production such as The Help.


Finally, there’s the Association of Black Women Historians:

In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.


I was mortified by the in-law who admired the film for “showing them talking the way they talk”, thusly engendering my response about “how do they talk?”:

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.”

As I noted when I began this reflection, it’s this recommendation that sealed my decision to shy away from The Help.  
In the end, I am left to again quote Roger Ebert:

But I suppose the Stockett novel has many loyal readers, and that this is the movie they imagined while reading it.
So fans of the book, and I know a couple, should be happy to be seeing on screen what they’d been keeping in their heads all this time.  For me, having had little desire to see the film in the first place (and I was in the dark that my wife had even read the novel), the objections to the film’s historical accuracy were alarm bells.  It’s folly to expect Hollywood to accurately reflect real life experiences when given controversial subject matter, especially with its history on how it’s portrayed the Civil Rights era.   Nevertheless, the objections to the film are worthy of being addressed and should be addressed, rather than dismissed out of hand. My own lesson learned through this thinking exercise would be to skip Stockett’s book, take advantage of recommended reading that might be of even greater value to understanding the eraUltimately, even for those who might choose to view the film, consider the legacy of those which went before.  As has been pointed out, Hollywood and

…[t]he film industry was as much a pillar of institutional racism as any business in this country. To indict American racism is, by definition, to attack the machine that created decades of stereotypes…[b]y denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed. 
I can at least understand why a story might need to be crafted in order to draw the largest possible audience to the movie theater.  And, in many respects, “popular” entertainment involves varying levels of pandering.  But in trying to decide how to spend my own entertainment dollar, I don’t have to be part of that audience if I choose not to be.  
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