I’m not sure I’ve ever been to watch a new film that has been so heavily criticised and denounced by both critics and audiences. It isn’t the total disaster those reviews suggests, but given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t great. Something has clearly gone wrong and I’m still struggling to see where the blame lies.
The Snowman is an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 ‘Harry Hole’ novel. There are now 11 crime novels featuring the maverick cop. The Snowman is No7 in the series, though numbers 1 and 2 were translated into English after The Snowman. So, for UK readers it was number 5. The first question then is, why start with No. 5? The response has been so poor that it seems unlikely any more will be adapted in English. Why it was adapted at this point seems to be a consequence of the usual crap which surrounds studio pictures. The novel appeared in English in 2011 – at the peak of ‘Nordic Noir‘ in the UK/US. A quick glance back through my posts and the various events I organised on that topic suggests that this was indeed the case.
Nesbø has always been ripe for adaptation. His self-confessed love of American culture pushes his crime fiction away from the ‘Nordic Noir’ ideal that developed from Mah Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (though he claimed his own links to the Martin Beck books with an introduction to one of the re-issued novels). His hero Harry Hole likes rock music (Nesbø played in a band) and American films and there is much more of a Hollywood thriller feel to the novels. Perhaps he is like Stieg Larsson to a certain extent – but far less overtly political. Harry is like Larsson’s characters though – in the sense that he is personally involved in the narratives. Either he is targeted by the villain or the narrative is introduced by something out of his past. In The Snowman, the Harry-Rakel-Oleg triangle is central in more ways than one.
My memory is that Scorsese was named quite early on as interested in making a Harry Hole movie, but instead the first Nesbø film was Headhunters (Norway 2011), adapted from a standalone novel and followed by Nesbø’s involvement in a TV series, Okkupert (2015), a political thriller imagining Norway occupied by the Russians. The Snowman arrives perhaps four or five years too late. I don’t think Nordic Noir is finished but it doesn’t have the same ‘must see’ cachet any more.
The next issue is comprehension. The Harry Hole novels are in a distinct series – they have the overall narrative ‘arc’ that we now have to acknowledge for long form narratives and in that sense they match both the Beck and Wallander books – though I find Harry a less appealing character than either of the other police officers. Each novel draws on what has happened before so The Snowman relies on audience knowledge about Harry and about Rakel and her son Oleg. Harry is not married to Rakel, yet she is the love of his life. Oleg is not his son, but Harry tries to act like his father. If you don’t know this – and Harry’s history of alcoholism and his loner status within the Oslo Police – you can’t understand him. The script (which has some input from Nesbø, some from Søren Sveistrup, the Danish writer of The Killing and some from the Brits, Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini) seems to me something of a lash-up – as if it has been re-written many times. It does include the information about Harry, but not in an easily understandable way. The book is 550 pages so a great deal has to be left out or dealt with in different ways. Some of the changes are puzzling. The novel opens with a prologue in 1980, in which the date is signalled by a radio announcement about Reagan’s election victory over Jimmy Carter. It then comes forward to 2004 and victory for George W. Bush. In the film, ‘the past’ features a boy being quizzed about Norwegian modern history and there are no American references.
The need to reduce and select the narrative data explains why, even for someone who knows the Harry Hole novels reasonably well, the narrative seems complex. Against this, the cinematography offers us plenty of snowbound landscapes and there is a very talented cast. Alas, the way they are used is also problematic. I was watching out for Sofia Heflin, the Swedish star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge and it was only at the end of the film that I realised she had been a character who was quickly killed off. Similarly, the Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, a star from Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) and many other films, has a minor role. There are some Nordic actors in bigger roles and I enjoyed the irony of Jonas Karlsson playing the villain in this film and the despised police ‘manager’ in the Swedish Beck TV series. But mostly it is British and American actors filling the lengthy cast list. Apart from a child with an American whine, most of the actors use what might be described as unaccented ‘International English’ and I can live with that (although a Norwegian pronunciation of ‘Hole’ might have worked better). The tragedy of the film is to see a director such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson, internationally lauded for Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) and the English language Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), lose control of a production which also boasts Dion Beebe as cinematographer and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, not to mention Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading cast members.
