Two Bestsellers

(and their adaptations)

I’ve recently tackled, just to see what the fuss was about, two popular novels and their much buzzed film adaptations. Neither is destined to become a classic, but both have their strengths and both in their own way, speak to the Zeitgeist.

First, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a look into the lives of black housemaids in 1963 Jackson, MI. Stockett, who is white, has attracted a bit of how-dare-she controversy for writing from the maid’s perspective, but overall her work has met with acclaim. I don’t see any problem with a writer tackling whatever perspective she chooses, but make no mistake, this is a book for white people. Though Stockett has enormous sympathy for her characters and the book is often moving, there’s no real sense of danger. We rest assured that although the characters are supposed to be at great risk, nothing truly bad will happen. The Help is no Color Purple.

This is one of those rare cases when I say go ahead and skip straight to the movie. The film adaptation is, like the book, thoroughly middlebrow, competent and unstylish, but rendered unforgettable by the justly acclaimed cast. The movie wisely plays to the book’s strengths, focusing on the faces of great actors like Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, all very deserving Oscar nominees (and in Spencer’s case, a winner.) It’s an actor’s movie. The women’s eyes tell the story far more movingly than Stockett’s pen. The characters, lovable or despicable, are the strength of the movie and they’re the strength of the book.

While the movie may be faulted for not having prettier camera angles, the book’s faults run deeper. The problem is, it’s not really about the civil rights era, as it purports to be. Though there are multiple rather obvious cultural signposts sprinkled throughout – MLK! Catcher in the Rye! – the struggle for equality is used mainly as wallpaper for the human story to play out in front of. And although it purports to be the maids’ story, Stockett doesn’t seem to trust that her intended middleclass, middlebrow (in other words, white) audience to follow along unless baited with the dating travails of an insecure white chick thrown in. Stockett wastes too many  chapters on the character of Skeeter Phelan and her boring boyfriend and hair problems. (In the movie, Emma Stone’s performance as Skeeter is excellent, and the boyfriend subplot is thankfully trimmed to a bare three scenes.) The assumption that the white masses won’t want to read about black people stuff unless there’s a saintly white character to invest in is insulting all around – I’m pretty sure that millions of people of all colors and creeds have enjoyed the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker without the token ‘Good German’ figure shoehorned into every story.

The other problem with The Help is what the actual main theme really is. It’s not about civil rights at all. It’s another entry in the whole “evil 50’s”. Though the action takes place in 1963, it’s clearly about how life in 1950’s American suburbs was a soul-destroying hell somewhere on the level of the Spanish Inquisition. As presented by popular movies like Revolutionary Road (in which just being alive in the fifties is seen as cause enough for suicide) and the inexplicable glamorization of Sylvia Plath (the fifties drove her to it!) the fifties and early sixties were an unimaginably torturous time of mindless conformity and wealthy women going insane inside their gilded cages. Until the Sixties came along and magically made everything all better, an event usually represented in movies by The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, or just one of their songs. Which is exactly how life is portrayed in The Help.  (Except that it’s a Bob Dylan song this time.) Those poor brainwashed, overgirdled white ladies and their misguided quest for a nice car and a wealthy husband, unable to be fulfill their intellectual potential or be their true selves underneath all that hairspray. Wah. Recycling that old rubbish about middle class conformity at the expense of the truly interesting and unexplored reality of the maids lives is a waste of ink and pages, but it serves a purpose. The heady mixture of racism, ignorance and downtrodden suburban womanhood allows us to get all steamed up about how awful our grandmothers’ cloistered little lives must have been, then congratulate ourselves for being so much more enlightened than that. As if racial discrimination wasn’t alive and well, if slightly less overt. As if mindless white housewives don’t still leave their homes and children in the hands of disenfranchised, underpaid maids and gardeners, now more likely to be Latino than African-American, but still underpaid and disenfranchised. As if conformity and ignorance were historical anomalies that have gone away never to blight our suburbs again. Somebody needs to write about the help without whitewashing, without distraction, without making anyone feel better about themselves.

