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.
The obvious question about Easy Money is why did it take so long to get to the UK? Another crime fiction adaptation – from a bestselling novel by Jans Lepidus (2006) – which was a box office smash in Sweden in 2010 and it has already had a sequel with a third film due for release in October this year. Since ‘Nordic Noir’ arguably reached the peak of its popularity in the UK in 2011-12, why wasn’t this film released with the same kind of marketing drive that propelled the Stieg Larsson films and Headhunters into the UK Top 10? Partly, perhaps, because there wasn’t an English translation of the source novel published in the UK until early this year. But I suspect that the botched release has been more a product of a Hollywood battle over remake rights. Its eventual release via Lionsgate is announced as ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’. I confess that I didn’t notice this on my cinema visit and the film clearly missed its Nordic Noir audience as the takings were dire in the first two weeks. But don’t let that put you off. Easy Money is an excellent thriller and well worth catching in CinemaScope on a big screen.
In some ways this is a typical Nordic crime film, though the female lead character is rather underutilised. (She may appear more in the next film – in this one it is important that she doesn’t really know what is happening.) It’s really a hard boys’ thriller with three central male characters. I was confused when trailers and early reviews kept mentioning The Killing. It was only after the screening that I realised that the main character ‘JW’ (Johan) was played by Joel Kinnaman, who was also the lead in the American version of the Danish series. In Easy Money, JW is a young man with a double life – by day an ‘A’ student at the Stockholm School of Economics and by night a taxi driver. My early recognition was of Matias Varela, one of the team of police officers in the Arne Dahl TV films shown recently in the UK. Varela plays Jorge, a Latin American migrant who we see first making a prison break. The third lead is Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) a Serbian hit man working for a ‘Yugoslav’ gang.
The key narrative idea is that the lure of ‘easy money’ is too strong for each of the three characters above. The stories are those of these three characters, from their perspectives. The police only appear at the end of the film. The Nordic Noir elements are the almost complete focus on migrant communities in Stockholm and Göteborg and the way in which each of the three central characters is driven by/constrained by a ‘social’ issue of some kind.Jorge has a pregnant sister who he doesn’t want to be drawn into gangland struggles – and a cousin who is a key contact in Germany. Mrado, separated from his partner, finds himself presented with sole custody of his small daughter, making his lifestyle quite complicated. Johan is effectively ‘living a lie’ and we can’t be sure exactly what his background is, but he is clearly conning his rich friends.
The key social/cultural/economic issue is however the international financial crisis of 2008 (i.e. after the novel was written) since it is Johann’s grasp of the situation and his ideas about how to exploit it which appeals to Abdulkarim, the gang boss who runs the taxi company. (It also helps Johann in his dealings with his wealthy friends.) I won’t spoil the plot but it involves the Arabs/Hispanics, supported by the Albanians trying to outwit the ‘Yugoslavs’ – with various agents switching sides. Director Daniel Espinosa, himself from a Chilean migrant background says that he knew these cultures in the Stockholm suburbs/housing estates and that’s why he fought to get the job. Before Easy Money hit the UK, Espinosa had already had his first Hollywood film with Denzel Washington, Safe House, released internationally.
The ending of the film has a resolution, but also leaves open the possibilities for the next episode. I will certainly try to watch Easy Money 2. The trailer below from Lionsgate is very ‘Hollywood’. It makes no reference to Scandinavian crime fiction and its popularity, which I think is a mistake – the film is mostly in Swedish. If you are a Nordic Noir fan, this is probably closest to the Arne Dahl series, though from the criminals’ perspective.
I thought I’d spotted most of the major Nordic crime writers but there always seem to be more. Arne Dahl is the ‘crime fiction pseudonym’ of Swedish writer Jan Arnald. It looks like a kind of anagram but it makes me think of Arlene Dahl (a B picture contract star at MGM in the 1940s/50s). Arne Dahl has written around ten crime novels about a team of elite police officers known as the ‘A Group’. The first of these has been translated into English as The Blinded Man and was published by Vintage in 2012. The first five novels were each adapted for television as 3 hour films, presumably shown in two parts. That’s how BBC4 have decided to show them in the UK in their favoured Nordic Noir slot on a Saturday night. Part 1 of The Blinded Man was screened under its Swedish title Misterioso – the title of a Thelonious Monk track featured in the film.
