Headhunters offers an interesting case study in how to adapt a crime fiction novel into a mainstream thriller. Jo Nesbø is beginning to get the kind of coverage that Stieg Larsson received in the UK, although Headhunters is a one-off narrative not related to Nesbø ‘s bestselling Harry Hole series. It has been adapted by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, the latter having previously worked on the third film of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest). Gudmestad is reunited on Headhunters with director Morten Tyldum and star Aksel Hennie after their 2003 success Buddy.
The novel of Headhunters is quite short (certainly by Nesbø ‘s standards) but even so the adaptation leaves out significant sequences – mostly of ‘talk’ – in order to create a 98 minute comedy thriller. The effect is rather like that of the adaptations of the Millennium trilogy, producing a perfectly serviceable film narrative but losing some of the interesting nuances of the novel.
Unlike the Millennium trilogy, Headhunters as far as I can see is not available with a dubbed option in UK cinemas. part of me thinks this is good – and another part wonders whether it will restrict the audience. Even though most of the films I watch are subtitled, I sometimes struggle at the start of films to deal with the first few titles. One thing I’ve noticed is that voiceovers are particularly problematic as the character tends to be doing something else as they speak – so you really do have to look at two different things at once. It isn’t easy. The UK Film Council did some limited audience research on the reception of the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – which was screened in both subtitled and dubbed versions. They found that audiences preferred to have the choice, but of the two, the audience for the subtitles were happier with their choice than the audience with the dubbing. The jury is still out but dubbing doesn’t look like coming back just yet.
The plot of Headhunters sees Roger Brown (not as unlikely a Norwegian name as you might think, but not really explained in the film) played by Aksel Hennie as the ‘headhunter’, a prized employee of a recruitment agency. Unfortunately, Roger has very expensive tastes largely related to his wife Diana, a much taller blonde who runs an art gallery. In order to fund his impossible lifestyle, Roger has devised a system for using his interviews with clients to discover artworks that he then steals. Always a precarious construction, Roger’s world comes crashing down when he meets Clas Greves, a business executive with an ‘unknown’ Rubens worth 100 million kroner. Before he knows what has happened, Roger is turned from hunter into hunted – and Clas is an expert hunter. How will Roger turn the tables?
Headhunters is in some ways a ‘romp’ which is often very funny, at other times very gory and in one sequence extremely gross. It succeeds I think because of tight scripting and direction and a star turn by Aksel Hennie who, from what I’ve read, tends to divide Norwegian audiences. He works for me. One of Nesbø ‘s strengths is the scenarios he devises. He’s a very inventive writer and he gets the details right – of course, some of the details don’t make it into the film. I’ve seen comments that equate the film’s tone with the work of the Coen Brothers. I can see this and Fargo is an obvious connection, with its Scandinavian-American flavour (and Aksel Hennie sometimes has the look of Steve Buscemi). Nesbø is very interested in American popular culture, including crime films and crime fiction as well as rock music – but he’s also very rooted in Norwegian culture.
Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a middle ranking Hollywood actor who is currently in the cult TV series Game of Thrones. The actor is Danish which means that Clas’ nationality has to change (he’s Dutch in the book) and then several other plot points have to change as well. I wasn’t convinced by this casting decision as I’d pictured Clas as older but harder and more authoritative. Coster-Waldau strikes me as too smooth and good-looking in a conventional way – but I’m guessing that the producers thought that he would help sell the film. It took over $2 million in Denmark, so perhaps they were right? Harry Hole fans should know that the book has some of the elements familiar from the Harry Hole series – in particular, both Roger and Clas are familiar with FBI interrogation techniques and Roger will learn eventually about the attraction of fatherhood (surrogate fatherhood in Harry’s case). Headhunters also features a TV appearance by a preening Kripos (serious crimes squad) investigator – I can just imagine what Harry would make of that.
So, Headhunters is a diverting entertainment – but Nesbø fans will be awaiting whatever Martin Scorsese does with The Leopard with even more eagerness.