‘The Snowman’s’ meltdown spreads

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UPDATED: Norwegian critics’ frosty reception of the film version of Jo Nesbø’s Snømannen (The Snowman) continued unabated on Wednesday, with national dailies Aftenposten, Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and Dagbladet panning it as well. Questions have arisen over whether the entire film project simply got lost in translation. Its director now blames a lack of time for enough filming in Norway last year, but he already is open to making sequels.

Michael Fassbender has the leading role in The Snowman, which has been panned by all the major film critics in Norway, where the story takes place and where the film was shot. PHOTO: Universal Pictures

Aftenposten and Dagbladet also gave the film, which features a stellar cast and some of Hollywoods’s most powerful players, a score of two on a scale of one to six. DN’s review on Wednesday was dripping with so much sarcasm that it’s worth translating directly, as it offers insight into why the Norwegian reaction to the film has been so overwhelmingly negative.

Written by commentator Bjørn Gabrielsen, a commentator for Norway’s major business newspaper, the review was headlined A masterpiece in snow.” At first glance it looked like one Norwegian critic for a prominent paper was finally giving the film a thumbs up. That was followed by a line that Tomas Alfredson’s film was “the best film ever made.”

The warning signal was thus issued, and then came the details as to why: “This is how all films should be, in a world where men use eyeliner, smoking indoors is widespread, all Norwegians speak English with one another and no one can pronounce their own names. It’s a stroke of genius for the filmmaker to attach signs in English to Oslo’s police station and to its trams, and to let the national newspaper be called Norway Review. If the film had taken place in Vilnius, we would all react with disbelief, of course, if the characters actually spoke Lithuanian.”

Gabrielsen went on to write that the director of The Snowman opted for “the only solutions,” when faced with “having to make a film set in Norway for an international audience.”

Unrealistic for Norwegians
DN’s review thus addressed the crux of the problem with the film, seen from local experts’ point of view: It lacks verisimilitude, to a degree that makes it utterly unrealistic to Norwegians. Ignorance may be bliss to all the non-Norwegians who may pay to see the film after its international release this weekend, but Norwegian critics simply seem to have found the film sloppy and lacking credibility.

They could excuse how a segment filmed along a scenic stretch of coastal highway called Atlanterhavsveien made it seem like it was located between Oslo and Telemark, instead of hundreds of kilometers to the northwest where it really is. While such scenes can make a knowing viewer smile or even giggle, it also can fall under the “artistic license” allowed many directors. The magnitude of errors, however, can simply make it hard for Norwegians to identify with the film, or take it seriously.

Director Tomas Alfredson has won acclaim for films including Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but Norwegian critics think he failed badly with The Snowman. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Gabrielsen also picked at how even in English, an “obstetrician” became a “pregnancy doctor.” The main gripe among him and most of his counterparts in Norwegian media is, however, over their contention that author Nesbø’s main character Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-leh) is not allowed to develop. Viewers aren’t given much chance to be able to understand why he behaves as he does, or even how his history of chain-smoking and alcohol abuse hasn’t prevented him, for example, from having a muscular body in as good shape as that of the actor portraying him, Michael Fassbender.

The lack of that sort of realism in the film clearly bothered the Norwegian critics. It may not bother foreign critics or audiences who aren’t familiar with Nesbø’s books or don’t know any better, but it contributed to making the film a “huge disappointment,” as one Norwegian critic wrote.

“As a display window for the Norwegian tourism industry, The Snowman can perhaps be a good advertisement,” reported newspaper Aftenposten, Norway’s so-called “newspaper of record,” on Wednesday. “As a film, it’s far from what we should have been able to expect.” Aftenposten’s reviewer Kjetil Lismoen even went so far as to suggest that all the scenic photography of Norwegian landscapes took attention away from the film itself. Too much of a good thing, perhaps, as Lismoen also criticized director Alfredson for dwelling too long on the statues of Gustav Vigeland during a scene shot in Oslo’s Vigeland Park. “Alfredson fell in love with Vigeland … but what about Harry?” wrote Lismoen.

He disagreed that the film is the “catastrophe” that other critics have suggested it is. The problem, he thinks, is that Alfredson “didn’t manage to recreate the tension (in Nesbø’s book) or seem to care anything about the cultural nuances from Nesbø’s novel. The question then, is what we’re left with.”

