December Book a Month: A Man Called Ove

As part of Bas Bleu’s 2017 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

We know December is a busy month for many, as preparations for and celebrations of the holiday season take a serious toll on your downtime. But we think you’ll appreciate the extra assignment that comes with our December Book a Month selection! After you’ve read Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove, watch the Academy Award–nominated Swedish film of the same name. (Yes, it has subtitles, but they’re easy to get used to.) Then, take a look at editor KG’s reflections on the book versus the film. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

Like most other readers who experienced Fredrik Backman’s poignant novel about a grief-stricken curmudgeon getting a late-in-life chance at family and friendship, I laughed as often as I cried while reading A Man Called Ove. It was heartwarming in the best sense of the word, handily earning its international bestseller status. So when an American friend living in Sweden told me the novel had been adapted into a movie—one which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards—I waited anxiously for its stateside release.

Is the movie version of A Man Called Ove better than the book? Of course not! Like any faithful bluestocking, I wager that’s impossible. But the film and its cast did hew faithfully to the source material. Rolf Lassgård offered a nuanced portrayal of the crotchety title character, Bahar Pars’s delightfully irreverent Parvenah made me laugh out loud, and Ida Engvall’s luminous Sonja paired beautifully with Filip Berg’s stoically awkward young Ove. Visually, the film matched my reader’s vision of Ove’s world: leaden Swedish skies, his compact little neighborhood, even the parade of Ove’s beloved Saabs.

 

But as with any literary film adaptation, there are omissions. There must be; books that take us days or weeks to read must be compressed by filmmakers into two brief hours. I didn’t mind that Ove’s attempts on his life were fewer (one would have been enough for me) or that he warmed more quickly to the cat on-screen than on the page. But where I felt the omissions most acutely were in Ove’s tertiary relationships, with Parvenah’s daughters and with Jimmy, Anders, and Mirsad. Although Parvenah ultimately comes to serve as Ove’s daughter figure, in their earlier interactions she’s largely a peer, her vulnerability limited to a temporary physical state—pregnancy—instead of an emotional one. Ove and Parvenah become friends, but in his relationships with the children and the young men, we see the father and grandfather Ove might have been. Over the course of the novel, we watch Ove gradually give in to the instinctual tenderness only Sonja knew.

Amidst the happy chaos of Parvenah’s household, her quietly studious eldest daughter finds a kindred spirit in Ove, an engineer and craftsman who sees himself in the brainy young girl. Her little sister is immune to his temper and thinly veiled insults, treating him with the same fascination and glee as everyone else in her narrow child’s world. As for the young men of the neighborhood, Ove builds the family with them he so desperately lacked in his own youth, after the death of his father. He becomes the mentor and protector he didn’t have for men who have been failed by the “real” fathers in their own lives. For me, the portrayal of these relationships in the novel gave Ove a depth of character and tenderness of heart that the (admittedly estimable) film portrayal lacked the time to explore.

Recently, it was announced that Tom Hanks will be playing Ove in an American adaptation of Backman’s novel. I must confess, I’m disappointed. Not in Hanks; he’s a talented actor with a broader range than folks give him credit for. But I’m wary of an “Americanized” Ove. I fear he will lose the subtleties that the Swedish cast and filmmakers were so culturally well-equipped to portray. I am curious to see how the U.S. version tackles Ove’s professional identity, something Americans are particularly prone to grapple with.

Whichever silver-screen version you see, bluestockings, remember: It’s always better to read the book first!

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