“The Help” — What Worked

“The Help” is one of those rare movies that is destined to be a milestone in movie history much the same as “Star Wars” and “Pulp Fiction.” What makes “The Help” so appealing isn’t its stars, special effects, or unusual story, but its well crafted story structure.

“The Help” isn’t just a good story, but a well crafted story that uses multiple stories to support and strengthen one another, and that’s what makes “The Help” so successful.

First, you need a hero and in “The Help,” the hero is a woman who wants to work in New York as a writer. Her life is rather dull and she hasn’t really gone out on a date so her mother is trying to force her to find a man. This alone is a rather mundane goal, but what makes the story far more interesting is her supporting cast of characters who are also stuck in a dead end life.

The hero decides to write stories from the point of view of the black maids in the South. The two main maids are both stuck in dead end lives and need to deal with the injustice they feel from the villain, a racist woman who is popular in her social circle.

To round out these characters is a ditzy blonde who has been ostracized from the main group and is starving for companionship. Thus you have four characters all battling the same villain and the injustice of racism. All for these heroes have similar goals and their various stories keep us glued to the screen to see how they can possibly all succeed.

Without giving away the story, the heroes all find ways to help one another and get defeat the villain in their own way. The secret of “The Help” is simply that it gives us four sympathetic characters who are downtrodden, who search for a solution, struggle, and ultimately prevail. “The Help” isn’t good because of a single character’s story by itself but the combination of all these stories reinforcing the overall theme and each other.

Now look at the mediocrity of “Captain America,” which isn’t a bad movie. First, the hero’s main goal is to get into the Army and he does. Then his next goal is to get into combat, which he does. Unfortunately, that’s the end of his goals other than to defeat the Red Skull villain, but his goal is rather weak.

Even worse, none of the other characters in “Captain America” have any goals of their own. They simply exist to help the hero. When you have one character pursuing a goal and not a very interesting one at that, there’s not much excitement. Even worse, the villain doesn’t provide the main obstacle against the hero until the very end.

In “The Help,” the villain is throwing obstacles in front of the heroes from the start. As the heroes struggle, we get to see them change and grow, and this change is what makes “The Help” emotionally satisfying. In “Captain America,” the hero just gets stronger, achieves his goal too soon, and doesn’t change emotionally, which makes “Captain America” less satisfying despite the visual special effects and battle scenes.

Which movie is Hollywood likely to green light in the future? “The Help” almost didn’t get made because the studios didn’t think it was marketable enough. “Captain America” is definitely marketable, but lacks the appeal of “The Help” emotionally. So Hollywood will likely continue shoving through movies that have surface appeal but little else, while getting praised for the occasional movie that appeals to the heart and succeeds despite Hollywood’s reservations.

The big difference between “The Help” and “Captain America” is simply that “Captain America” has no emotional change of character, no growth, and no supporting characters who grow in similar ways. “The Help” has multiple characters who change emotionally, grow, and ultimately triumph. It’s not a secret why “The Help” succeeds, but it is still a mystery why Hollywood continues to green light movies like “Captain America” looking for the sure-hit while ignoring the possibilities of movies like “The Help,” but that’s show business so get used to it.

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