Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, directed by Marielle Heller; based on the Esquire article, “Can You Say…Hero?” written by Tom Junod. (Release date" November 22)
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the filmmakers adapt the essence of Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) and avoid cheap imitation by relying on the source material of an Esquire profile piece written during the twilight of the career and life of Fred Rogers.
Almost every filmmaking discipline in the movie patterns itself off Mr. Rogers and even more so his wildly popular PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Esquire writer, Tom Junod, fictionalized as Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), notes that the editing of the show averaged an astoundingly low one cut per minute.
Rogers wanted to avoid the fracturing of storytelling and thus a division of society that he felt plagued the hyper-cutting of editing that marked the 1990s. Recall the hyper-cutting MTV-style of the time period, and you catch his drift. The film, too, moves at an appropriate snails’ pace. I mean that as a compliment for Mr. Rogers and the persons he encounters deserve his (and ours) full attention. There’s no reason to cut away from the characters unless necessary.
The film, oddly enough, employs little non-diegetic music or score in its sound track. What music the viewers hear, presumably, the characters hear. This understated audio device I remember well from watching the show as a child. The music felt less “produced” and more organic to the storytelling of the show. Taken to an extreme, of course, the audio technique leads the viewer to silence.
The Esquire article recorded Mr. Rogers’ attempt to “protect childhood and silence” going so far as to encourage viewers to take “10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are.” The film version expounds the prayer to an entire minute. In the public setting of a coffee shop, Hanks’ Rogers asks Rhys’ journalist to pray for a minute in silence and recall the persons who loved you into being. The brilliance of the scene is that a minute of silent screen time can be extremely awkward. Really the only way for the viewer to mitigate the quirkiness is to go ahead and think of the own persons in their life who wielded positive influence. I thought of my parents, aunts and uncles, coaches, teachers and spiritual mentors.
The most drastic adaptation choice of the filmmakers was to make the story about the Esquire journalist, that he is the one to experience conversion through his interviews with Mr. Rogers. In film school, they teach aspiring writers to always write their protagonist through a character arc, with the one rare exception that the character is Christ-like (or if a Gospel film, Christ, himself) and influences the characters around him or her for the better. The classical example from secular film is Back to the Future’s Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox).
The journalist Vogel must make amends with his deadbeat father (played by Chris Cooper). The film version took dramatic liberty in this regard; the real life journalist’s interaction with Rogers only led him to pray as an adult, a practice mostly abandoned from his youth. The film version raises the stakes for the journalist, who finds himself at a crossroads as to whether forgive his father, a notorious sinner largely undeserving of pardon.
The filmmaking techniques and character choices combine to give us the essence of Fred Rogers and spare Tom Hanks from impressionism. We’re gifted with a kind of saint’s write-up, less the details of their life, instead a display of the spiritual nuggets we can draw from their life and witness. For Mr. Rogers, I won’t need to remind the readers of this blog that he preached a little bit of kindness for our neighbor…and that we pray for and ask for our neighbors’ prayers.
For those Mr. Rogers fans that still lament his death and ending of his show, there’s a definite sense I felt I was sitting through one of his shows. The message of all his shows rolled into one, in fact. And I dare say, this film stands as his best show.
Click here for the film's official website, which includes ticket info.
Image: Focus Features
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