‘The Snowman’ leaves the audience out in the cold

 By Michelle Wheeler

October 21, 2017

Having been both a book lover and a movie lover for as long as I can remember, I keep a pretty good perspective on the whole “which is better” debate when a novel is adapted to a film. They are different media, and should be treated as such. But you know how fanboys freak out over every adaptation of their heroes on screen? Like, how even usually reasonable people can take to social media and message boards with a threatening “you better get this right!” tone? Well, that’s me and Harry Hole.  

Unless you are an avid reader of Scandinavian fiction, follow The New York Times’ bestseller list quite closely, or follow me personally on Twitter, you may not have heard of Harry Hole, or the author who brought him to life, Jo Nesbø. To date, there have been 11 books featuring the brilliant, but emotionally tortured detective, including The Snowman, seventh in the Harry Hole book series, but the first to be adapted into a feature film.

Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Hole is a police detective in Oslo, Norway, who has developed something of a reputation for solving difficult cases, particularly ones that involve serial killers. Harry realizes another killer is on the loose when he and his new colleague Katrine Bratt discover the link between several women who’ve recently gone missing. The investigation turns personal for both Harry and Katrine as they dig deeper, and they find themselves looking at the past for the clues that will help them solve their present case.  

Pardon me while I gush, but Harry Hole, as presented in the books, is full of contradictions. He’s a policeman who’s good enough at his job that his unconventional methods are trusted almost without question, yet he’s been issued neither a driver’s license nor a service weapon. He’s brilliant at solving complicated psychological crimes, but can’t control his alcoholic impulses. He is a stand-in father figure to his ex-girlfriend’s teenage son, but refuses to date her again because he realizes the limits of his own capacity to be a loving and supportive partner. He is self-destructive, but not selfish. Whatever things about him that would make him difficult to love as a real person make him endlessly compelling as a fictional character.

Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole courtesy of Universal Pictures.

In The Snowman adaptation, there are hints of who Harry is personally and professionally – the first time we meet him, he’s waking up on a snow-covered park bench with an empty bottle of vodka still clutched in his frozen hands; Detective Bratt mentions they studied his old cases when she was at police academy – but there’s just not enough to get a sense of who he is as a fully developed character or why we should care what he does with his job or his life. He has been stripped of the depth and nuance that make him impossible to turn away from in novelized form, and dropped into a disjointed, dysfunctional world where no one’s actions seem interesting or justified.

Michael Fassbender does what he can with the role, attempting to bring both the charm and the complexity of Harry Hole to life, but he’s not given much to work with. The dialogue and gaping plot holes leave him and the rest of the cast floundering.

For the most part, the actors trudge through, taking the material seriously, even when the film itself – and particularly the heavy-handed, melodramatic score – does not. Val Kilmer, as a detective who’d investigated similar cases in the past, gives an acutely bizarre performance that the film has to actually cut around. Speaking of the edit, there is not nearly enough coverage of several scenes to make sense of what you’re watching. Someone’s in a car, possibly surveilling someone else, but no, maybe we’re just moving on to the next scene? It’s a scenario that plays out more than once, and it’s hard to imagine that someone who has not read the book would even be able to follow the action, and that someone who has would want to when it’s presented this poorly.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Part of what makes Nesbø such a gripping writer is his ability to get inside the head of his characters. As a faithful reader, I’ve gone deep into the mind of not only Harry Hole, but most of the killers he’s faced. People are complex, and Nesbø writes them that way. His inclusion of psychology and methodology in his books lends a credibility to how Hole solves cases, but also a logic to what makes a criminal mind tick.

All of that has been tossed out in the cold in this adaptation, and the characters aren’t the only ones who suffer for it. This version robs the audience of the opportunity to get to know one of the truly great characters of modern fiction, and that is a crime that is simply unforgivable.

Star Rating: 2 out of 5

Read next: 

In this article