”Take these pages that are written and use them as a helpful input for a story that you want to tell.”
“The Snowman,” the seventh book in Jo Nesbø’s best-selling Harry Hole series, has enthralled global audiences since it was first published in 2007 and now makes it debut on the Big Screen under direction of Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), from a screenplay adaptation by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Debt) and Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove, Drive) and Søren Sveistrup (Forbrydelsen, TV’s The Killing).
The frigid landscape as his hunting ground, a sociopath who calls himself “The Snowman Killer” has targeted the one person for whom he wants to show off his methodical, unthinkable skills: the lead investigator of an elite crime squad. With cunningly simplistic baits such as “Mr. Policeman, I gave you all the clues…” he begs to have a worthy opponent to play his sick game.
For Detective Harry Hole ( Michael Fassbender), the murder of a young woman on the first snow of the winter feels like anything but a routine homicide case in his district. From the start of the investigation, The Snowman has personally targeted him with taunts—ones that continue to accompany each new vicious murder.
Fearing an elusive serial killer long-thought dead may be active again, the detective enlists brilliant recruit Katrine Bratt (Rebeccas Ferguson), to help him connect decades-old cold cases to the brutal new ones. Succeed, and they will lure out the psychopath that’s been watching them from the shadows for who knows how long. Fail, and an unthinkable evil will strike once again during the very next snowfall.
The novel took the beleaguered detective and his creator to an entirely new level and readership, and it topped The New York Times Best-Seller list in U.S.—as well as marked Nesbø’s first No.1 in the U.K. charts and firmly establishing his place as one of the elite international crime writers. Of course, Norwegians had known this for some time…it just took the rest of the world a few years to catch up.
“In some countries it was a breakthrough novel for me,” explains Nesbø, who has sold a staggering 34 million-plus books worldwide. “With my third novel, ‘The Redbreast,’ I got a following of a high-brow crime audience, but then with ‘The Snowman,’ I had mainstream success.”
Novelist Jo Nesbø is a musician, songwriter, economist and author. His first crime novel featuring Harry Hole was published in Norway in 1997 and was an instant hit, winning the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel (an accolade shared with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell). He is the author of 10 Harry Hole novels, most recently 2017’s “The Thirst,” stand-alone novels “Headhunters” and “The Son” and several children’s books. His books have been translated into 47 languages. In 2008, he established the Harry Hole Foundation, a charity to reduce illiteracy among children in the developing world. He lives in Oslo.
For the majority of U.K. and U.S. readers, this was their first introduction to the cop, and they believed Nesbø to be an overnight success. “The truth is that I had been in those countries and published for around 10 years,” he laughs. “It was a bit like when Tom Waits had success with ‘Swordfish Trombone,’ a journalist asked him, ‘What did you do to finally find success?’ He said, ‘I didn’t do anything differently. I’ve been here for 15 years. It’s not me coming to you, it’s you coming to me.’”
Indeed, the world of Det. Hole is wholly iconic in Scandinavia, and his creator cultural royalty. Today, fans from across the globe visit Norway to re-create the fictional path Hole has trodden on the icy streets of Oslo, paying homage to his favorite haunts—such as the iconic Schroder’s Café—as they try to get inside the mind of this most elusive of investigators.
Hole is to Oslo what Sherlock Holmes is to London, and likewise has spawned a mini industry; one can even book a Harry Hole tour. “Harry’s become an institution in this world,” observes producer Robyn Slovo. “He is undeniably an iconic character who is a laconic, difficult and introverted non-team player, but an intrepid and gifted policeman. Still, he is reluctant to be pulled into this particular investigation instigated by somebody else,”
With “The Snowman’s” book-to-screen adaptation comes the exciting proposition that Europe could have its own cinematic detective series. In fact, not since Holmes has the continent owned this genre. In comparison to the States, detectives hunting serial killers is not a well-trodden narrative for European cinema; TV perhaps, but not the big screen.
Peter Straughan is a BAFTA winner and Academy Award®-nominated screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He became a sought-after screenwriter when he adapted Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats for BBC Films. His other screenplay credits include The Debt, adapted from the Israeli film Ha-Hov.
Straughan recently reteamed with Jon Ronson on Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, which starred Michael Fassbender as a mysterious and eccentric musician. Straughan adapted the Hilary Mantel novel Wolf Hall as a dramatic television series for Company Pictures and BBC Television, along with political satire Our Brand Is Crisis. Straughan’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch is just about to go into production, directed by John Crowley. Other upcoming projects include Shackleton, which is set up at StudioCanal. Tom Hardy will star as Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer who pioneered multiple expeditions to the Antarctic, and Smiley’s People from John le Carré’s novel for StudioCanal Films and Working Title Films.
Iranian-born screenwriter Hossein Amini (Screenplay By) was nominated for a BAFTA Award and an Oscar® in 1998 for his adaptation of Henry James’ classic novel Wings of a Dove. Amini also wrote the screenplay for the 1996 release Jude. Other credits include the 2002 release The Four Feathers, and Drive.
Most recently, Amini co-wrote Universal Pictures’ Snow White and the Huntsman and for his directorial debut he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, which starred Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.
What is it about the investigator that enthralls readers all across the world?
Like so many of his literary associates, he is a wholly flawed man who struggles with a personal life littered with ragged cracks and dark crevices. An alcoholic who is unreliable and disorganized, he has an innate inability to commit. Still, for all his personal failings, he is the consummate detective: scrupulous, determined and creative—a man who will stop at nothing until justice has been served. He is the genuine antihero, an impossible character, but impossible not to like.
