How Swedish Bestseller ‘A Man Called Ove’ Became A Heartwarming Hit

When Swedish filmmaker Hannes Holm was first given the chance to make a movie of one of the most popular novels in his country’s modern history, he turned it down.

“I said thanks but no thanks,” the film director said, on a recent stop in Minneapolis. “Because I’m a normal, intelligent being and I know how hard it is to put bestsellers on the screen.”

But since he was given a copy of the popular book, Fredrick Backman’s “A Man Called Ove,” he opened it up and read the novel in a single night. By morning, the filmmaker found his cheeks wet with tears.

“I was crying in my bed, and my pillow was wet,” Holm said. “So I called [the producer] and I said, ‘I think I want to do this film.'”

The result of Holm’s page-to-screen adaptation is a dark comedy with themes of loss, love and tolerance. The filmmaker says he made the movie on a $350,000 budget, adding that the production company “didn’t really believe in it.”

To say the film exceeded expectations is an understatement, as it went on to make $20 million at the Swedish box office alone and become one of the most popular local features in the country’s history.

“‘A Man Called Ove,’ is such a classical story, told over and over again,” the filmmaker said. “That’s why I wasn’t so interested when I got the offer. But then I realized that, for me, it’s important as a storyteller to tell this same story again because the society is changing.”

A Grumpy Old Man

The now-classic story revolves around an old curmudgeon named Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a man obsessed with neighborhood order, the superiority of Saab over Volvo, and the idea that his country has gone to the dogs.

Ove’s current goal in life is to kill himself – to join his late wife, Sonja, in the afterlife. Cleverly, the film is constructed around Ove’s numerous suicide attempts, which often become portals to Ove’s memories.

When he tries to hang himself in his living room, for instance, we see how his parents died. Then, when the curmudgeon attempts to end it by filling his garage with car exhaust, we see why he fell in love with his wife and, later, how the couple lost their only child to an accident during pregnancy.

Ove’s attempts to off himself are comically interrupted, almost always by his new neighbor, a Persian woman, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars). The sour old man can’t help but see why this immigrant lady is banging on his door or offering him homemade food. Although he’s often annoyed by Parvaneh and her clumsy Swedish husband, Ove nevertheless is attracted to her boldness and willingness to ask for help. It’s a quality that’ll eventually rub off on the stubborn do-it-yourselfer.

The softening of Ove’s heart happens slowly over the two-hour film, in part due to Parvaneh, and because he realizes how other people – school kids, neighbors – saw his beloved wife, whose memory he guards with fierce, if not fanatical, devotion. To Holm, Ove’s death wish stems from his “loving too much.”

“He’s like overused the drug love,” the filmmaker said. “Love is fantastic, but in Ove’s case, it’s bad for him.”

The old man’s memories of his wife are, indeed, hyper-sentimental. Sonja (Ida Engvoll) appears more angel than human. What the film does well is turn those achingly romantic flashbacks into motivation for Ove’s transformation from depressed ogre to community grandpa.

One such humanizing moment involves the old Swede taking in a young man who recently came out to the rage of his strict, Muslim father. Another has the Nordic giant adopting the neighborhood stray cat – a detail that book lovers demanded be in the film.

“The production company didn’t want to have the cat…you know, animals are expensive on set,” Holm said. “But I said we must have the cat. Otherwise, we will be hanged!”

‘I’m Never Going To Do The Book’

The director claims he read “A Man Called Ove” dozens times before he wrote the script, the responsibly of which the novel’s author had bestowed solely to him.

“I read the book like 100 times, but then I burned it or I gave it to my mother,” Holm said. “I didn’t want to see it again.”

It took the filmmaker just two months to write the screenplay. He says he was terrified to send his draft to the novelist, whom Holm described as “a bit grumpy.”

The email response from the writer was indeed terse, a single word: “Yes.” The novelist would give the same response after seeing an early edit of the film.

“I reflected on why so many popular books are such failures on the screen,” Holm said. “I realized that maybe it is like my colleagues, or some colleagues, take the book too far into production. Maybe the book is sometimes like the Bible, they make it more important than it really is.”

While Holm said he was open to the concerns of book fans early on, he focused the production on a more personal interpretation of the novel.

“If you read a good book, you tell that to your girl or your friend, and when you tell the story, in that moment, it’s not the book’s story, it’s [your] version of the story,” Holm said. “When I realized that, I was like, I’m never going to do the book, I’m going to do my version of the story.”

Holm’s version of A Man Called Ove is playing at the Uptown Theatre.

More from Jonathon Sharp

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