Young Persons’ Special: About a Boy


A new series on Sky One sees misfit-boy Marcus forcibly forge a friendship with Will, a bachelor in his thirties who never does a day’s work but still manages to live like a king.

Sound familiar?

How many times can you tell a good story?

In 1998, Nick Hornby’s second novel, About a Boy (a reference to Nirvana’s song ‘About a Girl’, whilst also sharing the same title as Patti Smith’s song, a tribute to Kurt Cobain), explored the friendship between a man, Will, who has not grown up, and a twelve-year-old boy, Marcus, who, thanks to his eccentric mother, has not got used to how a normal twelve-year-old should behave. Will lives a redundant life, never having to work thanks to the royalties from his late father’s one-off Christmas hit, and spends his time making sure he is still so cool he could ‘die of hypothermia!’.

The novel was adapted into a film by the Weitz brothers, a welcome departure from their first two films, American Pie and Down to Earth. More Americans contributed to the making of the film, with Robert De Niro being among the producers (De Niro is also one of the producers for the new series), but the location was still England, the actors British, and the story rarely strayed from Hornby’s novel. Hugh Grant, as Will, and Nicholas Hoult, as Marcus, added a new dimension to the characters. Going slightly against the grain, a novel and its adaptation were equally successful and equally well-made.

This take on About a Boy has been moved to America. In San Francisco, a mother and son move in next door to Will Freeman, a former songwriter whose hit song means he can now live a life full of free time and fleeting women, without the restriction of financial woes. The son’s name is Marcus. He is now eleven but is still unpopular in school and has a mother whose good intentions have made him into a misfit.

How the two ‘boys’ meet might be slightly different, but their friendship, and how they spend their time (in the first episode, at least), is the same.

Is this story so good that we need another retelling? How many times can you retell a story and make it just as funny, just as compelling? Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, itself a retelling of the legend of Richard Cabell, has been adapted into more than twenty versions for film and television. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, has been made into, among other things, an animation, a silent film and a porn-musical. Even restricted to Nick Hornby books, there is nothing new in rehashing the same old story. Fever Pitch, Hornby’s football memoir, was first made into a ‘British’ film, then, less than ten years later, an ‘American’ one. High Fidelity, his first novel, was made into a film, its location moving from London to Chicago, then, again less than ten years later, a Broadway musical. (On the subject of adaptations, the film version of Hornby’s novel, A Long Way Down, was released earlier this year.)

The question is not really about how many versions have preceded each new retelling, but the quality of the retelling itself. The rotational set of directors and writers for this series includes Jon Favreau, who directed the pilot. Whether the rest of the series will live up to the quality of the pilot remains to be seen; Britain, this coming Monday will see the third episode.

High Fidelity and Fever Pitch were already successful films when the film rights to About a Boy were bought, before the book’s release. But About a Boy‘s return, this time in the form of a six-part sitcom, suggests interest in About a Boy the novel is not merely based on Hornby’s reputation, but the quality of the story and comedy contained within.

In the novel, being cool is hard-going when your once-cool friends are getting married and having children, their homes becoming floors of clutter and pieces of brightly coloured plastic. When Will’s friend John, and John’s partner Christine, offer him the chance to become their baby girl’s godfather, confiding ‘We’ve always thought you have hidden depths,’ Will happily and honestly replies, ‘Ah, but you see I haven’t. I really am this shallow.’ Further on we get a potentially more exposing insight from Will, when he bonds easily with the three-year-old son of his new girlfriend, who ‘took to him almost at once, mostly because during their first meeting Will held him upside-down by his ankles’. After which, Will ‘wished that relationships with proper human beings were that easy’, a confession which expresses Will’s subconscious desire for more meaningful relationships with adults, and also re-enforces the fact that, to Will, children are non-people, making his friendship with Marcus all the more surprising. But Hornby is a master of comedy, and, although these characters have some substance to them, this story is not about the hidden depths of ordinary people, it is more about how ordinary people can share great friendships.

In the film version, which used double voice-over narration from Will and Marcus, the story had a different ending and Nirvana disappeared completely, along with Will’s drug-use. Those differences aside, the changes were barely noticeable.

In this new sitcom, the names of the main characters have stayed the same, and so have their personalities (yes, Marcus’s mother, Fiona, is still irritating), but the change of location and the speed with which events take place in this version of the story mean changes are a lot more obvious. The pilot episode is basically the entire film truncated to under half-an-hour, though its fast pace makes this process seem normal, so the experience is not as disorientating as most viewers might have imagined. The connection between the characters, the bonding and the friction, are all spot-on, so the changes are never a problem.

As the pilot episode ends in the same way the film does, where does that leave the rest of the series? In the second episode, Will is invited to a pool party while babysitting Marcus. Will decides to go to the party anyway, taking Marcus with him. Marcus’s dependence on Will develops with great humour, especially when added to his naivety. While Will is babysitting for Marcus in the house, deflated at not being able to go to the party, Marcus says, ‘I was really looking forward to this, but you’ve been a grumpy puss the whole time. Why is hanging out with me any less exciting than hanging out with those women with bathing suits that are way too small?’ At the pool party, Marcus ruins Will’s chances with an attractive woman. Will sarcastically points out, ‘Great, she’s gone. Awesome.’ Not noticing the sarcasm, Marcus says, ‘I know, finally, some us time.’

Will’s best friend, who now has a new name and an extra child, has already featured more heavily than viewers of the film and readers of the novel will be used to. This mature influence could prove an important balance for Will’s more fast-pace self-absorption, while also giving us more insight into Will’s life away from Marcus. His friend, Andy, acts as Will’s conscience. Whether Marcus can influence this friendship throughout the series will be an interesting side-story to look out for. If the relationship between the two men remains the same throughout, the consistency will be in danger of becoming predictable.

The friendship between Will and Marcus also shares that problem. But the fast pace, the great humour and the superb acting (especially from Benjamin Stockham, who is only 13; though he looks even younger) should ensure About a Boy the sitcom is as successful as About a Boy the novel and About a Boy the film.

How many times can you tell a good story? When the story is About a Boy, the answer is plenty.