“This is a man of many contradictions,” reveals Nesbø. “He believes in the legal system, he believes in the Scandinavian democratic model; yet, he’s an outsider who doesn’t feel at home in Scandinavian society. He cares for those who are close to him, but he doesn’t want anyone to be close to him. He’s struggling between being a man who loves women—and one woman in particular—but who is trying to find a way to live his life alone. He doesn’t want to be a member of the herd, and yet he has this deep social reflex that many of us have; we feel this urge to contribute to this herd.”
Harry Hole is brilliant-yet-flawed, rebellious-yet-loyal and anti-establishment, yet highly regarded by his fictional associates and real-world fans. In turn, this created significant obstacles for anyone embarking on a big-screen adaptation.
“The challenge in adapting Harry to screen, aside from preserving those characteristics that make him so unique, was to avoid falling into a clichéd representation of a flawed policeman solving a crime,” explains Slovo. “We’ve tried to make Harry unpredictable, original in his thinking, not terribly socialized, not exactly charismatic. He’s definitely what might be described as difficult, and that is what’s been challenging in bringing him to life. He’s not 100-percent action hero. He’s a thinking man’s detective who is put in very dangerous and difficult situations.”
A story about a serial killer is not what would be considered usual fare for four producers whose accomplished work runs the gamut from Catch a Fire and Les Misérables to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Love Actually, but their allure to the material lay very much in the proposition of director Tomas Alfredson.
For Fassbender, there was never any question about wanting to portray Harry. He had long hoped to shoot with Alfredson, but the opportunity had not arisen. The challenge was timing. Since 2009, he has been filming back to back, and The Snowman had to be squeezed into two other major productions—Assassin’s Creed and Alien: Covenant—with no room for scheduling error.
Fassbender was determined to make it work for the opportunity to work. “The first thing that enticed me about the project was Tomas,” says the performer. “Then I read the script and thought it was interesting. I liked the character and this genre.”
The role presented Fassbender with his first detective. “At the time of the script arriving at my door I didn’t know anything about him,” admits Fassbender. “It was a totally new world for me. Then I started to expose myself to the books and the world that Harry occupies, and I’ve become very fond of the character.”
That said, ahead of playing Harry, Fassbender was wary of reading the books. “The script is independent of the book, and I didn’t want to get attached to things that were in the book but not in the script. I did, however, read the beginning, to get an idea of where this character started, what Jo’s version of him was. I just wanted to see where those raw characteristic traits were—the description of him and his physicality.
“It’s difficult to improve on someone’s experience of reading the book when you are making the film,” Fassbender continues. “As a reader you are filling in a lot of the blanks. The descriptions of the murders can be a lot more horrific and haunting because our imaginations are much more vivid, scary and twisted than what you see in cinema.”
Alfredson discusses that his approach to filmmaking is to guide the audience through his work, but never decide what each individual should experience.
Tomas Alfredson came to prominence on the world stage when he directed the much-loved feature Let the Right One In (2008). Now a cult favorite, the film screened at over 30 international film festivals and won several dozen awards worldwide. Following the success of Let the Right One In, Alfredson began work on his first international production, the adaptation of John le Carré’s beloved novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
“My films are each a piece of entertainment, but they cannot just be that. I need them to be something else, too—to tell something about people or society, or a part of the world you haven’t seen before. My goal is for people to react physically—to get scared, laugh or to sweat. The more different the reactions, the better. It’s lovely to meet with people from an audience and hear very different things. That’s when you’ve succeeded.”
This commitment to his craft leads the filmmaker to be quite selective in the stories he chooses to tell. Alfredson admits he found Nesbø’s protagonist to be riveting. “When I read a story, I try to find an animal for each character. Is he or she a rabbit, wolf, dog or a cat? Not visually, but the soul of a certain animal. To me, Harry is an owl; he is someone people don’t see, but who sees everyone else. He’s very smart and silent; he knows when to speak and when to interact. But he also feels alienated with the rest of the world. His private life has fallen into pieces, and the only thing that works is his intuitive talent as an investigator.”
Slovo commends: “Tomas offers a particular interpretation on things, which means we could take a best-selling genre thriller and turn it into something unexpected. Because it’s set in Scandinavia and Tomas is Scandinavian, the excitement was involved in his original take, not going the Scandi-Noir route. We’d rather a route with a director who has proven himself to be good at noir, tension and at surprise. He has also proven to himself to be particularly good at horror. All those elements made it feel like a good fit.”
“The Snowman does have that other element that previous books don’t have, and that is the horror element,” adds Nesbø. “The title ‘The Snowman’ conveys a certain image, as does the idea of an innocent thing that is taken out of context and put in a new context; the more cozy and familiar it is, the scarier it becomes.”
Discussing handing over the reins of a cherished property to another creative team, the author reflects: “They chose a director who is a storyteller in his own right and who isn’t there just to give a version of the book, but who wanted to use the book as input for his story. As a storyteller myself, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Tomas’ understanding and my trusting him made it easy for me to say ‘Take these pages that are written and use them as a helpful input for a story that you want to tell.”
Alongside Slovo and Working Title’s Bevan and Fellner, The Snowman team was joined by producer Piodor Gustafsson, who has worked with Alfredson for the past six years.
What Gustafsson so appreciated about the character of Harry was his deep sensitivity.
The producer explains: “Being very vulnerable makes Harry much more interesting than a hard-boiled detective. As empathetic people, we see ourselves in him. After solving a case, he’s been so infected by it that he can’t protect himself from the evil he’s had to approach. He’s such a reluctant detective and doesn’t want to continue the work. But he’s the best, and until someone who’s better than him comes along, he must continue.”