I suspect that many of the Killing/Bridge fans won’t like this as it is certainly not a procedural/melodrama with a careful script. I worried that it might be a US type SWAT squad show but it looks more like Stieg Larsson territory with as much violence but possibly a little more humour. I was pleasantly surprised. In this opener we have a version of the Danish three-part structure. Someone is assassinating bankers (make your own wish here) while a bunch of Estonian gangsters is concerned about their operations in Sweden and the Stockholm police decide to put together an elite squad of misfits from all over Sweden to find the banker-killer. We even got the classic Dirty Dozen/Dirty Harry narrative device of a police officer who has done something dumb in catching a miscreant and is then whisked away to join the A Group – when he should be being disciplined. The rest of the A Group includes a short working class IT expert and a huge body builder type (who IMDB reports is played by a real one-time bodybuilder). The short guy is played by Matias Varela who currently has the highest profile with his work on the Easy Money franchise in Sweden. This large and short duo go out on a job and a suspect refers to them as Laurel and Hardy. A couple of the other funny scenes are quite deadpan and I was reminded of the work of Roy Andersson. This reference was strengthened by the use of music, jazz being important – but the camera and the fast editing were not at all like Andersson.
I found that 90 minutes whizzed by and the show seemed quite fresh. Only one of the six in the A Group hasn’t been properly introduced to us yet, but already they seem like an interesting crew. I’m looking forward to next week’s second part.
The third serial featuring police inspector Sarah Lund returns to the mix of elements of the first and for me represents a distinct improvement on The Killing II. Again it’s presented as 10 x 58 minutes episodes rather than the 20 episodes of the first outing. In the UK these have been transmitted as double episodes over five Saturday nights. I’ve found this too intense and we’ve watched the second weekly episode on the following Sunday evening – hooray for BBC iPlayer.
In retrospect, I think we can now see that The Killing II lost something by moving too far away from ‘family melodrama’. Its focus on the Danish armed forces and their role in Afghanistan didn’t allow the various narrative strands to cross-fertilise in quite the same way as in the first and third serials (even though there were both family issues and political intrigues). The three serials have all had the same mix of murder, families and politics but the balance of ingredients has shifted. In The Killing III there are as many as five ‘families’ or family situations. We learn something about parents and children in terms of ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’, politician and both the main police officers. This allows the narrative to place Sarah Lund in almost impossible situations in which we are invited to consider her own relationship with her son as well as what her actions might mean in respect of the other families. I can’t think of any other film narrative with quite such a complex meshing of relationships.
[NO SPOILERS here if you haven’t watched the serial yet.] The serial this time links very big business (a major shipping company with a large presence in the Danish economy) with a general election and a focus on the main party leaders. The central narrative concerns the abduction of the young daughter of a shipping magnate (played by Anders W. Berthelsen – who has starred in several Danish films released in the UK). Sarah Lund is once more brought back from a less demanding post to head the investigation of a series of murders that will turn out to be linked to the abduction. Sarah’s familiar problems with her mother and her son are still in evidence. This might explain why she treats her new sidekick Juncker, a very eager and determined young man, in an offhand way. She also finds herself having to deal with an old flame who she hasn’t seen since her days at police college. Mathias Borch (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) works for Special Branch (‘PET’ in Denmark) and his presence is explained by the importance of the shipping company Zeeland to the Danish government. The Prime Minister who is soon to face a General Election is keen to keep Zeeland in Denmark as a major employer (the company is a conglomerate with many interests). Later we will discover that the PM’s family is also involved in some way with the central story.
