Writing Workshop: “The Help” Lights, Camera, Action!

You can read about the basis for this series here.

I am so pleased to report that the movie lived up to my expectations. The theater was full but everyone was quiet and respectful; at the end, everyone clapped. Usually that makes me roll my eyes (you know the actors can’t hear you, right?) but I was so gratified by the film that I just smiled.

Even though I had heard many good things going into the movie, a part of me was still apprehensive. I’ve been burned by books-turned-movies before. What is it exactly that makes or breaks this kind of film? Here are some fears I’ve identified, and how “The Help” overcame them.

Fears about seeing movies based on books

Key information will be left out

Take for example the Harry Potter films. I made the mistake once of re-reading a book right before going to the movie, and I couldn’t enjoy the movie because I was too busy being indignant at how different it was from the book. I knew that there was no way to include everything from a book that is so rich and detailed, but I still missed seeing some scenes brought to life in the movie.

Characters will be altered beyond recognition

A book can have as many characters as it wants, as long as the author can keep track of them. A film has a budget to consider, and often that means cutting actors. Characters are left out or blended, which may work for the movie but can be disconcerting for the reader.

It doesn’t translate from page to screen

Keeping the theme and feel of a book as it is transformed into a film is one of the most important things, I think. Many other things can be forgiven if this is done well. Lord of the Rings is a great example: this trilogy had its ups and downs but overall, I really felt I was drawn into the world created J.R.R. Tolkein.

The plot will be significantly different

Once I was really looking forward to seeing a movie based on a contemporary novel I’d just read. It was a sob-fest and my friend and I came in with tissues prepared. It wasn’t the best movie but I did get invested emotionally. Then a major plot point was the opposite of what happened in the book, and I threw up my hands. WHY? Why ruin a perfectly good plot that way?

The Help” put my fears at ease

Of course, information was left out. But in this case, I felt my knowledge of the book added to what was presented onscreen, while those who hadn’t read the book still got what they needed.

The only character quibbles I had were just that, quibbles: in the book, Hilly is described as a bit chubby and onscreen she obviously hit the gym regularly (well, Bryce Dallas Howard did anyway, which was a bit of a distraction from the character); and Constantine’s daughter Rachel is described as very pale, while in the movie version she is quite a bit darker.

Which leads to the plot being different.  . .

The mystery of Constantine’s departure is answered differently in the book, but if I didn’t know that it wasn’t a big deal. I could see that in order to keep the movie under three hours, some sub-plots had to go, but that was one I missed.

Overall, the movie did a wonderful job of connecting with the feel of the book. Whether the characters looked exactly how they were supposed to didn’t matter as much as that they acted the way they were supposed to. The brilliant actresses filled every word, look, and movement with depth and meaning. The tension was very real, between the whites and blacks, between friends, between family members. The complexity of the bonds that developed between Skeeter and Aibileen and Minny and Celia, felt real. Nothing was too glib or glossy; no one went over the top.

The success of this movie was not just because of the screenplay, actors and directors but because of the costumers, set designers, sound designers and other unsung heroes. There were no wasted pieces. Everything contributed to the whole. That was why the theater erupted in applause at the end, even though none of those people could hear us. Sometimes you need to show your appreciation however you can.

I hope this movie inspires people to read the book (if they haven’t). I hope it wins some awards. Most of all, I hope it touches people in a way that gets them thinking about injustice and how they can work to make things better. This cvil rights things isn’t going to “blow-over” anytime soon, thank God.

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