Michael Fassbender is a fine actor and it sounds like great casting, but he isn’t my idea of Harry Hole – and that’s always the problem with adapting a novel with a ‘known’ character. Audiences who revere Fassbender but don’t know Nesbø’s character will also be puzzled I think. Val Kilmer and Toby Jones just seem odd as Bergen police officers and Anne Reid as a next door neighbour in Oslo is a surprise for British audiences (she has been an important TV actor in the UK for many decades). Working Title, the most successful British film production company through its long relationships with Universal and Studio Canal, succeeded with Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor . . . , but that was a StudioCanal project. The Snowman is a Universal picture and I wonder if that is the problem. The Snowman seems similar to David Fincher’s Hollywood version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (US 2011) – but at least that film proved popular with audiences. I’ve rather lost interest in Harry Hole since Book 9 and now it looks like there won’t be any more film adaptations. Now, if they’d started with The Redbreast (Book 3, the first to be translated) it might have worked, but it would probably have been too ‘Norwegian’ for a big budget international thriller. Such is the film business. Instead of a distinct Nordic Noir, Hollywood wants another snowbound police thriller. Here’s the trailer for The Snowman, which is visually intriguing – but the dialogue is terrible. Pretty much sums up the film I’m afraid.
Headhunters offers an interesting case study in how to adapt a crime fiction novel into a mainstream thriller. Jo Nesbø is beginning to get the kind of coverage that Stieg Larsson received in the UK, although Headhunters is a one-off narrative not related to Nesbø ‘s bestselling Harry Hole series. It has been adapted by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, the latter having previously worked on the third film of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest). Gudmestad is reunited on Headhunters with director Morten Tyldum and star Aksel Hennie after their 2003 success Buddy.
The novel of Headhunters is quite short (certainly by Nesbø ‘s standards) but even so the adaptation leaves out significant sequences – mostly of ‘talk’ – in order to create a 98 minute comedy thriller. The effect is rather like that of the adaptations of the Millennium trilogy, producing a perfectly serviceable film narrative but losing some of the interesting nuances of the novel.
Unlike the Millennium trilogy, Headhunters as far as I can see is not available with a dubbed option in UK cinemas. part of me thinks this is good – and another part wonders whether it will restrict the audience. Even though most of the films I watch are subtitled, I sometimes struggle at the start of films to deal with the first few titles. One thing I’ve noticed is that voiceovers are particularly problematic as the character tends to be doing something else as they speak – so you really do have to look at two different things at once. It isn’t easy. The UK Film Council did some limited audience research on the reception of the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – which was screened in both subtitled and dubbed versions. They found that audiences preferred to have the choice, but of the two, the audience for the subtitles were happier with their choice than the audience with the dubbing. The jury is still out but dubbing doesn’t look like coming back just yet.
The plot of Headhunters sees Roger Brown (not as unlikely a Norwegian name as you might think, but not really explained in the film) played by Aksel Hennie as the ‘headhunter’, a prized employee of a recruitment agency. Unfortunately, Roger has very expensive tastes largely related to his wife Diana, a much taller blonde who runs an art gallery. In order to fund his impossible lifestyle, Roger has devised a system for using his interviews with clients to discover artworks that he then steals. Always a precarious construction, Roger’s world comes crashing down when he meets Clas Greves, a business executive with an ‘unknown’ Rubens worth 100 million kroner. Before he knows what has happened, Roger is turned from hunter into hunted – and Clas is an expert hunter. How will Roger turn the tables?
Headhunters is in some ways a ‘romp’ which is often very funny, at other times very gory and in one sequence extremely gross. It succeeds I think because of tight scripting and direction and a star turn by Aksel Hennie who, from what I’ve read, tends to divide Norwegian audiences. He works for me. One of Nesbø ‘s strengths is the scenarios he devises. He’s a very inventive writer and he gets the details right – of course, some of the details don’t make it into the film. I’ve seen comments that equate the film’s tone with the work of the Coen Brothers. I can see this and Fargo is an obvious connection, with its Scandinavian-American flavour (and Aksel Hennie sometimes has the look of Steve Buscemi). Nesbø is very interested in American popular culture, including crime films and crime fiction as well as rock music – but he’s also very rooted in Norwegian culture.
Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a middle ranking Hollywood actor who is currently in the cult TV series Game of Thrones. The actor is Danish which means that Clas’ nationality has to change (he’s Dutch in the book) and then several other plot points have to change as well. I wasn’t convinced by this casting decision as I’d pictured Clas as older but harder and more authoritative. Coster-Waldau strikes me as too smooth and good-looking in a conventional way – but I’m guessing that the producers thought that he would help sell the film. It took over $2 million in Denmark, so perhaps they were right? Harry Hole fans should know that the book has some of the elements familiar from the Harry Hole series – in particular, both Roger and Clas are familiar with FBI interrogation techniques and Roger will learn eventually about the attraction of fatherhood (surrogate fatherhood in Harry’s case). Headhunters also features a TV appearance by a preening Kripos (serious crimes squad) investigator – I can just imagine what Harry would make of that.
So, Headhunters is a diverting entertainment – but Nesbø fans will be awaiting whatever Martin Scorsese does with The Leopard with even more eagerness.
In a couple of months time, David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will hit cinema screens. I’m already on record as saying that this kind of instant remake (i.e. of a recent hit non-English language film) is pointless and I stick to that view. However, we can’t just wish Hollywood away. The domination of so many film markets by American product is a part of most filmgoers’ experience – and that goes for filmmakers too, both directors and actors who want to work internationally and Nordic facilities that want to attract international productions to their region. I’m not sure yet whether I will go to a cinema to see the Fincher film, but I am going to revive my interest in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy and a range of associated issues. The interest in Nordic cinema and TV in the UK shows no signs of melting away and next term I’ll be teaching a course on ‘Nordic Noir’. The furore over the remake (the European jibes about Anglos who won’t read subtitles and the American jibes about ‘cheap’ European films) is evident on the comments on YouTube for the trailers. I guess that I am going to have to see the Hollywood film, which was shot in Sweden, just to see what it does differently. Here is the Sony trailer for the remake with the original trailer for the Swedish film below:
On October 7, a film called Babycall opened in Norway. It stars Noomi Rapace (the ‘original’ Lisbeth Salander) in her first post-Millennium role as a mother who takes her young son out of Oslo away from a violent father. She buys a ‘babycall’ device to keep tabs on her son when he is in the flat but the device also picks up other children’s voices. Is her imagination playing tricks? I haven’t seen the film yet, but according to IMDB it has been picked up by Soda for UK distribution in 2012 and I’ll certainly give it a go – it sounds as if writer-director Pål Sletaune is working in a similar way to the Japanese duo Suzuki Koji and Nakata Hideo with Dark Water (Japan 2002). Here’s a Norwegian teaser (the release date was obviously changed) – it’s easy to get a sense of the film without English subs.
Before Babycall reaches the UK, Noomi Rapace will get much more exposure in her first Hollywood blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows in which she plays a European woman caught up in the struggle between Holmes and Watson and their deadly foe Professor Moriarty. This of course means that Ms Rapace has fallen into the clutches of Guy Ritchie. Here’s the trailer:
In June 2012, Noomi Rapace’s second Hollywood blockbuster appears in the shape of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, billed as a science fiction/horror film and talked about as Alien-related. Certain casting decisions suggest an influence of Danny Boyle’s approach in Sunshine with Benedict Wong in a small role and Michelle Yeoh allegedly up for a part at an early stage. Jude Law from Sherlock Holmes has a lead role.
Meanwhile the fascination with Nordic Noir continues with the first film to arrive in the UK adapted from the work of the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. Headhunters is a Nesbø crime thriller that doesn’t feature Harry Hole, the Oslo detective who has become the latest literary hero. Instead it is a story about a man who works as a ‘headhunter’ for businesses and operates a sideline in art thefts. In Norway, the film has already become one of the major hits of the year and it is currently screening during the London Film Festival with a UK release planned for April 2012 – and yes, the US remake via Summit, the independent behind the Twilight films is already announced. This marks the beginning of a long-term relationship between Swedish producers Yellow Bird and Summit which could yet see European productions of English-language crime dramas set in North America. Yellow Bird has already made the Wallander series in English for the BBC and as co-producer of the Millennium films and TV series it has worked with Scott Rudin to produce the Fincher take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Jo Nesbø looks like becoming the next Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson as a source for international crime thrillers. Harry Hole is much more action-driven than Wallander and much sexier than Mikael Blomkvist. Nesbø reportedly doesn’t like the Larsson comparison, but for filmmakers he has one major attraction – he’s still alive and is still writing (and he has a big back catalogue).
Here’s the Norwegian Headhunters trailer (no English subs yet):