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‘The Help’ makes the leap from bookshelf to big screen

Movies cost a lot of money to make. Some estimates say that the average budget for a mainstream Hollywood release, including the costs of promotion and advertising, is more than $100 million. So studios don’t usually take a chance on unproved ideas (unless they’re self-explanatory concepts like “Snakes on a Plane”).

Most big-budget movies are adapted from other media, and books are a reliable resource. A best-seller in which millions of people have invested their time ensures a curious audience for the film version.

“The Help” is the latest best-seller shoehorned into the multiplex. Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut novel is loosely based on her upbringing in Jackson, Missouri, where the family’s African-American maid was like a second mother to the girl. Young Kathryn’s best friend was a boy named Tate Taylor, who grew into an aspiring actor and director while Stockett wrote fiction.
Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut novel “The Help.”
Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut novel “The Help.”
A scene from the movie adaptation of “The Help.” (MCT)
A scene from the movie adaptation of “The Help.” (MCT)

After the manuscript for “The Help” had been rejected by 40 publishers, Taylor read it and bought the movie rights from his friend. When the novel was finally published by Putnam and became a sensation, gentleman callers from Hollywood approached Stockett about making it into a movie, but she insisted that Taylor had the rights and the regional background to adapt it properly. And she felt that Taylor’s roommate, Octavia Spencer, would be perfect for the role of sassy Minnie Jackson, because she had partly inspired the character when Stockett visited Taylor in Los Angeles.

Few movies are adapted so seamlessly. Often the author forfeits the right to contribute to the project ― or even to visit the set. Vladmir Nabokov’s very literary screenplay for his novel “Lolita” was gently tossed aside by fellow genius Stanley Kubrick, who understood that film is a different medium and that effective adaptations have to jettison some juicy stuff.

At least half a dozen writers worked to whittle Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling “Gone With the Wind” into a movie, including F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is being filmed for the third time ― in Australia, by risk-taker Baz Luhrmann.

Luhrmann previously tackled one of the most canonical works in Western literature for his “Romeo + Juliet.” The many movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, from “Forbidden Planet” to “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” prove that timeless stories can be updated, but there is no guarantee that a great novel or play will be a great film. The movie versions of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” took off, while “Rabbit, Run” and “All the Pretty Horses” stood still.

Many literati are leery of the upcoming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” The director is the estimable Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), but like Luhrmann, he’s a foreigner tackling an archetypal American story.

Then again, the Brits might have shivered when New Zealand horror buff Peter Jackson proposed a trilogy based on “The Lord of the Rings,” and that worked out pretty well.

Which is better: The book or the movie?

“Alice in Wonderland,” published by author Lewis Carroll (1865), filmed by director Tim Burton (2010): Carroll’s book has inspired many versions, including cartoons and even a porn film, but Burton’s gloomy, gothic abomination stripped all the wonder from Wonderland. And it may be the worst example of 3-D since “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein.”

“Freakonomics,” written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005); directed by Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock (2010): Nonfiction books are a trendy new source for movies, such as “The Social Network” and the upcoming “Moneyball.” This anthology about socioeconomic anomalies had several directors and covered subjects as diverse as sumo wrestling and the racial implications of people’s first names. The result was more fuzzy than freaky.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” written by Dr. Seuss (1957), directed by Ron Howard (2000): The 1966 TV version of the Christmas story was animated, so it retained the Seussical spirit of the book, but Jim Carrey in a fuzzy face mask was about as cuddly as a cactus. (The diamond in this lump of coal was future “Gossip Girl” Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lou Who.)

“The Road to Wellville” written by T.C. Boyle (1993), directed by Alan Parker (1994): Like Updike, Boyle is a consummate stylist, and stripping this story about turn-of-the-century health faddists to its skeletal essence left moviegoers with a gruesome farce about constipation and corn flakes, starring a lisping Anthony Hopkins and a drooling Dana Carvey.

―“The Godfather,” written by Mario Puzo (1969), directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1972): Some of Puzo’s prose is hokey (“Now, though his brain smoked with hatred, though wild visions of buying a gun and killing the two young men jangled the very bones of his skull ...”), but that’s not a problem in a movie whose fabulous cast set the bar for gangster drama.

― “The Silence of the Lambs,” written by Thomas Harris (1988), directed by Jonathan Demme (1991): The thriller about a woman-skinning serial killer is plenty scary. Still, Anthony Hopkins makes Hannibal Lector into a cannibal that viewers cannot forget.

― “The Devil Wears Prada,” written by Laura Weisberger (2003), directed by David Frankel (2006): Not only do the actors create better characters than the novel did, you get to see the clothes ― pretty important in a comedy about the fashion industry.

―“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” written by Stieg Larsson (translation published in the U.S. in 2008), directed (in Swedish) by Niels Arden Oplev (2009): The movie version of the first book in this curiously popular trilogy makes the dark thriller more interesting by cutting out the author’s excess verbiage. The lead actors are terrific, and seeing the minor characters makes the Swedish names much less confusing (a complaint of many American readers). Let’s hope the American film version, due in December, fares as well.

By Joe Williams, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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