Imagine this: You’ve settled in on the beach and are ready for a good read while you work on your tan. But lightning strikes, and it starts to rain. So you gather up your stuff and head for the local multiplex in search of indoor entertainment.
That’s the path that a very few books by a very few lucky authors take. These days a book is usually for our private entertainment and enlightenment. If we find a book that speaks to us, we might discuss it with our book club, or blog about it. Still, it remains a mostly private matter, and it won’t become water cooler worthy.
But every once in a while, lightning strikes. A book that people read and care about is made into a movie, so it becomes part of our shared experience.
For whatever reason, lightning often strikes women authors. Lightning struck Frances Mayes, for example, when her memoir about renovating an Italian villa, Under the Tuscan Sun, was made into a movie starring Diane Lane. And then Elizabeth Gilbert’s travel memoir about Italy, India, and Indonesia, Eat, Pray, Love, was made into a movie starring the pretty woman herself, Julia Roberts. Now it’s the turn of Kathryn Stockett, whose life is about to change because her novel The Help, is going to be a Major Motion Picture.
Although The Help has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, another Southern woman who was struck by Hollywood lightning, the controversy that’s sprung up around it makes it more like William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. The novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early '60s, and features Skeeter, a young white woman, and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny. The maids, the “help” of the title, have been described as “tough, funny, vulnerable, conflicted women.” Any Southern white woman who dares to create such characters risks being accused of condescension—or worse. The opinions of reviewers and bloggers have been very divided.
Tate Taylor is directing the movie version of The Help, and also wrote the screenplay. The question is, will enough of Socket’s dialogue—some of which is very difficult for people outside the South-- make it into the movie to make it sound authentic for all the women involved? That’s an important question, because when Hollywood lightning strikes, it sometimes knocks the guts out of a book. Frances Mayes’ husband Ed was removed from Under the Tuscan Sun until the last 15 seconds, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love lost much of its emotional range in the transition from the page to the screen.
We’ll soon find out if Hollywood is up to the challenge of showing the complexities, uncertainties, and general confusion of life in Mississippi in the '60s. In the meantime don’t forget to take an umbrella when you go to the beach.