Warning: expect heavy snows. And spoilers!
Audiences of a certain age, with little knowledge of Nordic Noir, will be forgiven for expecting this film to be from the book by Raymond Briggs. Even sounding less Walking in the Air and more Do You Want to Build a Snowman? won’t really help the recognition factor. It’s time for another Book V Film fight. Snowballs at the ready…
When professional footballers take early retirement, many go into coaching. Jo Nesbø went into the military, and then formed a band. When successful musicians are asked for a memoir, many write a story of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Jo Nesbø wrote The Bat, creating Norwegian detective Harry Hole. Football and music’s loss is definitely literature’s gain.
The Snowman is the seventh Harry Hole novel, but his first big screen outing. Both book and film are a good jumping-on point for those new to Harry. So, what’s it about?
Women have been disappearing for years throughout Norway, when the first snows of winter fall, but the police haven’t seen a pattern. Then Oslo policeman Harry Hole receives a letter warning him this will happen again – just as it happens again. As more women go missing Harry realises he’s up against Norway’s first serial killer; a killer who leaves a calling-card outside each victim’s house: a snowman…
First published in 2007 (and translated into English in 2010) the book ploughs straight into one of its main themes: infidelity. A 1980-set opening chapter has a married woman enjoy one last fling with her lover whilst her child waits in the car. Then we’re in 2004, where the majority of the book is set, and it’s not long before that first disappearance.
At 550 pages this is not a short book, but it is one steeped in authenticity, rich in detail, and told at a frantic pace. I flew through it. Nesbø likes to play games with his readers – at one location, where vital evidence is discovered, there hangs a print of a smoking gun – creating the impression of an author having fun. It’s a feeling that rubs off on us too.
Harry at first glance is the typical alcoholic detective who doesn’t play well with others, let alone by the rules, but there’s more beneath the surface. His relationship with former love Rakel is both complex and essential to the plot rather than a distraction, and he’s a father figure to her teenage son, Oleg. He has his demons, but also his angels too.
Of his team the stand-out is newcomer Katrine Bratt, recently transferred from Bergen, which we learn through several 1992 flashbacks is where the Snowman first kidnapped women. There’s a simmering tension between her and Harry, but nothing is quite what it seems with Katrine. She’s as smart as her new boss, but has her own agenda for catching the killer. Happily she’ll return in later novels; Katrine is too good a character to lose after one appearance.
The suspects allow us to explore another important theme: how well do we really know somebody? For instance, one man, seemingly an odious creep in life, is revealed in death to be far more altruistic. This question of identity, coupled with the issue of infidelity, is the link between the Snowman’s victims – families where a child is raised by an unsuspecting non-biological father – but it’s not subtle enough for us to only discover it when the police do. Which leads to the book’s one failing: too much dramatic irony.
And unfortunately the motive isn’t the only example. The midpoint of any story is crucial, often revealing an important change in character or plot. But I didn’t expect this book’s midpoint to accidentally reveal the killer’s identity. It’s a fumbled sleight of hand that means the reader knows more than Harry and co for the second half of the book – robbing us of the thrill an unexpected final-act denouement would contain.
The good news is there’s no such reveal halfway through the film. It looks beautifully chilly as well, with cinematographer Dion Beebe ensuring Norway’s harsh winter is breathtaking on the big screen. Also, director Tomas Alfredson knows a thing or two about intrigue and frozen snowy locations; with credits including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In, he’s a great choice. Which makes the decision to only hire him at the last minute all the more puzzling.
Western audiences generally prefer visiting snowflake-covered crime-scenes on the television. There have been some honourable big-screen attempts, but when even David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to find an audience (let alone a sequel) it would have made more sense to get an experienced hand like Alfredson on board much sooner – or delay filming when first choice Martin Scorsese relocated to a producer’s chair – rather than rush this before the cameras. But that’s precisely what they did.
At least in casting Michael Fassbender we get the perfect actor for Harry Hole. His vulnerability and enigmatic qualities do help sell a character who’s more like the cliché the book works so hard to avoid. But if he is underwritten here, then Katrine Bratt is positively lost in translation.
It’s a credit to Rebecca Ferguson that Katrine still retains her strength and purpose, because so much of what makes her memorable doesn’t survive the crossing from page to screen. It’s possible to actually trace most key changes between book and film by following her character arc. So that’s where we’ll start the examination…
Different types of snow
The Snowman letter
(Book) The MacGuffin that piques Harry’s interest, supposedly written by the Snowman, is actually from Katrine. She knows long before anyone else that the cold-case disappearances are linked, and also the best person to solve this is the one man who’s received FBI training in serial killers: Harry.
(Film) The Snowman sends the letters. It’s unclear why, except that in the film he’s more reckless when drawing people’s attention – even lobbing snowballs at potential victims!
