I think people fall into three categories: 1) those who read the book first, then go see the film of it; 2) People who see the film first, then go read the book on which it was based and 3) People who don’t give a damn either way. I’m one of the first category of readers and film-goers, and I have always cast scorn on those who take the easy way out – category 2. Now I have to eat my words and admit that in the case of A Man Called Ove, the best-selling novel and highly-rated film, I was wrong, on two counts. First, the film is much better than the book, which I had criticized negatively in my review, and second, if I had seen the film first I may have liked the book better. And here’s why…

The secret to why all of a sudden the story brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh, is the excellent acting of Rolf Lassgård, 62, who is known in Sweden for his roles in crime movies, and the actor who plays his younger self, Filip Berg, 30, also Swedish. They are both really, really good.

The two who play the main character, “Ove”, are like a coin with the same face on both sides. The character development, in facial expression, movement, stance, voice, eyes, is seamless from the young man to the old. Even the clothes they wear, including the bright blue suits, is carried through. (It must be noted that the film was nominated for two awards for Best Makeup and Hair, and won one. The changes to Lassgård’s and Berg’s appearances are subtle and natural.)

Screenplay vs. novel

But scriptwriter and director Hannes Holm is the genius here. He took the most irritating aspects of Backman’s novel and either left them out or de-emphasized them. Not all the detail in a book can be shown in a film, so of course it will be less of everything. But Holm was smart in his selection.

  1. Characterization: In the book, the character of Ove is formulaic and stereotypical to the point of being ridiculous. The same expressions and images are repeated over and over and the same things happen again and again in each chapter. In the film, however, only Ove’s suicide attempts and his conversations at his wife’s grave are repeated. Also, Lassgård depicts the character as more varied and rounded – Ove does smile, he does not only have one emotion, and Lassgård makes him even more human when Ove answers the door in his underwear. Not a pretty sight, but actually funny.
  2. Plot: Backman tries to insert some suspense in the storyline by writing about Ove’s dead wife in the present tense up to p.31 in the novel. In the film, we see right away that she is dead, no messing about. Also, the incident of the wallet theft involving ‘Tom”, the mean co-worker of Ove’s dad, is played down. The death of Ove’s dad, by being run over by a locomotive, is emphasized and boy, that wakes you up! Visually, it’s stunning. One second he is on the rails, the next second he disappears in a blur under a loco, with the loco’s whistle and screech merging with Ove’s scream.
  3. Conflict resolution: In the novel, the characters are overly sweet and the conflict resolution just too good to be true. In the film, some of these tidy resolutions are left out: no mention is made of the kid from the immigrant family carrying on Ove’s love of building houses; of the lonely tech guy next door getting himself a husband; or said husband reuniting with his anti-gay father, or of the convenient bonding over engines of Ove and his father-in-law. Ove’s help with sorting out the situation of his neighbour and friend, “Rune”, is retained, and Börje Lundberg, as Rune, is excellent at showing emotion despite the character being paralyzed and non-responsive.It’s remarkable what one blink of an eye can convey.
  4. Themes: The theme of finding family, with the neighbour, “Parvaneh”, played by Bahar Pars, and her family, adopting Ove as a grandfather, is retained in the film. So is the theme of social injustice, Swedish style, and the mean social worker who gets his comeuppance. Of the retained themes, I could say that the depiction of the “white shirts”, or bureaucrats, in the film, came the closest to being almost cartoonish and not sombre enough for my taste.
  5. Conclusion: “Sonja”, Ove’s saintly wife in the novel, is played by Ida Engvoll, and she did as good a job as she could with a saccharine character. Engvoll has a very charming smile though, which helped. The only thing that I thought plainly pandered to the film audience’s love of sentiment, was when Sonja and Ove reconnect after death. Nice, but unnecessary.

Holm’s treatment turned the rather irritating book into a surprisingly enjoyable film. What he did is an example of less being more. Careful pruning did the trick, and the rest was left to the audience’s imagination, thereby becoming more accessible. 

I explained in a previous essay that readers feel connected to fictional characters that are well-depicted. A “well-rounded” character, that is depicted as behaving in a congruent fashion, and exhibits behaviours that we recognize (in other words, that are realistic), can easily become real or almost real in a reader’s mind. Film depictions, and good acting, can make this happen. It implies that, if we do not recognize the character’s behaviour and they are either non-congruent, or non-familiar, as in the case of the “Ove” character in the book, who is eccentric and bad-tempered to the point of being abnormal, we would not promote the character to someone real in our minds. As a result, we would like the character less.

It also proves that, with novels, and with screen adaptations, the devil is in the detail.