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Review of the Netflix Adaptation of the Novel Happiness for Beginners

A hand holds a copy of Katherine Center's book Happiness for Beginners with flowers.

After a few heavy novels lately, I was in the mood for read that was a little less brainy, challenging, and emotionally draining. As I was looking at my various TBR lists, from real to virtual, I came across the trailer for the Netflix adaptation of Katherine Center’s novel Happiness for Beginners (2015). It seems a little serendipitous to stumble upon a book with the theme of happiness when I was looking for a book that had more of that in it! The plot centers on Helen, a woman who is post-divorce and going on a wilderness trek to find herself. The book is a lighter, fictionalized approach to Cheryl Strayed’s 2021 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. While some of the plot points were groan-worthy (not mentioned here in order to avoid spoilers), it had enough lightness to it to make it an entertaining read.

So, I was curious: would the film adaptation be able to provide the relaxing, smile-inducing reaction the book was able to?

Who are the actors in Happiness for Beginners?

I will admit, seeing Luke Grimes as the love interest character Jake was a big draw! I enjoy him as Kayce in Yellowstone. It wasn’t until I looked it up that I realized that he has been in another popular book-to-film adaptation as Elliott Grey from the Fifty Shades of Grey series.

And the adorable Ellie Kemper plays protagonist Helen. I had a hunch that Kemper’s time as Kimmy Schmidt in the popular TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt would be a nice complement to this new role.

Casting for secondary characters Hugh (Nico Santos from Crazy Rich Asians), Beckett (Ben Cook), and GiGi (Blythe Danner, in everything from Meet the Parents to Will & Grace) were all perfection! The adaptation has also chosen to drop the white-sorority-look of the other wilderness course participants, introducing some much-needed diversity with Shayvawn Webster as the heartbreaker Windy and Julia Shiplett as Sue.

Is the Netflix adaptation of Happiness for Beginners true to the book?

Short answer: not entirely, but the broad strokes are the same.

Right off the bat the film makes some changes from the book, a big one being that the film delays the romance between the two main characters. This means as readers we’re rewarding with a steamy kiss between the two before we even have a hint of interest on the screen. It means we’re less aware of Jake’s attraction and interest in Helen… although it does give the opportunity for Helen to ‘find herself’ in a less messy way (although the hike seems much more grueling in the book). One thing they have done is chosen to close the age gap between Helen and Jake which seems more realistic for the actors they cast.

Netflix has also mostly done away with the ex-husband storyline and completely remove the ex-high school boyfriend/high school best friend storyline that ties up the ending in the novel. This means Helen’s backstory is less messy but it makes the emotional resolution in the end fall flat in comparison to the transformation in the novel.

Is the Netflix adaptation of Happiness for Beginners worth watching?

With a running time of one hour and 45 minutes, giving this a film won’t take up too much of your time, but if you’re looking for the romantic escape, read the book. With the ability to flesh out the story on the page, you’ll be left more satisfied with the narrative by author Katherine Center.

But, if you’re looking for something to play in the background as you clean or craft, the Netflix adaptation of Happiness for Beginners fits the bill.


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