No two ways about it, the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Easy Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.
It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?
By this measure Swedish critics easily dismissed The Girl Who Played with Fire, as well as the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and their origin as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, yet there are still critics who seem proud to champion the film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.
The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.
The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.
Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: Insp. Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.
The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.
Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: Mannen På Taket (The Man on the Roof). Crudely pitched as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, ending in a dramatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. Another comedian assumes the role of Beck, and the older Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt underplays an already understated character brilliantly. As the frustrations of the inquiry slowly starts to unravel in Beck’s hands, the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.
At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Branagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection‘s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.
By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. The Swedish DVD release of The Man on the Roof idiotically doesn’t list that it has English subtitles, even when it does have them. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in the wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.
Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Easy Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary, yet but my measure cringingly leaden original novel. At it’s heart the source material follows an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, desperately trying to maintain the façade of day to day life.
The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the voice of two ethnic minorities, the whole thing rang thoroughly hollow to me. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension of it’s ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials. In the adaptation to the big screen a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.
Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from anglophone market until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but it just goes to show that Swedish rights holders are still oblivious to the value of what they have in their hands.
* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]