I read The Help in two days - thanks in part to our Indian summer, but mostly due to the fact that the book is impossible to put down. The Help is about Miss Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a white twenty-something woman in Jacksonville, Mississippi during the 1960s, and the unlikely friendship she forges with the hired help. Skeeter's family have had a coloured maid her entire life, as have most white families in the area. This is standard and being raised by the maid, Constantine, does not strike Skeeter as strange until she returns from university to discover her maid has quit. She can sense there is more to the story as it is out of character for Constantine to just vanish without so much as a letter of explanation - but her mother insists she just quit and left to go and live with her daughter. It is this event that causes Skeeter to see things in a different light and she is suddenly very aware of the injustice these maids suffer daily. They can raise the child of a white woman, but can't use the same toilet.
Skeeter has never been like the other women in her neighbourhood. She is tall with frizzy hair and has been told her whole life that she is ugly, never gets asked to school dances and even her mother tells her not to wear heels as it'll just make her even taller. Constantine was always telling her she was special and would do something amazing with her life. While Skeeter's friends are all getting married and having babies, she wants to be a writer. So, after she gets a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper, she starts to talk to Aibileen, her friend's maid, for tips. The more she talks to Aibileen, the more she realises she wants to write about her perspective. But this is not just a taboo thing that local people would frown upon if word get out... this is illegal. So it's not going to be as easy as it may seem. Coloured people are being shot and beaten for less.
The book is a straightforward and honest look at a time when societal rules were not challenged. The white people believed that things were fine and didn't want to mess with the status quo. But this is not a preachy overly-sentimental book. It's a look at the relationship between Skeeter, Aibileen and Aibileen's best friend, the brilliant "sass-mouthing" Minny and how their unlikely friendship and quiet courage could spark change on a massive scale.
What the book does brilliantly is focus on the people involved. The "villain" of the story is easily Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter's best friend since they were little. She has the air of perfection about her but is so self-righteous and vile it makes your skin crawl. She has such a power over her friends and everyone in the area that nobody would dare go against her. So when Minny is brought in along with Hilly's mother Missus Walters you just know something spectacular is going to happen. Minny is not one to sit quietly on a grievance.
The book also shows the full horror of the violence with shootings and beatings of the coloured people in the area. When the women are sitting together in secret, telling their stories, you are terrified that they are going to get caught out. It is this fear that kept me going - I had to find out whether or not they all come out of it OK. As is explained in the book, a white man will beat you or shoot you, a white woman will do much worse - they will make it so nobody will ever give you a job, then get you evicted, take everything you have ever worked for until you are nothing but a shell of a person. Then the man will come round and shoot or beat you.
The film was directed and co-written with Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Author Kathryn Stockett. It has been out in the US for weeks already and has been number one at the box office. This is largely thanks to two things. Firstly, the cast including Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek are outstanding. Each have captured the characters perfectly, from Sissy Spacek as the senile Missus Walters to Bryce Dallas Howard as the beautifully evil Hilly. Octavia Spencer as Minny is just as loud and endearing as you would expect, Jessica Chastain is just as vulgar, vulnerable and adorable as Celia Foote and even little Mae Mobley is cute and podgy. I have never seen such flawless casting. I was also delighted to see Cicely Tyson as Constantine. Her line in Fried Green Tomatoes "Won't sit next to a coloured child, but he'll eat eggs - shoot right out of a chicken's ass" is one of my favourites ever uttered in cinema.
Secondly, you can tell immediately that Stockett was involved in the screenplay. Though little bits have evidently been tweaked here and there and some of the chronology has been switched around, the essence of the book remains wholly in tact. There is one change that I didn't understand - which stopped it getting the 5/5 it so greatly deserves - to do with the truth behind Constantine's sudden absence, but other than that it is incredibly accurate. Overall, the adaptation has become a little more PG-friendly - the violence has been toned down but not forgotten and the ending is a little too neat and tidy for my liking.
However, as book to film adaptations go, this may have just made my Top 5 - just as beautifully heartbreaking as the original.
Book and film: 4.5/5 FOBLES
The film is out in the UK on 26th October. Go and see it!!!