The Killing has consistently deployed the main genre elements of the current cycle of Nordic noir. The female investigator is faced by male suspects and has to deal with the men who are her professional partners and bosses and also the majority of the political figures. In The Killing III there is a female political leader and, in an important role, a female political advisor. The writer Søren Sveistrup has been careful to make two of the other female leads less than perfect characters – but perhaps this means that their characters aren’t properly developed? Some of the themes of the third serial are very familiar from other Nordic noirs. The death which is eventually revealed as the inciting incident for the whole narrative concerns a young woman in care. The global perspective is limited in this case, but the narrative does manage to raise questions about Denmark’s open borders with Sweden and Germany and, through the shipping company, its links with issues globally. The first two serials involved journeys to Sweden. The climax of the third serial takes place in Norway. The politics of the third serial is ‘national’ and focuses on the Prime Minister. In some ways it pushes The Killing closer to Borgen with a focus on the pressure of party politics – and the leader’s family. Some blog comments have suggested that these machinations are less interesting than the local (mayoral) elections in The Killing I. I tend to agree with this and I think that the Special Branch involvement means that this third serial faces the problem of balancing the frustrations of the spy thriller type narrative – i.e. the truth can’t be allowed to ‘come out’ because of national security/paranoia of the rulers – and the requirements of the Nordic noir to critique social conditions and cultural changes in a liberal democracy. As a result, there seems to be an inevitability about the weight of expectation placed on the behaviour of Sarah Lund – as if her state of mind is indicative of the condition of Denmark.
The Killing turns out to be all about the state of Danish ‘public service’ and personal responsibilities expressed through the troubled social and working life of Sarah Lund. You do wonder if they might have called it Lund and made the comparison with Wallander more explicit. (In Germany the serial is titled Kommissarin Lund: Das Verbrechen or Inspector Lund: The Crime.) Lund is younger than Wallander, in her late thirties when the serials began in 2007, but she seems just as dysfunctional and as worn down by the job. Like Wallander with his daughter, Lund is a single parent making a less than good job of bringing up her son. Like Wallander too she is dogged in her pursuit of criminals and like him she makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. Inevitably, the investigations are extended because of this – and the serial takes full advantage of the extra time to explore the frustrations of police procedures. But whereas Wallander operates in a generally peaceful small town in Southern Sweden, Lund operates from a base in Denmark’s capital city and is always under pressure from politicians and national police/security bosses. Again, where Wallander blusters, drinks too much and eats badly, Lund seemingly internalises everything. She doesn’t drink, smoke or listen to opera. Everything is bottled up, threatening to emerge in a violent eruption of some kind. In Killing III there is a moment of sudden ‘warm’ emotional release but it is over quickly. Inevitably, this repression builds up the narrative pressure on the last episode of the serial that ends with a climactic scene which for me works quite well – unlike the disappointing climax to Killing II.
Lund works well as a character. Although unknown in the UK before The Killing, Sofie Gråbøl has a strong star persona in Denmark which includes film, TV and stage work. She has just completed a month’s revival of her lead role in a stage adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander at the Danish National Theatre in Copenhagen. As Lund she offers a powerful performance as a senior female police officer displaying total commitment, single-mindedness and stoicism in the face of failure. She has the occasional flash of insight and she is able to recognise the importance of tiny clues but she isn’t a ‘superwoman’ by any means. As a female hero she doesn’t have to be glamorous – though even in her jumpers and jeans she is an attractive figure and on the odd occasions when her hair is down and she is more relaxed she becomes positively beautiful.
The Killing has been remarkably well covered in the UK press. The audience for the BBC4 screenings is around 1 million – significantly larger than the cinema audience for most subtitled films. This is also the audience most likely to read the ‘quality press’. The Guardian ran a Killing blog with around 2,000 comments for each of the five weeks of broadcasts. It’s interesting to read the article by Patrick Kingsley, a young British journalist who has cashed in on the popularity of Danish TV drama with a book on Danish culture for Brits. The ‘reader’s comments’ on his short article are fascinating. They reveal very different views on Denmark’s democracy, its liberalism, equality and cultural homogeneity – and the allegations of racism and xenophobia.
