This week’s Entertainment Weekly cover story on The Help asks the question, “How do you turn a beloved, racially-charged book into a moving, funny film?”

It’s a good question– Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel has spent 24 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. And with good reason. Brilliantly-developed characters, a perfect level of historical context, and a captivating plot all combine to make it one of the best reads of the last several years. Cramming all of that into a two-hour movie is no mean feat, but before the book even hit shelves, Stockett’s friend-since-childhood Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People) snapped up the rights to give it a shot.

And he succeeded, putting together one of the best films of the summer with some of the best performances of the year.

The Help takes place in the early days of the Civil Rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi, when black maids in the homes of well-off whites were the order of the day, and stores still had signs that read ‘Colored Entrance’. Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), is a sympathetic young woman just back from four years at Ole Miss. Inspired by the intolerance and racism she sees around her and by the departure of her own family’s maid, she decides to follow her dream of becoming a journalist by setting out to secretly write an account of life from the point of view of ‘the help’.

Of course the idea that she would even talk to the help other than to demand a refill of her ice tea ruffles more than a few feathers, including those of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the reigning president of the Jackson Junior League and the author of the Home Health Initiative– a segregationist effort mandating that all homes include a separate outdoor bathroom for the maids.

Under the cover of darkness and after months of arm-twisting, Skeeter finally gets her friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) to share her story, and the book takes its first baby steps. Those who’ve read Stockett’s novel know what happens from there; those who haven’t, well… I’m won’t be the one to tell you.

I will say that fans of the novel will be pleased that most, if not all, the best parts from the book find their way into the movie. From smaller moments like Aibileen’s affirmation of little Mae Mobley and her friend Minnie’s (Octavia Spencer) espousal of the benefits of Crisco, to bigger events like the assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK.

Taylor has crafted an amazing film, deftly balancing the racially-charged atmosphere of 1963 Jackson with bits of humor and an abundance of heart. It’s almost impossible to not get sucked into the story, and Taylor does a sublime job of making us care about each and every bit of it.

It’s the cast, however, that makes The Help among the best of the year. Stone is quickly emerging as a present-day Julia Roberts, and she’s priceless here, mixing her trademark quirkiness with honesty and raw emotion to turn in her best performance to date. Howard is fantastic as Holbrook, the socialite who can shoot poison darts from her eyes while smiling like she’s just won the church raffle, and Allison Janney and the great Cicely Tyson also shine in wonderful supporting roles. It’s Davis and Spencer that are the true anchors of the film, and neither should have any problem getting attention once awards season rolls around; their performances are among the most bold and heartfelt so far in 2011.

Equal parts tear-jerker and stand-up-and-cheer crowd-pleaser, The Help is about as close to a perfect book-to-film adaption as you hope for. Sure, some plot points get glossed over and others are bypassed entirely, but the finished film won’t disappoint even die-hard fans of Stockett’s novel.

So to answer Entertainment Weekly‘s question, well… that’s how you do it.

5/5 stars