Director: Must ‘tolerate negative voices’
It’s entirely possible that Nesbø’s books are also best in their original Norwegian than they are in all the other languages into which they’ve been translated. Alfredson, who was in Oslo this week for the film’s premiere prior to its international release, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he’d had some positive feedback from critics in the US. “We have to tolerate negative voices,” said Alfredson, who’s Swedish and arguably was better able to interpret a Norwegian crime novel than an American director would have been.

“We had a filming period in Norway (in the winter of last year) that was much too short,” Alfredson told NRK. “We didn’t get the whole story with us, and when we got into the editing room, we discovered there was a lot we lacked. It’s like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle, and then you lack one piece that means you can’t see the whole picture.”

He estimated that he lacked “around 10 to 15 percent” of scenes needed to put the film together. That made the work difficult. The solution was to film what they lacked in London. “That happened very suddenly,” he told NRK. “We suddenly got word that now we had money, and can film in London.”

He dismissed criticism about factual errors in the film, claiming “this isn’t a documentary film about the geography of Norway.” He otherwise didn’t want to comment on all the criticism of the film in Norway: “Now I have made this film and I can’t change anything now. So come all these film critics with their opinions about the film, but as a director, I can’t have opinions about these opinions.”

He added, though, that if actual ticket sales go well internationally, “we made an ending to the film that can open up for more. If the public likes what they see, there may be more (films based on Nesbø’s books). There are, at any rate, enough books about Harry Hole to pull from.” The Snowman will open in Europe and the Middle East this weekend, followed by the US and Australia next weekend (October 20). It will premiere in Asia in November.

One positive local voice
There was one positive voice at the Oslo premiere, from retired film critic Per Haddal who said he liked The Snowman. “I think it’s ridiculous to give the film a ‘two,’ as many much-too-eager colleagues have done,” Haddal told NRK. “This is a film that has it’s own rhythm.” He also said it had “many fine qualities” and was “neither a psychological drama nor an action film, but a form of playing chess with human destinies.”

Truls Kontny, leader of the Norwegian film commission, worked for six years to get the film shot on location in Norway. The production company that bought the film rights from Nesbø reportedly had initially considered shooting it in Chicago. Kontny said he thought it was sad that the Norwegian reviews have been so bad, “but the most important thing was the business development that the film can mean for Norway. There’s been lots of money invested (by The Snowman’s producers) in Norway already, and we know that tourism can be boosted by films.”

The Norwegian state used up almost its entire pot of incentive funding on the Snowman film, to ensure that it was made in Norway. That prompted one critic to question whether “we could have done better just making the film ourselves.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

  • John Palmer

    I am looking forward to the film. That said, since the director is a Swede, maybe it was a sneaky Swedish plot to undermine Norway, eh? Use up Norway’s budget. How about that? I like Norwegian films and would have loved it to have been filmed by Norwegians in Norwegian with sub-titles.

  • Roy Everson

    Ha! “Pregnancy doctor” is a very typical Norwegian kind of mistake. The sloppy translation of English is to be expected in rough drafts, but often it is not corrected and ends up in all kind of signs, posters and documents, etc, much to the embarrassment of their sponsors, assuming anyone points it out to them. The treasure devoted to teaching English, the nation’s 2nd major language (sorry nynorsk fans) is hugely successful, but perhaps makes them overestimate English competency. The critic and readers may now take notice of how common this is.

    As for “signs in English to Oslo’s police station and to its trams,” the critic may be gently informed that for many years signs in these prominent areas were all Norwegian despite the inconvenience for casual visitors to the fine city, who might encounter all kinds of confusion especially in summer, height of the construction season. (One exception of course were signs informing transit passengers they had to pay for the ride.) Anglicization of signage in recent years make these flubs forgivable.

    BTW slipping in “verisimilitude”, a word some of us native English speakers had to look up, is one of those touches that make this site worth paying for!

  • Louis Kasatkin

    As a Nesbo aficonado I was prepared to cut the film makers quite a lot of slack.
    After all,complex,layered novels tend to fall short when translated from page to screen.A recent comparable example being ” Child 44″.
    “Snowman” made a reasonably commendable fist of it;though in my opinion the preceding novel in the Harry Hole canon “The Redeemer” would have had the benefit of being more or less self-contained in terms of story and avoided the inevitable baggage of complications that come with the “Snowman”narrative arc and its untidy denouement.