All The Write Moves: 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'
November 25, 2019
“We could all use a little kindness.”
That’s the tagline for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, a new drama based in part on the life and work of celebrated children’s entertainer, Mr. Rogers. The sentiment behind the tagline seems particularly apt during our current era of rancorous sociopolitical divisions. Nonetheless, even the most heartfelt message needs a good delivery device, so it’s interesting to examine how screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster adapted Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article, “Can You Say . . . Hero?” into A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.
Set in the year the article was published, Beautiful Day tracks Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer loosely inspired by Junod, as he researches and writes an article about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). When the story begins, Lloyd is trapped in a longstanding emotional crisis because of unresolved issues with his father, Jerry Vogel (Chris Cooper). Resentment has embittered Lloyd, so the writer has friction with colleagues, interview subjects, and his long-suffering wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). His interaction with the compassionate Rogers, however, compels Lloyd to try healing old wounds.
For the uninitiated, the movie’s title refers to the theme song of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the revered public-television program that Rogers hosted from 1968 to 2001, (he died two years later). Also the creator of the show, Rogers employed the music, puppets and very gentle comedy of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to help young viewers develop such useful life skills as anger management and empathy.
Even though the prospect of watching beloved actor Hanks play beloved entertainer Rogers is the main draw of Beautiful Day, Rogers is not the film’s protagonist. This simple tactic provides insight that’s helpful for screenwriters in general, and especially helpful for screenwriters tackling stories about noteworthy figures. The placement of Rogers as a supporting character, rather than the lead, demonstrates the importance of solving problems creatively.
In screenwriting terms, Rogers lacks an obvious arc, because by the time he achieved notoriety, he had already formulated the educational and psychological theories that informed the way he entertained children. By all indications, he also walked it like he talked it. Which is to say that he treated people as kindly offscreen as he did onscreen. Yet, the very qualities that made him an admirable human being also made him a poor cinema protagonist. After all, interesting main characters usually change as stories progress, but Rogers evolved early in his career to a level of humanity that few people ever reach, then remained at that level for the rest of his life. As a character, he had virtually no room to grow.
That’s why Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster installed a different character as the protagonist of Beautiful Day—specifically, a character with not just the capacity to grow, but also the deep need to do so.
There’s a natural tendency to assume that the only interesting characters in movies are the ones who change. In the language of classical theater, these are called dynamic characters, as opposed to static characters. Yet, some stories require static characters. A coming-of-age story might involve a trusted mentor who passes along wisdom to a young person. A crime story might involve a killer who is as sadistic in his first scene as he is in his last. In both examples, as in Beautiful Day, a static character provides either encouragement or resistance that sparks the evolution of a dynamic character.
Considering this nuance should liberate screenwriters whose stories involve noteworthy figures. What happens if that figure is only a supporting character? Considering this nuance should also liberate screenwriters in general. It is not necessary that every character in a script changes—it is only necessary that the most important character changes.
Takeaway: Not every noteworthy historical figure suits the role of protagonist.
Keep It Simple
Another lesson that Beautiful Day provides is that a simple story is not necessarily a simplistic story. Very often, movies that convey emotionally satisfying narratives can be boiled down to premises that, when viewed without context, seem trite. In Beautiful Day, a magazine writer in need of empathy gets assigned to write a story about an entertainer whose life’s work involves teaching empathy. Is this story structure both manipulative and schematic? Yes. But could the same adjectives be used to describe many of the most touching films ever made? Absolutely.
One reason we consume stories—not just movies, but all types of narratives—is to see our lives reflected back at us. In the process of discovering that others have experienced troubles similar to our own, we learn about our capacity to overcome adversity. By conveying an archetypal father/son conflict, Beautiful Day explores topics that are pertinent to all relationships between parents and children. It is not accidental that the film also focuses on the protagonist’s feelings toward his infant son, underscoring the idea of how patterns recur in families. Viewers who are stuck in such patterns can find solace by watching the protagonist break a painful cycle.
Yet, while Beautiful Day is simple, it is not entirely simplistic. The healing of the central father/son relationship does not erase the hurtful choices that caused the rift to emerge in the first place. Furthermore, certain ambiguities about Rogers’ personality are left unresolved at the end of the picture. Even though Beautiful Day focuses on broad-stroke narrative elements that are engineered to stimulate audience identification, there’s still room for complexity.
Takeaway: A story need not be complex in order to have depth.
A Teachable Moment
Just as the film tells a simple story, it utilizes a simple backstory. Viewers receive few details about why Jerry abandoned his family—because, for the purpose of Beautiful Day, the details don’t matter. The overall gist is sufficient, and the overall gist is that Jerry was a selfish jerk who, upon reaching an advanced age, decides to make amends. This puts the onus on his son, Lloyd, to either accept or decline Jerry’s peace offering.
This gets to an essential truth about screenwriting: it’s an inherently reductive form of storytelling. In order to fit a satisfying narrative into the parameters of a feature film, it is necessary for screenwriters to reduce elements down to their essences. To make Beautiful Day work, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster present a bad dad so generic that he’s a stand-in for all bad dads.
The risks of this reductive methodology are never more evident than in the sequence leading up to Jerry’s inevitable apology. Instead of constructing an elaborate sequence illustrating exactly how Jerry and his son overcome their differences, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster simply place the characters in the same location and, soon afterward, deliver what the audience wants—the apology.
Some viewers may feel the screenwriters didn’t do enough to earn the big moment, but it can be argued that those viewers misunderstand what Beautiful Day is trying to accomplish. The movie strives to dramatize Rogers’ lessons, and according to Rogers’ lessons, Jerry’s effort to make up for his mistakes is more important than his mistakes. Concurrently, the crux of the movie is not Jerry’s apology but Lloyd’s reaction to the apology. Can he find grace, or is he too mired in anger? Like an episode of Rogers’ original TV show, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is designed to teach an easily understandable lesson.
Takeaway: To ensure that a story element is easily grasped by the audience, reduce the element to its essence.
Written by: Peter HansonPeter Hanson is a Los Angeles-based writer, filmmaker and teacher. He directed the screenwriting documentary Tales from the Script, and he teaches at Pepperdine University and UCLA Extension. He provides script consulting at www.GrandRiverFilms.com.