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“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:” The Scientific and the Sentimental

Page to Screen

Henrietta Lacks HBO Still 1
Courtesy of HBO

In 2017, HBO released a film based on the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Starring Rose Byrne and Oprah Winfrey, the story analyzes the life of those related to Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who died of cervical cancer and whose cells were taken for research without consent. Her cells became the first line to survive indefinitely, allowing for consistency in results across labs, and helped perfect a cure for polio as well as many other important scientific discoveries. In honor of Black History Month, it is important to recognize Lacks’ impact on science and discuss the portrayal of the Lacks family both on the page and on the screen. While both film and novel portray Henrietta’s story in an enlightening way, the film cedes the book’s scientific rigor in favor of a more sentimental tone.

The novel begins with some basic information on cells and how Skloot, the author, became interested in HeLa cells—the epithet for Lacks’ cells—and the life of Lacks. Before Skloot gets into too much detail about her contact with the Lacks family, she spends about half the novel explaining the history of the scientist, George Gey, who took the sample from Lacks and made HeLa cells so widely available. She also takes the time to meticulously set up the context of the medical business in what was a much less just time: She differentiates between the ethical and illegal standards amongst researchers. This distinction is important because, while the Lacks family was taken advantage of in an ethical sense, they did not have a case that would hold up in a court of law. She makes sure to highlight the cases in which black people were treated inhumanely by researchers, an important aspect of ‘50s life to underline in light of the story’s many implications. This contextualization is crucial in presenting the kind of culture and racial tensions that existed in the world of scientific research at the time of Henrietta’s illness.

Where the film lacks the contextualization that so greatly enhanced the book, it boasts an emotional dimension absent in Skloot’s work. The HBO film is told purely through the journey of Rebecca (Rose Byrne) and Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), Henrietta Lacks’ daughter. There is a lot less scientific background given in the film, which allows it to focus more on a human interest aspect. Deborah appears deeply distressed throughout the majority of the movie because of the number of times her family has been taken advantage of. Her anguish makes it difficult for Rebecca to get her to open up, and there are many highly emotional moments between the two women. This level of sentiment is lacking in the novel and is one of the things that makes the film worth watching.

The film misses out on Skloot’s intricate setup—with her plethora of scientific facts— for the film’s emotional rawness. While the film portrays scenes that are in the book, the medium of film allows for more feeling. Winfrey is able to embody Deborah so genuinely, portraying despair, confusion, happiness and a range of emotions. Because the relationship between the two women is at the forefront of the film, it is the aspect that draws the most focus. It is clear that Rebecca Skloot is more of a scientific writer than a storyteller, and the tale of the Lacks family is substantially enhanced by the emotional performance of Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

Overall, however, both book and film complement each other by accentuating different aspects of the story. Both show how distressing the headlines about Henrietta’s cells are to the family— “HeLa Cells No Longer Human!” and “Enough HeLa Cells to Make a Whole Village.” Both mediums explain that their lack of scientific knowledge isn’t their fault, as many of them didn’t graduate high school because they had to work to support their family. But the book surpasses the film by providing even more information on this subject. For instance, it explains that the years the Lacks did go to school were not as fruitful as they could have been due to hearing problems many of the children share. It also talks about Deborah’s attempts to learn as much about HeLa cells and science as she possibly could, buying textbooks and taking detailed notes. This is a side of Deborah that should have been shown in more in the film.

Both the film and book of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” are entertaining, though they both take a different approach to tell the tale of the family’s plight for justice. Skloot’s work keeps with the scientific side of the situation, which adds socially relevant context to her book. However, HBO capitalizes on the Winfrey and Byrne’s magnificent performances, which makes the film more emotionally charged than the book could ever hope to be.

—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at caroline.tew@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.

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