Looking back to the past few years of Norwegian cinema, the film industry has clearly been affected by the Hollywood system of ‘the more money you spend, the more money you make’. In that sense, Norwegian cinema is increasingly becoming more Americanised, definitely more so than the other Nordic countries. It all started with the most selling film in Norwegian cinemas, Max Manus: Man of War (2008) and continues with Kon-Tiki (2012) and lately The Wave (2015), which had releases in almost every country in the world.
The latest blockbuster from Norway is The Lion Woman, a textbook Hollywood 101 telling of the life of Eva Arctander, a girl born with hair all over her body.
The story is simple enough: Set in the 1910’s in remote Norway, young Eva is born into the world with the birth killing her mother. The little girl is covered by yellow fine hairs all over her body, including her face. Her father, Gustav (Rolf Lassgård), the station master, does not know how to be a father to a child so different. Gustav is ashamed of her, locking her inside their apartment and letting Hanna, the nanny, take care of her upbringing. Hanna comes to love Eva and fights for her right to be treated like everyone else. As a teenager Eva runs away to join the circus, and eventually ends up at university in France as a mathematical genius.
The Lion Woman is based on a Norwegian novel by Erik Fosnes Hansen. The novel was very popular when it was released in Norway, and ended up winning the Literature Prize in 2006. The novel opens with Eva in the circus and then, through a series of flashbacks, Eva talks about all the hurdles she had to overcome as a child to end up where she is today. The book shows Eva as tough, sarcastic, sometimes mean, but mostly ambitious and driven to prove that she’s not just a ‘lion woman’, she’s an intelligent and very real woman. The book proves the point that we need to look past appearances to someone’s character.
When it came to adapting the novel, they obviously couldn’t keep everything. The films director, Vibeke Idsøe, has mentioned to Norwegian newspapers that they cut the story to really focus on the relationship between the father and the daughter. That’s what the film is today, and in a way it’s really ruined the narrative. At two hours long you’d expect a comprehensive telling of Eva’s life as she grows up, but we spend so much time focusing on Gustav and his character development (perhaps the film would be better titled The Lion Woman’s Father). Whether that was because Lassgård was the films star and major drawing card, or they just rewrote the story awfully, is up to the viewer to decide. The original ending in which Eva deals with grief and loss with no real happy ending now is more cheerful in that Eva gets closure that her father really loved her. While the ending is surely a tearjerker and ties everything up nicely, it doesn’t make sense in context with the rest of the story. It’s a lazy way to finish the story.
Where the film really falls short, especially when comparing to the novel, is in Eva’s character. As mentioned above, Eva in the novel is supposed to be a real human – mean, ambitious, driven. She’s complex. Eva in the movie is stripped of any personality and is timid, shy, placid, and doesn’t act out too much. There are a few strange scenes in which she has the occasional outburst but they seem strangely place and out of character. Furthermore, the film ends with Eva attending university and lecturing in mathematics. There is no indication throughout the film that Eva is a genius, except for a short-lived scene in which she takes an interest in the station’s Morse code equipment, and when she is locked in the closet graphics of math equations float around her head. There just aren’t enough moments in the film where Eva is more than her appearance. The film focuses so much on her condition. Generally, all her scenes involve Eva being told about bullies, hidden from outsiders, or having others fight for her right to be treated like everyone else. But she is never treated like anyone else in the film. The film loses the main focus of the novel as it struggles to establish the father/daughter relationship it set out to achieve.
Why does the film have to mimic Hollywood? Whenever there is an element of emotion a piano tune plays, and the narrative is so conventional that it becomes too predictable. Hollywood narrative’s aren’t a bad thing, but the novel was so non-Hollywood and so Norwegian in essence that it just makes the film disappointing in comparison. Why they chose to strip it down so much is confusing and clearly proving already to be a mistake, with Norwegian critics citing this Hollywood crossover as they give the film scores of 4 out of 6.
The effects of the film were a major part of the hype. The idea of having to create these fine hairs all over a main character would be no easy feat. Overall, the CGI seems to glide between looking amazing and looking very cheaply made. The scenes of Eva sitting in the closet looking at maths equations are an almost laughable way of showing how intelligent and interested in mathematics she is, and sometimes her hairy legs look like a bad pair of leggings.
Overall, it’ll be interesting to see how The Lion Woman does abroad. It’s already had disappointing box-office figures in Norway with 10,000 tickets on opening weekend for a film that cost 50 million NOK, and some critics have already suggested that it should’ve been a television series, which I’d agree with. It’s been pre-sold to over forty countries and has a premise that will resonate with audiences around the globe, so there is the chance of it being more popular abroad.