Even though the serial is taken to be a ‘Danish’ production by the Danish psb (public service broadcaster) DR, it is in reality a co-production with ZDF, the German psb and it is also supported by Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters. According to Wikipedia, the serial (or at least one of the three serials) has been bought be 120 countries. Unlike most Nordic films that are usually confined to their own domestic cinema market, Nordic TV genre series are widely seen across the Nordic region and now, thanks to the ZDF sales team across the world. (For a detailed analysis of Nordic Films and TV see this report – available to download as a pdf.) This is truly global television on a scale to match Hollywood. Borgen 2 starts in the UK on January 5th – I can’t wait!
This two-part narrative offers an unusual TV format – two 90 mins crime stories which together make a single 180 minute narrative about the principal investigator. (The German TV channel ZDF lists them as 2 x 100 mins, so there may have been cuts.) I’ve not come across this before as far as I remember. Usually a ‘mini-series’ or ‘special’ will be a single crime story spread over two or three episodes. What seems to have happened here is that the Nordic Noir interest in the personal life of the central investigator has been pushed to the limit and has now become the main narrative driver.
The central character is a psychologist/psychological profiler named Sebastian Bergman (the joke about the famous Swedish film director comes in part 2). He’s played by Rolf Lassgärd – one of Sweden’s best-known actors. Lassgärd is excellent but he carries a lot of baggage having played Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander – in the first Swedish incarnation of the character – and appeared in a series based on the Martin Beck novels, the original Scandinavian police procedural success from the 1970s. Mankell himself married Ingmar Bergman’s daughter a few years ago. The producers of this series worked on the original Wallander and Part 1 of this series went out on Christmas Day 2010 in Sweden – creating a TV event which must have been a bit like the death of Inspector Morse on UK TV in terms of its resonances.
Sebastian is in virtually every way an unsympathetic character. We are introduced to him via a scene in some ways reminiscent of one of his Wallander roles (the opening to The Man Who Smiled, 2003) – giving a lecture to police officers, during which he reveals himself as an egoist who makes offensive remarks to two of the women in the audience. Simply put he is a serial shagger and that is an important element in the narrative. Brilliant though he may be as a profiler, Sebastian is a vulnerable man in terms of controlling his libido and he has been damaged by the loss of his wife and small daughter in the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean – believing he could have saved his daughter.
The original Swedish title of the series translates as ‘The Condemned’ or ‘The Doomed’. Does this refer to Sebastian? In Part 1 the ‘retired’ Bergman helps to solve a shooting in his own home town where he has gone to visit his old house after his mother’s recent death. He clearly knows the two senior police officers conducting the investigation who accept his help, but he immediately antagonises Vanja, the bright young woman who does the main leg-work for the murder squad. The young blonde policewoman at various times wears her hair tied up Lassgärd in a short ponytail – at which point she looks remarkably like the late Joanna Sällström who played Kurt Wallander’s daughter, Linda in the Krister Henriksson version of the Mankell stories. In Part 2 Bergman again forces himself upon the reluctant investigation team in order to solve the serial killing of three women which seems to be the work of a ‘copycat’ killer. Bergman himself ‘solved’ the original crime and it soon becomes apparent that the killer has a personal interest in Bergman.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of anyone who wants to watch the series – on the BBCiPlayer in the UK – but it will be fairly obvious that the main focus is on the central dynamic of many Nordic Noir narratives, i.e. the relationship between the older, damaged/vulnerable male investigator and the bright, confident young woman.
