What's Fueling Hollywood's Happiness Project?

Happiness has become an increasingly prized pop culture commodity. Just as California's original Gold Rush sparked a frenzy of quixotic fortune seekers, the woes of the early twenty-first century seem to have ignited a similarly fervent collective quest for anything that might help uncover a hidden cache of another increasingly limited resource: well-being.

Until recently, Hollywood has shown little interest in the self-improvement section of the bookstore. But recently there has been an increase in films and television shows exploring the sources (and impediments) to leading a happy and fulfilled life. This trend gained a jolt of momentum when last week's announcement that Christopher Plummer and Rosamund Pike have signed on to star in an adaptation of Francois Lelord’s bestselling novel, Hector and the Search for Happiness, about a London psychiatrist seeking a life less screwed-up. This news comes as a flurry of fall films and television shows featuring tortured souls attempting to reclaim their purchase on sanity are poised for released. Last weekend’s debut of “Silver Linings Playbook” at the Toronto Film Festival unleashed a flood of critical praise for writer-director David O. Russell’s comic ode to dysfunction based on Matthew Quick’s bestselling novel as well as Oscar nom predictions for Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of a bipolar former teacher trying to reassemble his life after a stint in a mental institution. And tomorrow Matthew Perry will return to the small screen with the premiere episode of “Go On,” a new NBC comedy centered on a grief-crippled sportscaster forced to attend group therapy in an effort to restore himself to his formerly high-functioning state.

The inner conflict zone has sporadically made its way into pop culture’s crosshairs over the years. In 2008, HBO’s “In Treatment,” which starred Gabriel Byrne as an alternately effective and damaging psychotherapist who shattered the illusion that the best shrinks have cracked the code to well-adjustment, earned itself a few Emmys. And last fall, David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” based on the nonfiction book by John Kerr, considered the source of the therapeutic modern model to the fraught and fertile friendship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Shrinks have always found their way into pivotal roles in big screen narratives, from “Ordinary People” to “Good Will Hunting.” Pop culture’s current fixation on the quest for inner peace is less focused on the talking cure than on the desperate measures and sheer endurance required to overcome our inner demons and lay claim to a little slice of joy and contentment. We’re particularly eager to see how this manifests itself in upcoming adaptations of survival memoirs, including Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as a grieving divorcee who sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s journalistic investigation into the physical and spiritual secrets to the success (and happiness) of a Mexican tribe of distance runners.

What are your thoughts on this uptick in films and TV shows exploring the sources of uplift? What books about the extreme sport of happiness hunting would you most like to see brought to life on screen? Personally, we'd love to see what the right filmmaker would do with William Styron's Darkness Visible.

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