Sunday 12 November 2017

The Snow Man by Straughan, Nesbø et al

I've heard a number of interviews with Jo Nesbø and he's a smart, funny guy and clearly very talented. Having had one successful career as a rock musician, he commenced another one as a massively bestselling novelist.

But (and you knew there was a but coming...) I read his novel The Snowman and felt I'd wasted my time. The book features Harry Hole, a cliché embittered alcoholic cop with a trail of broken relationships, and pits him against a cliché sub-Thomas Harris serial killer.

I remember thinking that if I was going to read police procedurals I would have been a lot better off working my way through the writing of George Simenon, who is a genuine artist.

But poor novels often make excellent movies. And when I learned that The Snowman was to be directed by Tomas Alfredson, I had high hopes. Alfredson made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of my favourite films of all time.

And he is an extraordinary film maker, attacking every scene with the intention of deepening its emotional impact and its meaning and elevating it to art. Alfredson clearly cares profoundly about creating real characters and a unique atmosphere to his films, instilling every shot with poetry.

But here his talent is utterly wasted. The movie looks great, with ravishing photography by Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow), superbly effective music by Marco Beltrami and a fresh and interesting cast led by Michael Fassbender, looking great but smoking rather too much as Harry Hole.

But the problem is the script. The team of writers here is impressive, too. It's led by Peter Straughan who worked on Tinker, Tailor and recently adapted Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall for BBC Television. Also involved was Hossein Amini who recently did a fine job on Our Kind of Traitor (another John le Carré adaptation), and Søren Sveistrup, who created the Nordic noir classic TV serial The Killing.

So, a talented team. And they have radically altered the original novel, in much the same way that Scott Frank altered Lawrence Block's Walk Among the Tombstones — and with equally little success.

The story is now often quite different from the book.  It's bloody complicated, but it still doesn't work. And there are some ridiculous failings in the script. For a start, Harry is ineffectual and unlikable.

And we're supposed to be emotionally invested in — wait for it — Harry's ex-girlfriend's teenage son. Seriously.

The movie puts this kid into peril and expects us to be on the edge of our seats. But there's worse to come...

At the very end of the film the bad guy is dealt with in a deus ex machina fashion — he falls through thin ice into a freezing lake, while our hero looks helplessly on.

Come on chaps — this violates one of the cardinal commandments of screenwriting: "Thou shalt not take the resolution out of the hands of your hero."

Before that there's a final fight between Harry and the bad guy, the latter wielding a kind of electronic garrotte device which has to be the least useful and least frightening weapon ever devised for close quarters combat.  

And here Alfredson has to take some of the blame, too, because this fight is so confusingly shot that we have no idea that Harry gets his finger chopped off, presumably by the silly garrotte machine.

This is only made clear in a coda in which, ridiculously, Harry is seen tapping a coffee cup with his new metal finger as he volunteers for a new case against another harrowing psycho killer.

But don't worry. That sequel won't be coming your way any time soon.

(Image credits: not exactly a blizzard of posters, courtesy of Imp Awards.)


  1. I read a few of the Harry Hole novels but never found them anything other than disposable. In the end, I realised (perhaps too late) that I was wasting my time too. In my defence I was looking for something to fill that Henning Mankell/Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo gap in my life, having read all of their thoroughly enjoyable Wallander/Martin Beck novels respectively.

    I was surprised to see a film had been made of The Snowman, because it seems to have caught the bus a little too late. I was intrigued too, until I saw the reviews universally panning it.

    One thing I do not get is why, when we go for an English speaking adaptation of these Nordic Noirs, do we always mess up the pronounciation of the title character's name? Kenneth Branagh did it with Wallander, opting for it to be said as Wollunder, as opposed to Valandar. And now, Hole is pronounced as Hole in the ground, as opposed to the more Nordic Hula.

  2. Good to hear from you — and how right you are about the Harry Hole novels! "Disposable" is exactly the right word!

    I've heard a lot of good things about Sjowall & Wahloo's books (and also heard some radio adaptations) so I must check them out.

    I read one novel by Henning Mankell and it didn't grab me, but it was set in Africa (The Leopard?) so it probably isn't representative.

    I too, was looking to fill a gap when I read Jo Nesbo's book — in my case, a gap left by Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

    As it happens, I am just writing a post on the David Fincher film of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I think that might be one English speaking adaptation of a Nordic Noir which gets the pronunciation of names right! Do check it out if you haven't seen it already.

    The post should appear in a few weeks.

    Thank you for reading!