Is the book always better than the movie? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Joyce and a few other titans, maybe, but most books don’t soar all that high. The reverse of that old adage may be true as often as not—Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is worthless trash, but look what Francis Ford Coppola made of that.
This reflection is prompted by Tate Taylor’s movie of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Stockett’s readers will probably say the movie is all right but not as good as the book, and then shrug: Isn’t that always how it is? But if Stockett’s book comes to the screen less subtle and textured than what she wrote, it’s not because it can’t be done. It’s because Tate Taylor couldn’t do it.
The novel is narrated by three women in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. There’s Aibileen, a black maid working for a white family, channeling her maternal instinct into nurturing the toddler whose mother is too busy to pay attention to her. There’s Minny, another maid whose “sass mouth” has gotten her into so much trouble with Jackson’s white housewives that the only one who’ll hire her is one nobody else will talk to. And finally, Miss Skeeter, a white college grad who comes home to a domestic mystery: The maid who raised her has gone away suddenly, and no one will say why.
Skeeter realizes how little the whites of Jackson know about their “colored” servants. Most don’t care, but Skeeter does, and she proposes to write a book, interviewing maids on their feelings about their jobs and their bosses. But only Aibileen and the hostile, grudging Minny will even speak to her. This well-intentioned but naive young woman begins, vaguely, to grasp the depth of fear and resentment simmering under those starched maids’ uniforms.
The movie retains the three viewpoints, but the only narrator we hear is Aibileen (Viola Davis); any insights into Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Skeeter (Emma Stone) are left to what the actresses can wedge in between the lines of Tate Taylor’s script.
It took some Googling, but I finally learned why The Help—a property that should have had “Tyler Perry” written all over it—went to Taylor, an occasional bit actor whose only feature as writer-director was the contrived, superficial Pretty Ugly People. It seems Taylor grew up in Jackson, where his best friend was—wait for it—Kathryn Stockett. Stockett promised Taylor that if there was a movie, he’d direct it; it was loyal of her, but it gives us a movie whose writer-director isn’t ready for prime time.
There’s not space here to detail Taylor’s every misstep; there are too many. Let’s just say Taylor’s movie is The Help with all the edges smoothed off (some critics thought there were too few edges to begin with). Minny’s anger is softened into comical exasperation. Her relationship with her social-outcast employer (Jessica Chastain), poignant and subtle on the page, is played for coarse laughs, and Chastain’s character is openly ridiculed.
Gone, too, is the genteel callousness of Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney); she even gets a heroic speech telling off the movie’s villainess, Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). The speech isn’t in the book, and I wonder if Taylor added it as a sop to Janney’s vanity; did she balk at playing the woman Stockett wrote?
Then there’s the miscasting of gorgeous Emma Stone as gangly, awkward, homely Skeeter. Well, that’s not so bad, I guess; Stone is always a pleasure, and the movie homelies her up as much as they can.
Worst of all, Taylor soft-pedals the real danger to Skeeter and all the maids who are talking to her. Gone are references to a black man beaten blind for using a white toilet, or a maid having her tongue cut out for speaking ill of her boss. In the movie, this book of Skeeter’s is like a naughty prank that might earn them a severe talking-to instead of a bomb tossed through the window.
Let me make clear: The Help gets a “good” rating because it’s slick and entertaining and well-acted. But I didn’t like it. Tate Taylor has taken a book of real depth and turned it into something crude and shallow, like Guess Who or Big Momma’s House. Tyler Perry might have made a fine movie from Stockett’s book. I doubt if Tate Taylor could make a fine movie out of anything.
So no, I don’t think the book is “always” better than the movie. But this one sure is.