—————–

My second target is The Hunger Games, the latest phenomenon to burst out of the YA ghetto and into popular consciousness. I’ll admit that I only read the first book in the trilogy (and I have to say I’m roundly sick of everything being a trilogy.) There’s probably stuff in the last two books that puts the first one in a wider context and adds new perspective. But I only read the first one, just in time to catch the movie. In this case, I’ll take the book.

If you’ve been living in a cave recently, it’s all about a dystopian future society called Panam, sprung up in the wake of what used to be America, where the Superbowl has been replaced by adolescents fighting to the dead gladiator-style on live TV. Which is a shrewd and not entirely farfetched takeoff on our current ‘reality’ obsessed entertainment culture. The series has caught on across demographics partly because it’s original, fast-paced and violent and largely on the appeal of the heroine. Suzanne Collins has created, in the figure of Katniss Everdeen, a heroine for girls and for boys – strong, smart, moral and fearless. The book is a survival guide as much as an adventure story. Through Katniss, we learn how to live by our wits; rigging traps, building fires, scavenging for edibles in the wilderness, hunting, fighting, hiding, healing. Surviving. The book is suffused with its heroine’s will to live, and her will to do right. It’s also probably no coincidence that, at a time when the poor (which is nearly everybody nowadays) are beginning to feel not just neglected and poorly-done-by, but actively oppressed and pissed off about it, everyone is reading a novel about a country in which common citizens are little better than livestock for a decadent elite to play blood sports. Surely more than a few readers relate to the anger of the innocent Tributes forced to kill each other for entertainment, to the despair of their families trapped helplessly in an unfair controlled society. If there’s one unbreaking theme here, it is as the title implies, hunger. Hardly a page goes by without mention of food. Katniss is always hungry. Her life is ruled by food, or rather its absence. There’s a harrowing backstory of near-starvation, in which a burnt loaf of bread becomes a life-changing totem. The most lovingly written, sensual scenes are eating scenes. Suzanne Collins has captured what it feels like to live a life of wanting.

The only fault I really have with The Hunger Games, which I think will keep it out of the pantheon of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, is lack of context.  Critics have said that what makes those books fantasy classics and The Hunger Games not, is that their worlds are desirable and Panam isn’t. True enough, I doubt anybody wishes Panam was real the way we wish Middle Earth was real, but that may not be the point. Those books continue to hold our imaginations because they have the heft of mythology. (Even the insipid Twilight series boasts a compelling mythology.) Their universes are painstakingly detailed, rich with history, seemingly bottomless. Collins’s Panam on the other hand, is roughly sketched. There’s barely any history to explain how and why this world got to be so fucked up. There’s mention of the collapse of a previous civilization (ours), a war, a brutally suppressed rebellion, but it’s only a few cursory lines. Without its own mythology, this world feels bare. The worlds of Tolkien and Rowling feel satisfyingly real because their wealth of detail suggest any number of other stories besides the ones the author has chosen to tell. There’s so much more that must have happened, we think, so many characters and events that must exist outside the written page. We’re left hungry for more, and we spend time imagining what those other stories might have been. The Hunger Games don’t have that effect, because we just don’t know enough about Panam to imagine anything outside what’s been written. This is a problem. I imagine that it may be somewhat rectified in the second and third installments. If it isn’t, though, I’m afraid this series won’t go on to fascinate future generations but will fall behind as strictly a product of its time.

As for the movie, it’s thriller made without an ounce of style or creativity, redeemed entirely by the charisma of star Jennifer Lawrence. Although there are a few lovely shots of decrepit Appalachia in the beginning, the visuals are thoroughly pedestrian. The adaptation, although faithful (Collins adapted it herself), has a dutiful sense of hitting all the key scenes without adding anything meaningful or fresh. The violence has, understandably, been toned down, and with it much of the suspense. As with The Help, the primary pleasure of this movie is in meeting the characters. There’s a good strong supporting cast, including Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and surprisingly non-embarrassing Lenny Kravitz, but really the single best thing, the one force holding the entire thing together is Lawrence and her expressive face, physical confidence and star-is-born charisma.