‘Happiness for Beginners’ Author Says Rom-Coms Are Undervalued: ‘They’re So Uniquely Nourishing’

Katherine Center speaks to TheWrap about the Netflix adaptation of her novel, women’s fiction and rom-coms in general

Luke Grimes and Ellie Kemper in "Happiness for Beginners" (Netflix)

Netflix’s adaptation of Katherine Center’s “Happiness for Beginners” has arrived, eight years after the novel was published in 2015.

Directed and written by Vicky Wight, the film follows main characters Helen (Ellie Kemper) and Jake (Luke Grimes) as they embark on a camping trip hiking the Appalachian trail. Helen and Jake know each other through Helen’s brother Duncan, but their romantic chemistry didn’t stand a chance when Helen married Mike (Aaron Roman Weiner). Now that she has divorced Mike after infidelity and a miscarriage as well as his alcoholism, Helen wants to start over with her life. She just didn’t plan for Jake to be a part of that refresh. 

Center wrote the book right before she struck gold on the New York Times best-selling list with her next book “How to Walk Way,” so the movie adaptation gives both Katherine Center fans and first-time viewers a chance to discover her earlier work. Wright also previously adapted Center’s “The Lost Husband” for the big screen, with Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb.

The queen of “comfort reads” sat down with TheWrap shortly after Netflix released the film to share reflections on the story of “Happiness for Beginners,” the status of romantic comedy stories, support for the double strike in Hollywood and more.

Read on for our chat with Katherine Center:

Since the book came out in 2015, do you think the pandemic as well as the time it took to release the adaptation has changed the meaning of your story for you or your reader?
There’s this concept that I was reading about recently called collective effervescence, this idea that ‘Yeah, joy is good, but it’s amplified when you get to feel it with other people.’ I was really feeling that two nights ago when we all got to just be together and just celebrate and experience [the film’s release] as a group of humans together. I don’t know if Vicky was thinking about it when she was adapting the screenplay or when she was directing, but for me, seeing the way that all of these very different people on the trip in the story came together and didn’t like each other at the start, but found ways to connect — it felt really resonant in the wake of the pandemic. We were so isolated and we were also separated from each other and we didn’t get that feeling of connectedness for so long.

How does the adaptation of this book of yours contribute to the conversation around rom-coms and their relevance?
I really, really love rom-coms in particular. I’m very much a part of that world. I think of the books that I write as half women’s fiction, which is often stories about people who struggle who go through hard things, who move through some challenge in their lives and come out the other side, having learned wise lessons about life. I think my books are sort of half that typically, characters have to go through something hard, and they have to figure out who they are in the face of whatever they’re facing. The other half of what I do is typically a really, swoony love story. I like it to be balanced. I like both. I’m always trying to get the best of both the wisdom and the poetry that you get from women’s fiction, the deep thought, all that good, rich, sort of deep stuff that you get from a book that’s more grounded in the literary end of things, but then also I really love and want the fun and joy and delight and hopefulness that you get in a love story that you get in an in a rom-com. I think that those stories are very uplifting and they’re very mood-elevating. They’re good for us.

Rom-coms are a very undervalued type of story. We tend to overlook them or roll our eyes at them and think ‘Oh, they’re so unrealistic’ as we turn on another zombie movie. We’re a little hard on them. But they’re so uniquely nourishing because they really run on hope and pro-social behaviors that I think all of humanity would do well to get better at: listening to each other, caring about each other, looking after each other, really seeing each other overcoming our notion of who other people are, all of these sorts of human skills that — when we’re good at them — make the world a better place. That’s what those stories run on. They run on kindness and compassion and you know, laughter and banter and all these good things and I wish as a culture that we took them more seriously because the more you take things seriously, the better you get at that thing. They’re no more ridiculous than other stories, but I’m kind of moving towards this idea that they’re like better because the thing that moves you towards the conclusion of around con are these pro-social behaviors that we so badly need to get better in the world.

How does Jake’s struggle with his approaching blindness complement Helen’s hardships?
Even when I’m writing a quote-unquote rom-com, it’s always going to be a deep rom-com. The characters may be having a lot of fun in the moment, but they’re all people who have grief and struggle and guilt and things that they’re scared of and dreading. For Helen, she’s got a lot of guilt about her childhood, her past. She had a brother who she loved very much who died, and she feels guilty about how that happened, and she misses him, and she and her family sort of fell apart after this child died. There’s a lot of that stuff from a long, long time ago that still is determining her relationship with her brother, her relationship with her mom in the ways that all kinds of things in our real human lives frequently stay with us in ways that we don’t even notice or recognize and drive a lot of our action.

The hard things that we go through kind of can drive us back and make us reevaluate who we are and who we want to be and what kind of assumptions we have about the world. I think for Helen, she’s got a lot of stuff that she’s working through. What I love about Jake is, he seems like this person who has it so easy on paper. He’s got this technically sort of very impressive life and yet he is also a person who is facing something really hard and a lot of uncertainty in his life. Part of Helen’s journey in this story and my novel is that she has to learn to see a lot of people including herself with different eyes. Jake is one of those people. She starts with a whole bunch of preconceived notions about who he is and what his life is like, and she learns more and more about what he’s struggling with. He is a person who struggles, she is a person who has struggled, and what I think the best love stories do is they bring these people together so that they can base their struggles together and do a better job of coping with them because they have each other.

With your movie coming out during the double Hollywood strike, what role do you feel you play as an author of IP and books that contribute to the entertainment industry?
I totally support the strikes, and I support people getting paid for their creativity and being able to make a living wage. I’m not in any of those guilds, I’m not really in Hollywood. I’m just in a different world. I’m in the book world. Obviously, I love writers and actors, and all people who bring stories to life for us and help and give us places to get lost and get inspired. I love movies and I love stories and I love everybody involved in making all that stuff happen. It’s been a thing that I’ve been sort of cheering for folks from the sidelines, but I’m not really involved in it in a direct way. Most of my interactions are with readers in terms of publicity.

“Happiness for Beginners” is now streaming on Netflix.