The Snowman, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Hollywood adaptation of Norwegian mystery novelist Jo Nesbo’s 2007 serial-murder thriller of the same name, is just as awful a movie as all the critics have said it is (“dreary as a Nordic winter and almost as long”). By the time I saw the film on November 2, at its very last screening at a Washington, D.C.-area theater near where I live, audiences had already panned it with their feet. It had opened in the U.S. only on October 19, which meant that it had survived a mere, miserable two weeks. And I was the sole person sitting in the theater on that wretched final day.
Everything was wrong, starting with the fact that although the English-language Snowman was set in Norway, most of the characters spoke their lines with inexplicable British accents, as though London, not Oslo, were the setting (I kept waiting for Big Ben to chime from St. Olav’s Cathedral, a backdrop of one of the scenes). And then, although there was an obvious effort to give the characters’ names their correct Norwegian pronunciation (“Aasen” is pronounced “Oh-sen,” for example), that effort at authenticity didn’t extend to the name of Harry Hole, the off-and-on alcoholic and highly unorthodox crime inspector for the Oslo police force who is the film’s protagonist (played by Michael Fassbender). In Norwegian his surname (a common one, I’m told) is pronounced “Hoo-leh,” but “Harry Hole” in English pronunciation just makes people laugh.
The Snowman’s worst offense, though, is its mauling of Nesbo’s novel by screenwriters Hossein Amini and Peter Straughan, presumably with Alfredson’s blessing. (To the point that Nesbo has said in an interview that the film is “not my story.”) The plot of the novel, nearly 500 pages in English translation, is extraordinarily intricate, drawing on psychology, biology, and twenty-first-century demography to trace and explain a series of gruesome wintertime murders of married women who have secretly borne children by men who are not their husbands (some are promiscuous, but one is a victim of rape). The biology (DNA testing and ghastly hereditary diseases) and the demography (statistics indicating that up to twenty percent of Scandinavian children don’t have the fathers they and nearly everyone else think they have) have been neatly excised from the grotesquely simplified movie. That leaves the psychology, which in the movie is reduced to cheesy Freudianism muddled with equal amounts of equally cheesy feminism plus Marxism 101.
One of Nesbo’s characters, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons in the film), an entertainingly hypocritical magazine publisher with leftist views and kinky sexual tastes, is transformed into a cookie-cutter Evil Industrialist who takes creepy photos of young women’s breasts when he’s not destroying the livelihoods of families by taking over their companies. One of the serial killer’s victims in Nesbo’s novel has had an abortion, so the screenwriters turn that into a Planned Parenthood Moment: “It was her choice,” Fassbender’s Harry lectures, as though he’s reading from a script written by Amanda Marcotte. That means that the killer—who in Nesbo’s novel is a frighteningly cunning psychopath from the get-go—is reduced in the movie to a latter-day Roger Chillingworth, a sexist bluenose who murders women because he disapproves of pregnancy termination and adultery. The denouement—which in the novel is absolutely hair-raising and also a highly cinematic opportunity that Alfredson lets pass by—is reduced to a kitchen-table group-therapy cum truth-or-(deadly)-consequences session in which Harry is obliged to confess to some sins of his own that are not in the novel.
All of this is unfortunate, because Jo Nesbo is a novelist worth reading, and not just because you might enjoy police-procedural page-turners. I got introduced to Nesbo by seeing at a film festival the 2011 Norwegian adaptation of his 2008 novel Headhunters, about a corporate recruiter who gets in over his head, so to speak, with his sideline profession as an art thief so he can afford his lavish lifestyle and his high-maintenance wife. My husband gave me the novel as a Christmas stocking-stuffer, and I was hooked. Whenever I’m in an airport without reading material, I reach at the bookstore for a Nesbo, which usually turns out to be one of his eleven Harry Hole mysteries (The Snowman is the seventh of the series). I haven’t read all the Hole books, and some are mostly clever whodunnits with seedy Noir-way atmospherics. But the best of them, such as The Snowman (along with Headhunters to a lesser extent) have distinct morally driven themes: infidelity, abortion, family breakdown, the suffering of children who grow up fatherless. Nesbo is undoubtedly a man of the left politically (his novels drop enough hints to assume that), but his complex plots churn above an undercurrent of deep social conservatism. The sexual revolution has wrought chaos in Harry Hole’s world. There are also tiny but telling religious references—Advent-wreath candles burning in a hospital waiting room, Harry’s belief that he has sold his soul to the devil—that speak to a lost Christian faith whose traces still hover over the adamantly secular Scandinavia with its abundant creature comforts and existential emptiness.
All of this seemed to have gone over the heads of Alfredson and his screenwriters, who have virtually guaranteed that there won’t be any Harry Hole cinematic sequels for a very long time. This is unfortunate, because Jo Nesbo deserves credit for inventing a more complex, morally serious, and interesting fictional world than anything that Hollywood has been able to come up with recently.
Image: Universal Pictures