The Help.
The Help. Supplied

How The Help broke the rules and won

IF you wanted to follow accepted Hollywood protocol on how not to turn a bestselling novel into a hit film, the path followed by the major studios behind The Help provides an almost impeccable blueprint.

First, they allowed the book's author, Kathryn Stockett, to co-write the screenplay with a childhood friend called Tate Taylor. Then, again at Ms Stockett's behest, they agreed to appoint Taylor, a virtually-unknown actor with a chequered CV and no major behind-the-camera credits, as director.

Finally, having agreed to spend $25m ((pounds sterling)16m) filming the civil rights-era drama on location in Stockett and Taylor's native Mississippi, they allowed the ensuing picture to remain slavishly-faithful to the original text, meaning that it meanders for the unfashionably-long duration of two-and-a-half hours.

Yesterday, those studios, DreamWorks and Disney, were having the last laugh. After making more than $200m at the global box office, and becoming one of the year's great sleeper hits, The Help, made a late entry into the Oscar conversation by stealing the show at the Screen Actors Guild awards in Los Angeles.

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To the surprise of pundits, the film walked away with three of the five movie awards: Best Actress for Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, and Best Ensemble for its cast. "Guys, that's crazy!" said its star, Emma Stone. "But what does this mean?"

On paper, it means that The Help joins long-standing favourite The Artist along with Hugo and The Descendants at the forefront of an unusually crowded field of front-runners for the 2012 Academy Awards, which take place in less than four weeks.

The "SAGgies" may garner less attention than their major rival, the Golden Globes, but they carry far more prestige. In recent years, they've also proven a more reliable guide to future success: while just one of the past seven Globe winners picked-up a Best Picture Oscar, the SAG's Best Ensemble winner went on to take four of the past six.

Success for The Help, which is short-listed for four 2012 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, would certainly make for a teary Oscar ceremony. The film, which focuses on African American maids working in white households in Mississippi during the 1960s, is overtly-political.

"I want to thank all the people out there who supported this movie and, after watching it, felt something," said Spencer in her victory speech. "So I'm going to dedicate this to the downtrodden, the underserved, the underprivileged, the overtaxed, whether emotionally, physically or financially."

The Artist wasn't entirely shut out: its male lead Jean Dujardin won Best Actor. In the final movie category, veteran actor Christopher Plummer, meanwhile, won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Beginners, making him odds-on favourite to win his first Oscar, at the age of 82.

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