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The Abominable Snowman

How did a delicious Scandinavian noir novel go so spectacularly wrong on screen?

Courtesy Universal Pictures

The snowman is not tall nor majestic. He is a squat little chap made of a round head sat on a round tummy. His mouth is at a lamentable angle, drawn down on one side in an expression of sinister glee. But the most expressive of his parts are the stick arms. They thrust upward from his sides and then branch out into “hands.” Though this snowman is a serial killer’s calling card—wherever he is, a dead woman is nearby—the effect is of a cheeky gangster throwing out his forearms and saying, “Eyyy, fuhgeddaboudit.”

The Snowman is a new crime thriller from director Tomas Alfredson, which adapts Jo Nesbø’s hit novel of the same name for the screen. The book is the seventh from Nesbø about the detective Harry Hole (whose name somehow doesn’t seem so revoltingly hilarious on the page) and, like the six that came before, it’s a riveting and very complicated book. The new film boasts an extraordinary cast, with Michael Fassbender starring alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chloȅ Sevigny, J. K. Simmons, The Bridge’s Sofia Helin, Val Kilmer, and Toby Jones.

Unfortunately, every single one of these actors is crushed under the weight of their roles, which have all the subtlety of concrete. Val Kilmer is dubbed. Toby Jones gets three lines. Not even Fassbender can concoct a personality for Harry Hole out of this deeply incompetent adaptation.

The novel’s long and complex plot has been hacked down into a truncated dud. Every single good bit of the book has been cut, including the second most important plot arc—which is replaced by simply killing off a main female character. All the sex is cut, too: the flashback sex scene which opens the book has been turned into a strange masturbation tableau. 

What remains is bad. Harry Hole enters the movie by waking groggily on a park bench, hungover again. He does this waking-up-hungover act several more times throughout the film. Moving gingerly from horizontal to vertical is one of the only character traits he has. Then one day he gets a nasty surprise in the shape of a note with a snowman drawn on it. “Mister police,” it reads. “I’ve been watching mummy.” In a sharp departure from the source book, these notes contribute absolutely nothing material to the plot. Originally, the idea was that the notes specifically targeted Hole based on his own past, drawing him into the serial killer’s hideous web. As the movie stands, he just gets some postcards in the mail for no reason. Hole and his partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) chase after the killer in lackluster fashion. There’s no tension to their investigation, and nothing frightening ever happens except the moment in which a snowball hits a window when you’re not expecting it.

Alfredson is a good director who made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. His actors are great, and the film’s Norway looks very picturesque. He has given some explanation for why the film went so bafflingly wrong, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. Talking to The Norwegian Broadcast Corporation (translated at ScreenRant), he explained that he had to start shooting much too abruptly after some personnel changes took place over his head (something to do with Martin Scorsese moving to the executive producer role). “Our shoot time in Norway was way too short,” he said, and “we didn’t get the whole story with us, and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing. It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.” But how is it possible to release a movie when you’ve forgotten to shoot a huge chunk of the plot?  

If this unadulterated disaster of a movie was really destroyed by its shooting schedule, then whoever is responsible for pushing it towards release should be ashamed at what they’ve done. You cannot suture together a thriller out of the spare parts of a complicated book and expect to make your money back. You also cannot style a snowman to look like Joe Pesci and expect viewers not to laugh.

The worst thing that could come out of this movie is a downturn in Scandinavian thriller adaptations for the big screen. As I’ve written here before, television is enjoying a new wave of European crime drama. But where are the other Stieg Larsson movies? Where’s the Hollywood remake of Headhunters, the excellent 2001 adaptation of another Nesbø novel? There are so many more writers with something great to offer moviemaking. Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels would make fantastic film, as would Åke Edwardson’s. The Snowman is a sad farce, but let it teach directors a lesson: Stay in Norway for as long as it takes.