Adapting a film into a TV show can be a tricky proposition. The golden standard, of course, is Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the series based on a rather campy 1992 horror-comedy that quickly evolved into one of the most influential small screen programs of all time and a prime testament to the power of genre storytelling. Of course, for every success, there’s multiple failures, including ill-fated adaptations of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Uncle Buck and Napoleon Dynamite. More recently, however, this model has found success with the likes of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, two immensely watchable and rich shows that expand on the world only hinted at in their big-screen counterparts. (Incidentally, there was a previous, short-lived TV version of Parenthood in the early ’90s that boasted Buffy creator Joss Whedon as a staff writer.) Both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, it so happens, were developed by Jason Katims, who once again sets his sights on the film-to-TV transition with NBC’s newest half-hour comedy About a Boy.
Originally a book by noted pop-culture-friendly British novelist Nick Hornby (who also wrote the novel High Fidelity and the award-winning script for An Education), About a Boy was adopted into a 2002 film starring Hugh Grant as an affluent, yet self-centered bachelor and a much gawkier Nicholas Hoult as the young boy he forms a close, transformative bond with. Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, whose most notable prior film at that point was the smash hit teenage sex comedy American Pie, the critically lauded British dramedy saw a career-high performance from Grant and even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In the wake of that film’s success, the Fox network attempted to develop an Americanized series based on the film with a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Patrick Dempsey as the lead character. The network ultimately decided to pass on the pilot, and now, ten years later, Katims has now thrown his hat into the ring.
With the setting now moved from London to San Francisco, we first find perpetual man-child Will (David Walton) jumping off a trolley upon catching glimpse of Dakota (Leslie Bibb), an attractive woman who is hauling a cello into a building. In an attempt to spend more time with her, Will makes the unfortunate choice to lie and say that he’s a member of the group she’s rushing to—a single parent support group, as it turns out. When backed into a corner and asked about his own child, Will quickly concocts a spur-of-the-moment lie about having a leukemia-afflicted son whose life was miraculously saved by strange African-based medicine. Somehow this obviously contrived sob story works and attracts the affection of Dakota. The problem? She now wants to set up play dates between her daughters and Will’s son.
At a loss for what to do, Will soon finds a solution in Marcus, the peculiar pre-teen boy who has just moved in next door with his single mother. The two strike up an agreement—in return for pretending to be his son, Marcus wants to be able to hang-out with Will after school and participate in activities his hippie, New-Age mother, Fiona (Minnie Driver) expressly forbids, including watching TV and eating non-tofu ribs. The two’s deception subsequently becomes a catalyst for a deeper friendship.
Needless to say, in whittling down the source material to its bare minimum plot points, About a Boy loses much of the subtlety and nuance that gave the previous book and film its definitive spark. As developed by Katims and pilot director Jon Favreau, however, the first episode effectively establishes a genuinely heart-warming, if inevitably reductive take on the story. While one can’t help but wonder how much deeper Katims would have gone with the show had he been given his traditional hour-long format, what we’re given is a loving realized approximation that—if you can manage to approach it as its own beast—works as the sort of sentimental, character-based show that Katims does well.
Tackling the part previously played by Hugh Grant, David Walton makes for an effective lead character, managing to temper Will’s decidedly off-putting selfishness with an undeniable sense of charm and cool. With his model good looks and excellent comedic timing, Walton has been a popular staple in recent NBC comedies (Quarterlife, 100 Questions, Perfect Couples, Bent) that, for one reason or another, have all failed to make it past the first handful of episodes. With About a Boy, one can only hope Walton will finally see his potential realized.
If there’s any issue with Walton as Will, the problems lie not in Walton’s actual performance but in the tweaks made to the character’s background. In both the book and the film, Will was depicted as a middle-aged swinger who had spent the majority of his life living comfortably off the royalties of a ubiquitous Christmas single his father had written decades ago. In this way, Marcus’ entry into his life becomes somewhat of a wake-up call, with Will suddenly realizing that he’s far too old for his “I am an island” routine and, by leaning on his father’s work, he’s never truly achieved anything for himself.
As portrayed in this NBC show, however, Walton is a handsome bachelor in his thirties whose financial stability stems from a hit Christmas song his band wrote years back. Whereas audiences could very much identify the need for Hugh Grant’s Will to grow up, there’s just not as much stigma attached to the Walton version. If anything, a meandering, sex-filled and family-free lifestyle is all but expected of a handsome former rock star. As such, there’s no real incentive for why Will would need or be expected to change his ways. This somewhat robs his eventual friendship with Marcus of some of its potency. Full disclosure, however—this is coming from someone with an immense attachment to the film and book, so this might just be an instance of needless nit-picking.
As the titular “boy,” Benjamin Stockman feels much more sitcom-y in his portrayal of the eccentric Marcus than Nicholas Hoult. There is certainly no shortage of precocious children dotting TV and film in recent years and, at least in the pilot episode, Stockman feels more like an incidental character out of the likes of Modern Family than the troubled boy found in Hornby’s novel or in the Weitzs’ film. That being said, however, Walton and Stockman display an affable enough chemistry that helps carry the pilot and hopefully bodes well for future installments. That’s certainly more than can be said for Minnie Driver, who—by virtue of the show’s time limitations—is mostly confined to being the typical nagging mom.
Having essentially now burned through the film’s story in the opening episode, the sky’s the limit on where About a Boy can go from this point. While it’s genuinely light, fluffy tone will certainly curtail the darker elements presented in earlier incarnations (namely, Fiona’s suicide attempt), here’s hoping Katims finds a way to weave his magic into the show’s tighter restrictions and continue his reign at developing beloved shows out of their equally beloved film versions.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.