Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Help

Over break, my daughter and I watched The Help. I read the book last summer and I loved it, so I initially had mixed feelings about seeing the movie. But, once the rave reviews started coming in, my hesitation vanished, and when my fourteen-year-old wanted to watch the movie with me, that sealed the deal.

I wasn't disappointed. Of necessity, some parts of the book were blended with others to keep the movie from becoming an epic, but no major story points were missed or misrepresented - at least not as far as I could tell.

Watching the ensemble of gifted actresses bring Stockett's characters to life was an altogether different experience from trying to visualize them in my mind's eye as I read the novel, but it was an experience that provided a wonderful complement to the book. Each enhanced the other, and I came away from the movie with an even greater appreciation of the book.

Most of all, I came away amazed - once again - by the bravery of these women. Yes, they were fictional characters, but I found myself wondering over and over again if I could have done what they did. As a writer, could I have written the forbidden story and seen it through to publication? As "the help" could I have trusted someone with my story - someone so like the people I'd spent my whole life being wary of? When I think that this happened in my lifetime - fictionalized liberties or not - I am in awe of these women.

Kathryn Stockett got a lot of grief for daring to write these characters - particularly Aibileen and Minny - because as a white writer, she could not possibly have written them (as far as her critics were concerned) authentically.

This begs the question that has long been debated - do you have to be the same race as your characters to write them effectively? The Help is a work of fiction - it does not promise to be an accurate representation of the life of every person who lived during that time, regardless of their race.

When the author of a work of fiction creates a character, he or she builds that character from scratch, imbuing her (or him) with heart, brain, mind, body and courage. Should an author be prohibited from creating a character whose culture or skin color is different from her own?

As a writer, I frequently take issue with the actions of the characters in books I read, and movies and TV shows I watch if those actions appear to clash with the core values of the character. Never once have I said "no white person would say that" or "no Jersey girl would say that" because I can't profess to know what every single person of a race or culture would or would not do. So much depends on the circumstances and, well, character of the character.

When it comes to The Help, this Jersey girl was moved tremendously by the fictional characters and made up actions of those author-created beings. Was it an accurate portrayal of Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960's? I have no way of knowing that. But would I have wanted to know Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter?


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