The cold cases
(Book) The 1992 investigating officer, Gert Rafto, was already in disgrace for stealing valuables from other cases, so when he vanished during his Snowman investigations people assumed he was the killer. Katrine is Rafto’s daughter, so her involvement is twofold: she wants to find her missing father, and also clear his name. When she and Harry finally track down Rafto, in the book’s stand-out scene, he’s found to be another victim of the Snowman.
(Film) The family connection is there but we already know Rafto is dead, and it’s assumed (incorrectly) that he killed himself.
Katrine targets a suspect
(Book) Convinced the Snowman is wealthy entrepreneur Arve Støp, Katrine blags an invite into his house and attempts to extract a confession and exact revenge. She’s only stopped by Harry’s arrival, and flees.
(Film) This time she blags her way into Arve Støp’s hotel suite, but somehow the real Snowman knows she is there, incapacitates her, and cuts off her finger – to unlock a portable fingerprint-registered recorder which is already in the room so can easily be carried to her prone body. And then the killer leaves her in a car for Harry to find – amazingly still alive! – and Katrine plays no further part in the film.
Katrine becomes a suspect
(Book) Having worked out Katrine sent the letter, and following her botched attempt to kill Arve Støp, the police think she is the Snowman. Harry tracks her down, but though she’s arrested he is not convinced she is their killer. Katrine is eventually released, to return to her old police job.
(Film) None of this appears.
(Book) Let’s give poor Katrine a break now, and turn our eyes to the investigation. The most interesting case from a storytelling POV is the second present-day victim, poultry farmer Sylvia Ottersen. We experience her pursuit, capture and confrontation in a forest, and also see what the Snowman does with at least part of her body, to taunt the police.
(Film) It’s understandable the film cannot fit in all the missing persons cases; it would have been repetitive to try. We do get Sylvia’s case, although now with an intriguing twist: the Snowman reports her as missing before he abducts her. The trailer makes much of this new ploy, suggesting it will feature heavily in the film, but it only appears once. A less interesting twist is that Sylvia now doesn’t have any kids – but she has had an abortion, to ensure her husband wouldn’t discover she was carrying another man’s child.
And speaking of trailers, they do tease scenes from the book’s version of Sylvia’s story – her fleeing, and being caught by a trap – but they don’t make the final cut.
(Book) The final abductee is trussed up in a trap worthy of a Saw movie, for Harry to find and solve. Once done, the showdown proper happens at a prominent Oslo location cleverly seeded into the book earlier. Though caught, our antagonist lives to fight another day – so the potential for a rematch, or to serve as a Hannibal Lecter-type character in the future, is an option.
(Film) The change here, of location at least, is one I think the film gets right. We’re now back to the house where the opening scene takes place, adding a nice symmetry to events. The final trap and rescue are not as convoluted; however, the showdown itself is rushed and anticlimactic. There’s also no chance of a second bout.
The Snowman’s motivation
(Book) This stems from the betrayal felt upon discovering his ‘father’ was no such thing, due to his mother having an affair. And he murders his mother as soon as he learns this.
(Film) Possibly the biggest alteration; this alters the film’s entire story. The paternity issue is crammed into the opening scene, which leads to the unfaithful mum killing herself in front of her child. The killer’s grudge is now apparently against women who didn’t want their children (the mother’s suicide; Sylvia’s abortion) – but just to really crack this very thin ice, Harry tells the Snowman he had it wrong all the time, and his rage really stems from hating his absent father.
Perhaps the producers felt an uncaring father figure as catalyst was more palatable for audiences. It’s a betrayal of the book though, and muddies the film’s narrative water (the first present day victim clearly does love her child). As for the other changes, Katrine no longer being a suspect isn’t a problem; the way she’s just cast aside in the film is though. And she’s not the only character this happens to either.
No adaptation should treat its source material as a sacred text – for a terrific example of a film making all the right changes, why not check out Lucy V Hay’s Arrival comparison HERE – but they should make sense. Tomas Alfredson has stated that as much as 15 percent of the screenplay didn’t get filmed, and it shows. By the time the end credits roll, this snowman has sadly turned to slush.
To be fair, the film is not the Thanksgiving turkey many critics say it is. It looks stunning, there are some great central performances – Fassbender and Ferguson in particular are ideal casting – and the notion of a killer forewarning the police who his next victim will be would’ve made a terrific USP, if only they had developed it further. Certainly the potential for a big screen franchise is there. But whereas the book barely puts a foot wrong, even despite showing its hand too early, the film stumbles from one slip-up to another.
So it’s no surprise that Jo Nesbø’s novel is the clear winner!
BIO: Nick Jackson is the author of several recently published horror and science fiction short stories. His favourite winter sports include watching snow fall from beside a roaring pub fireplace, and hibernating until spring. He is currently planning a second novel, outlining his first feature script, and writing more short stories. He isn’t building any snowmen.