Narrating Cries for Help

January 9, 2012

Before I criticize a book or film, I often feel obligated to permit it to speak in its own defense. For that reason, I went from reading Harry Potter, of which I am a devoted fan, to Eragon and Twilight. I enjoyed parts of each, raised an eyebrow at the sometimes-poor writing, and found other elements problematic. In 2010, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside Blake; or The Huts of America. I wanted to understand the perspective that was deprecated in later publications.

This January, with similar misgivings, I picked up Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Friends have recommended it; newspapers and online commentaries have alternately praised and berated it. Readers and thinkers whom I respect have excoriated the claim of a white writer to speak on behalf of and in the voice of black maids in the 1960s.

Narrative authority is one of the literary issues that I care most deeply about. Although I hesitate to make the claim that it is never possible to explore the voice of a character unlike yourself, the authors I most respect are those whose attempts to do so demonstrate a measure of self-awareness and self-critique.

For example, in Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee’s narrator writes, “I tell you the story of this morning mindful that the storyteller, from her office, claims the place of right. […] So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye” (104). I was looking for similar moments as I read The Help.

It is a page-turner, well crafted and, for the most part, well executed. A few passages came close to identifying the problems or risks of narrating on behalf of another. As Aibileen and Skeeter construct a book of the maids’ stories, they make editorial choices. “Let’s just move on,” Aibileen says in one brief exchange. “We don’t got to…count that one” (304). The story in question does end up in Skeeter’s book, but for me, this scene had the potential to problematize Stockett’s own role as an editor and narrator. To my disappointment, its potential never materializes.

Finally, in an afterword, Stockett describes her doubts about the project. She says, “I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. […] I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity” (529-530).

On one hand, I agree with the sentiment, the effort to understand. I respect other books that have attempted a similar feat. The cover of The Help compares Stockett’s novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird …If you read only one book…let this be it.”

It is true that both The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird rely in troublesome fashion on the intervention of a white character (Skeeter and Atticus, respectively) to give voice to their oppressed black communities. It is also true that in doing so, both books make an effort to tackle complex issues of racial perception and action. However, there is one key difference that I cannot brush aside.

In Lee’s novel, Scout attempts to understand racial segregation from the outside. She wrestles with what she can see, without being able to conveniently slip inside Calpurnia’s head, or Tom Robinson’s. Had The Help taken a similar stance, simply recounting Skeeter’s attempt to piece together a narrative that is not fully her own; had Stockett left the nested book Help unwritten and inaccessible to readers, I think I would have found the concluding commentary much more compelling. Unfortunately, the book itself is so consumed with telling a gripping story that it fails to reflect the doubt Stockett expresses in her closing remarks.

As a result, the book left me disappointed that a well-written story like this one wasted its potential to dig into the problem of narrative authority and, with the help of additional research and inquiry, to open a meaningful conversation about the narratives that were and were not allowed to emerge from the twentieth-century South.


Review: My Week With Marilyn

December 29, 2011

Point 1: Michelle Williams has earned critical approbation for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in the recent film My Week With Marilyn (2011). Point 2: It was a quiet night, and I needed something to do. So naturally, I went to see the movie: a skeptic about the film itself, a fan of Williams.

For me, the film had moments of brilliance and others that lacked a certain spark. The choice to cast Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier was, to me as a moviegoer, particularly unusual; to me as a Shakespearean, doubly amusing. That being said, Williams’ representation of Monroe is captivating.

I think my own appreciation for the film was enhanced by the fact that I read Arthur Miller’s controversial play After the Fall (influenced by his relationship with Monroe) a few years ago. In many ways, Williams’ performance brought the sentiments of the play to life for me, while at the same time the play added another layer of nuance to the film.

All in all, it’s worth seeing, particularly if the buzz is correct and it will be on the lineup for this year’s Oscars.

Check it out!

Life in Hand

November 27, 2011

“The child is the father of the man.” – William Wordsworth

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” – The Tree of Life

This weekend, I finally had the time to catch up on some movie-watching. Although The Tree of Life may not have been the best choice to watch while recuperating from a cold, I’m glad to have seen it.

If you’re looking for a film with a clearly identifiable plot and progressive action, then this is probably not the movie for your Saturday night. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life  (2011) “reads” more like a Salman Rushdie novel: lyrical, intensely visual, nonlinear, at moments solemn, at others grandiloquent or psychedelic.

Quick shots and voiceovers show the fragments of memory that form Jack O’Brien’s childhood and his effort to make sense of grief and growth. In Jack’s family, loved ones die and cruelty reduces physical presence to a shadow. The best description I can give for this film is that it shows the search for the way of grace in the midst of the way of nature.

Call it a “coming-of-age” story or a tale about grief and the loss of innocence, this film, to me, is all about the images. There is something in the movement of nature—be it a flow of lava, natural hot springs, the sun rising over the curve of the earth, or the logarithmic spiral in a snail’s shell—that fills the gaps in language.

Yet through all of this, human touch remains central.  Hands are a prominent point of focus in The Tree of Life. A caress, a blow, or a brush of the fingers zooms in from the epic scope and pauses there. Compared to the expansive space and time Malick explores elsewhere, these moments are tiny and insignificant. However, as emblems of humanity’s potential to choose what Mrs. O’Brien calls the “way of grace,” they leave, at least for me, the film’s most lasting impression.

A thought-provoker, to say the least.

2011 Film Adaptations

January 2, 2011

As we enter a new year, the world of literature-to-film adaptation continues to grow. Today’s filmmakers (like Shakespeare and his contemporaries) are cashing in on the idea that invention does not always depend on originality.

The line-up for 2011 includes animated film, drama, and thriller, and it pulls material from plays, novels, and children’s fairy tales.  From the beginning, changes in genre  and audience are likely to receive some notice. In part ironically, in part appropriately, it’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that becomes an animated comedy and Little Red Riding Hood that becomes a suspense/thriller.

Here are a few of the literary adaptations scheduled to hit the screen sometime in 2011:

Jane Eyre – starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, 300) and directed by Cary Fukunaga.

On the Road – starring Garrett Hedlund (TRON, Four Brothers) and Kristen Stewart (Twilight, Into the Wild) and directed by Walter Salles (Dark Water, The Motorcycle Diaries).

Gnomeo & Juliet – voiced by Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria)  and James McEvoy (Atonement) and directed by Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2, Spirit).

Water for Elephants – starring Reese Witherspoon (Just Like Heaven, Vanity Fair) and Robert Pattinson (Twilight, Remember Me) and directed by Francis Lawrence.

The Three Musketeers – starring Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma), Ray Stevenson (The Book of Eli), Matthew Macfadyen (Frost/Nixon), and Luke Evans (Robin Hood) and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Alien vs. Predator).

Red Riding Hood – starring Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) and Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight).

I don’t usually watch a movie simply because it’s based on literature, but I do look forward to seeing at least a few of these. Although the entertainment value is an important factor, I’m also interested to see how these directors and actors re-interpret classic stories for a new audience, a new medium, and a new cultural climate.

Join me?

See Chasing The Frog ( for more archives listing movies based on literature.