I enjoyed watching both parts, but on reflection they seem very different. Part 1 seems to be in the tradition of the small-town procedural. I like the use of the school gym as the temporary murder squad HQ and the general sense of claustrophobia in the small community. Part 1 is directed by Daniel Espinosa who made the big film hit, Easy Money (Snabba Cash) immediately before this TV episode. The shaky camerawork is irritating I know, but he does achieve an edginess which works well with the claustrophobia and the short flashbacks to possible crime scenarios fit well into the editing pattern. By contrast, Part 2 is directed by one of the two co-writers, Michael Hjorth. This seemed much blander and closer to TV crime series conventions. The crime story has no links to Part 1 at all and as a serial killer story it’s much more North American (and also closer to the recent Those Who Kill, the Danish series on ITV3). All the Swedish (and Danish) series seem to me to be much weaker when they go for the action genre finale. Even in The Killing 2 and The Bridge, I found the final confrontation to be much less compelling than what went before. The characters are what make these series unmissable – we can get chases, fights and stand-offs at any time.
Bergman, as portrayed by Lassgärd, is a fascinating character. You want to punch him in the mouth, but you know that he is going to come up with something (after several mistakes). I’ve seen several comments that make him out to be very similar to the Robbie Coltrane character in Cracker. I didn’t watch enough of that series to be able to make that judgement but there always seems to be a sense of fun about Coltrane – Lassgärd is a much darker presence. I could take more of him in episodes that were more like Part 1 here. In the meantime, it’s back to the French series Spiral which I haven’t yet got into. We expect the Scandinavians back in a couple of months – anyone know when exactly?
Nordic crime fiction is one of the major trends in contemporary film and television with successful Nordic titles often prompting swift American remakes. If you want to go back to the source of many of the celebrated elements of the Swedish police procedural, the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö offer a good place to start. This couple, good Marxist socialists both, wrote ten immensely popular police procedurals in the 1960s and 1970s featuring a Stockholm detective and his team. The stories all manage to critique what the authors saw as the flaws in Swedish social democracy. It is this political imperative which has survived in the work of Henning Mankell and others. All the books were made into films or TV series in Sweden and overseas. The best of the films is often said to be this 1976 adaptation by the celebrated Swedish director Bo Widerberg. Widerberg was the young turk of the Swedish ‘New Wave’ in the early 1960s and one of the more radical directors who was critical of Ingmar Bergman’s status within Swedish film culture.
The novel’s title is The Abominable Man – a reference to a police lieutenant who is lying in a hospital bed when he is attacked and brutally murdered, almost filleted with a bayonet. Martin Beck and his colleagues begin an investigation but just as they solve the mystery, the murderer takes to the rooftops with a selection of powerful snipers’ rifles and the police authorities have to devise a safe way of disarming him.
The key feature of the film is its realism. Widerberg shoots on location and the action sequences in the film have a strong documentary feel which is also evident during the long police procedural sequences. The casting of a leading Swedish comedian of the period Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck and the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the rest of the team adds to this ‘realism effect’. (Lindstedt was the son of a Social-Democratic Party politician and started his career in a socialist youth theatre group according to Wikipedia.) The film is generally very well thought of – bearing comparison with the best Hollywood crime films of the 1970s (comparisons are made with The French Connection). The critique here is not of police corruption in the Hollywood sense (i.e. drugs, extortion etc.), but something more akin to the systematic failure of police teams to do their job properly – and then to cover up the evidence with collective amnesia and a refusal to take complaints seriously. This approach shifts the focus from a single rogue to the system itself.
Overall I was very impressed with this film (presented on a Swedish Region 2 DVD with English subs bought online from Play.com). The quality of the transfer to DVD is very good. I was a Widerberg fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I don’t remember this getting a UK release. I did feel that one or two of the decisions during the sniper incident seemed a bit odd, but then I reflected on how Hollywood would have played it and concluded that the bungling of the Swedish approach is much more like real life and the mistakes we all make. It might be interesting to compare this with some of the other Martin Beck adaptations. After watching this, it doesn’t seem so surprising that Walter Matthau should have played Beck in the US adaptation of another Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel The Laughing Policeman (novel 1968, film 1973). The setting is changed to San Francisco and the character names are changed but the cast looks strong Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Joanna Cassidy in a small role. Anybody seen it?
I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.
My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.
The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.
The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:
“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me. You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.
. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)
I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.
Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.
Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!
Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.
I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.
Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).