From Roberta Flack to One Direction: How 'About a Boy' Updated Its Playlist

In all its incarnations—book, movie, and, starting Saturday, TV show—music has been an important part of the story of About a Boy. Here, TV show creator Jason Katims and Chris Weitz, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie, talk about their choices. 

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In all its incarnations—book, movie, and, starting this weekend, TV show—music has been an important part of the story of About a Boy. Here, TV show creator Jason Katims and Chris Weitz, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie, talk about their choices.

Probably the most memorable moment from the film is the terribly awkward talent show duet between Marcus, a lonely boy trying to please his depressed mom, and Will, the shallow man with whom Marcus had formed a strange friendship. Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) and Will (Hugh Grant) sing "Killing Me Softly with His Song," the song popularized by Roberta Flack. That moment is, in a way, recreated in the pilot of the TV series, this time however with One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful."

That talent show scene was not, however, in the book, but music was also crucial the original telling of the story. Marcus' depressed mother Fiona is a music therapist in both the book and the movie, and she and Marcus sing together. Marcus, also, in both the book and the movie, is the subject of ridicule for accidentally singing out loud. But where the book and movie greatly differ is in their respective climaxes. The end of Nick Hornby's novel revolves around the death of Kurt Cobain, which ends up bringing all of the main characters together.

"When we were making it, it was a few years after [Cobain's death] had happened," Weitz told The Wire. "Long enough that it was then sort of in the past and it would have felt strange to us to make it kind of a period film, as well as probably the impossibility of getting license to all of that amazing music. So we decided to bring it up to date as it were. When that happened, we needed a crisis at the end of the film." That crisis ended up being for Weitz and his co-writer and director Paul a "talent show that would be horrifically soul damaging."

Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly with His Song" is mentioned once in the book, but Joni Mitchell is the far more prevalent artist. For Weitz and his brother "Killing Me Softly" was a sentimental choice, Weitz remembers it from his own "gawky" childhood. It also had the right mix of emotion. "We chose 'Killing Me Softly' because it’s an interesting juxtaposition between an actually great cool song, which is why Lauryn Hill did a cover of it, and a song that is so emotionally open that people could easily make fun of it," Weitz explained.

The choice of "What Makes You Beautiful" for the moment in the TV show (starring David Walton as Will and Benjamin Stockham as Marcus) wasn't quite as instinctive. "It was really a question of us trying out a lot of different songs," Katims explained. "Not literally trying them, but playing songs and trying to find something that we thought would work for that moment. It also was a song we wanted to work for when Fiona and Marcus sing the song together earlier in the episode. I thought that it was a song that felt like something that would be a known quantity to that middle school audience." The music in this story is Marcus's not his mom's. "For me, she’s into One Direction not because she’s into it but because her son is into it," Katims explained.

Katims, while trying to make his pilot distinctive from the movie, couldn't pass up the talent show—a "powerful set piece," he said. "To me it was just something that in one image, it says so much about him sort of being there for the kid," Katims said. "It also was such a powerful scene in the movie, obviously we wanted to do our version of it and not have it be exactly the same as the movie, but it felt like it was a great high point and way for us to end the pilot and hopefully get people really invested. "

The TV show and the movie look at the talent show in a different way, though. In the show, it's a success, and the two get a huge round of applause from the audience. "When we listened to that song and I was thinking about it I was picturing how it could start out looking really bad when he’s up there on his own and it could turn into something triumphant and that felt like it would work really well," Katims said. In the movie, it's something sadder. While Will saves Marcus from total humiliation by accompanying him on "Killing Me Softly," but then carries it one step further, then humiliating himself and eliciting a chorus of boos. Weitz explained that they thought about doing a version in which the audience liked it, but it didn't work. "If it became too happy it lost its resonance," Weitz said. "It was necessary. He was the sacrificial goat. He had to go down."

The movie and the show of About a Boy obviously have different goals, and comparing them isn't necessarily fair. There are the obvious differences: Marcus and Will are brought together because they are neighbors in the Bay Area, not because of a series of more complicated events involving Fiona's attempted suicide. Though yes, the talent show is there and so are Marcus and Will and Fiona, they are essentially different characters. For what it's worth, it's also not like Katims hasn't been for this before, having adapted both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. 

Still, the idea of music being a vital part of the story lingers through all interpretations. "I think especially with young men and relatively immature male adults, the idea of expressing oneself is not dissimilar to going up on stage and singing in front of a crowd," Weitz said. "The heart of I believe of the book and I know the movie is this notion of whether you are going to live in your feelings and to make connections with other people and that can often be horrifically embarrassing and awkward so I guess the notion of singing out loud is equivalent to sort of showing your feelings or heart on your sleeve."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.