With the way Hollywood churns through material these days, we thought it was worth taking a look at the various sources they’re pulling from and discussing what they might make from these books, games, TV shows, or whatever else they use. For today’s column, we look at Jo Nesbo’s ‘The Snowman,’ a crime novel set to be adapted by Martin Scorsese.
The seventh installment in the Harry Hole series, “The Snowman” is a Norwegian crime thriller about a serial killer and the cop who is determined to stop him. And, yes, it really is that simple.
Harry Hole is a deeply flawed man, an alcoholic who barely manages to keep his appetites under control, but his brilliance is what continually saves him from being fired. One of the few Norwegian officers to ever go to America for training by the FBI, he is also one of the only Norwegian officers to ever assist in the capture of a serial killer.
Having never read any other entries in the series, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything starting with “The Snowman,” and author Jo Nesbo is careful to build all the backstory you might need into the novel. The book deals with a serial killer who murders only married mothers, and who leaves a snowman at the scene of each crime. There are clues hidden inside the actual snowmen, and Hole is the one who first connects the crimes and makes sense of the seemingly random nature of the crimes.
The case is contrasted with Hole’s personal life, where he’s dealing with the loss of his long-time girlfriend Rakel. They continue to meet occasionally, despite the fact that she’s about to move in with her new boyfriend Mathias. As Harry grapples with his own guilt and his dependency on alcohol, he also works to break in his new partner, Katrine Bratt, a new transfer from another part of Norway. She’s eager to study under Harry, until she ends up as a suspect herself.
Eventually, Harry realizes what the true pattern lying beneath all of these crimes is, and it ends up landing much closer to home than he would have suspected, with a tense and bruising finale that pushes Hole to the breaking point.
It’s good stuff. Obviously, I read a translation, but Nesbo seems like a smart writer with a strong feel for the genre. Hole is an archetype writ large, the brilliant detective who can’t manage his own personal life or his own habits. He relapses with his drinking at times, he steamrolls right over people in his investigations and in his department, and he is wrong as often as he is right. Good lead character for a detective series, and it all becomes a matter of how good a villain you put against him in a story.
In this case, the Snowman (as he’s dubbed by the media) is a great monster, and the way it’s gradually laid out what he’s doing and why is both creepy and methodical. He’s no random monster, either, focused instead on women for a very specific reason. The murders in the book are upsetting because of how personal they are, but it’s not a lurid or graphic book. There’s something great about the snow-bound setting of the book that Fincher took full advantage of when he was adapting “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and Nesbo writes about a landscape that is icy both literally and emotionally.
It’s a fairly contained story, and there are some structural choices that seem odd at the start of the book, tipping things earlier than they need to be. Once it gets rolling, though, it is a lean thriller that builds to a fairly inevitable conclusion. If you’ve ever seen a mystery before, you will be able to sort this one out before Nesbo finally makes his big reveals. However, that’s not a fatal criticism. It’s more a hallmark of the genre, and Nesbo knows exactly what his readers expect.
POTENTIAL AND PITFALLS
Scorsese came onboard after Working Title spent a good chunk of time trying to get the author to sign off on a filmmaker. He’s got final filmmaker approval, and if you’re trying to get an author to sign off on a director, my guess is you can’t drop much better bait than Martin Scorsese’s name.
That said, if Scorsese is going to make this movie, he’s going to need to elevate the material, and hiring Matthew Carnahan as the screenwriter is a good step in that direction. Carnahan’s got a good sense of how to find the human heart of pulpy crime material, and he can turn Hole into a movie star role that isn’t cliche. He’s going to have to, because as it stands right now, I can’t imagine this as a Scorsese film. When you look at “The Departed,” it’s obvious that he saw something in the material that spoke to greater themes of loyalty and honor, themes he’s been exploring throughout his career.
In this piece, there are some big ideas at play, and I would assume Carnahan and Scorsese are going to dig into the killer’s ideas about parenting and family and what that means. As in any good detective story, the A and B stories do thematically play off of each other, and there’s enough here to serve as the launching pad for a strong visual movie with a tense, simple storyline. For a lot of directors, it’s fine already, but from Scorsese, we tend to expect something more. Still, he’s demonstrated his own appetite for unadorned pulp with movies like “Cape Fear” and “Shutter Island,” and this may just be a case of him having a visual plan for something that he won’t overburden with thematic heft.
It’s really going to come down to casting, and there are some great roles here. I’m curious to see if the film is still set in Norway, and if so, how Scorsese handles that. I’m still not sure I feel like the American version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” figured out how to handle the setting and the language in any satisfying way, and there is little doubt that this became a hot property because someone saw it as a way of tapping into that same market. There’s no Lisbeth Salander here, no breakout character who makes this feel like something radically different, but it could easily be a strong serial killer thriller, and played right, those can be strong audience movies. Is this the sort of thing that Scorsese does at his very best? Nope. But it’s certainly commercial.
There have been a lot of movies like this, and handled wrong, this is an Ashley Judd film on TNT that you watch ten minutes of before you change the channel. Harry Hole (an unfortunate name, to say the least) could be a thin character if written incorrectly, and I think there are way more versions of this that would be wrong than right.
By the nature of the story, the identity of the Snowman is a mystery until late in the book, but “he” appears in scenes from the very beginning. Shooting those, you’re either going to have to decide to give up the identity early, or you’re going to have to work around it, and that means far less satisfying dramatic sequences.
Also, if the studio is franchise-minded, and they want to hold out chances for the other books in the series, they’ll have to make some decisions about how to handle that because Harry’s personal life, such a big part of this story, is at a very particular place here. He’s already pretty far down the road, worn out by some of the other cases in the series, and if you start with a guy who is this burned out, you don’t have many places to go.
Carnahan and Scorsese are smart guys, and Working Title doesn’t have a bad track record either. I’m curious to see if they ever pull the trigger and actually make the film, or if this is going to end up as one of those development deals that never bears fruit. Either way, you can’t really ask for better talent working to adapt a piece of material, so it’s in good hands, whatever ends up happening.
“Source Material” appears here on Tuesdays.