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Rebecca Skloot’s, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has been one of the most popular books since it was published in 2010 because it told a very complex, but also a very compelling story about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a person whose cells have benefited every person alive today. However, the director of the movie, George C. Wolfe, took certain liberties with the movie that I believe compromised the integrity of the story that Skloot was attempting to tell.
One of the most noticeable differences between the book and the movie was the involvement of Rebecca Skloot in the movie. While Skloot was indeed in the book, she tried to keep her personal opinions and emotions out of the book and focus on Henrietta and her family. While I realize that the interactions with Skloot and Deborah along with the rest of her family tell the viewers a lot about the family and their characters, Skloot should not have been a main focus of the movie. It almost felt as though this was a movie about Skloot’s journey to write the book and the struggles that she went through to research Henrietta, instead of focusing on Henrietta’s life, what happened to her cells, and Henrietta’s family. I really think that this took away from the real message of the book that Skloot was trying to get across.
The movie did focus a significant amount on whether it was right or wrong to take Henrietta’s cells and what kind of consent there should have been. However, in the book, Skloot presents it in a complicated manner that makes us question the decisions of the doctors that worked at Johns Hopkins, but not outright see them as dead wrong. The movie makes the doctors who worked at Johns Hopkins and the institution in general seem as if they are the devil and there is no real question of consent in a much uncomplicated way. All of the doctors are nurses are portrayed as very condescending, dry, and apathetic people. I think this also takes away from the way that Skloot wanted the story to be told.
There were a lot of other smaller differences between the book and the movie that effected the way that the story as a whole was understood. Skloot spends a considerable amount of time talking about the hardships that Deborah and her siblings faced when their mother died. She goes in specific detail about how their stepmom was very cruel and would beat them every day, the father did not care much at all about them, how Deborah was sexually abused, and much more. However, we only get about 1 minute of flashbacks about these crucial events in the movie. I think this really took away from the backstory of the family and the hardships that they faced after Henrietta’s death, which may have left people who did not read the book a little confused. Additionally, a huge turning point in the book was when Deborah finally let Skloot see her mother’s records because that symbolized that Deborah finally fully let Skloot in, but it didn’t feel like that big of a turning point in the movie.
If we disregard some of the differences from the book, however, and treat the movie almost as a separate entity, it is an exceptional movie. The acting, especially from Oprah Winfrey (who portrayed Deborah), was some of the best I have seen in the last few years. I think that Oprah’s performance was one of the best of her career as she was really able to capture the emotions of the audience. I think the movie did a great job of making the audience understand the pain and struggles that Deborah had to deal with after her mother’s death. Additionally, the movie does a great job of showing how much the people involved with the extraction and research on the first cells did to cover up the identity of Henrietta Lacks. Overall, I think that the movie takes a lot of liberties with book that compromise parts of the message the Skloot was trying to get across, but it is a wonderful movie otherwise.
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