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When your favourite book turns into a film: Evil

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Back in the good old days

The Swedish author Jan Guillou, best known for his book series The Great Century, took his own life and childhood into consideration when writing his famous piece Ondskan/ Evil.

The book deals with a young teenager Erik Ponti and his challenges with school, family, love, friends and reputation. Although it sounds like a normal teenage novel, Erik Ponti has bigger demons to fight with than the average teenager; in the beginning his father is the biggest demon and later on he himself is his own demon.

Erik is 14 years old in the 1950s and he lives with his family in Stockholm. The family consists of his father, his brother and his mother. Erik’s brother is too small and therefore safe, so the father uses all of his attention on Erik: he beats his son up daily. In school he is one of the best students, both with his psychics and his intelligence. “He ran the fastest and scored the most goals, could take a gargantuan beating, hit with full strength at the first punch and on top of all that he was the superior student in several subjects”. Although he is both clever, strong and smart it’s not all of the teachers that praised him. He was a local school-gang member, taunted the other children, did illegal robberies and scared all of his surroundings, even his teachers. Erik gets beaten up at home by his father and he beats up the weaker kids at school, therefore he responds to violence with violence. At some point this escalates, and he gets expelled from school with the quote from his principle “You are evil itself, and people like you should be exterminated”.

While he is dreading his fathers reaction when he gets home, his mother is already there with a plan. She sold her own personal belongings of value and she used the money to send him to a boarding school: the exclusive boy school Stjårnsberg. Erik uses the opportunity to start over, where nobody knows him. He wants to be smart, kind and non-violent. Though he gets an opportunity to start over – the boarding school is more like a prison than a paradise.

At the boarding school they practice ‘Comrade education’ which means that it is not the teachers that enforces the law, but the student council. And when we are talking about laws, we are not talking about the Swedish law, but

Stjårnbergs own laws and regulations. These laws summed up: “You are allowed to be good, but not better than us. If you are better than us, we will make sure you are not humiliating us again.” Making sure that the younger kids will stay on the weaker position, the student council uses physical and psychological violence.

Erik’s new roomie and later on his best friend Pierre is a pacifist and the most intelligent guy at school, also known as a nerd. Pierre aims to have more courage and to stand up for the weak. Eric aims not to use violence as a weapon, but rather his intelligence and words. Together they bring out the best in each other and fight the hierarchy at the school. When Ponti gets back home from boarding-school he fights his father, and after that, he never fought again. He became a pacifist.

Jan Guillou’s alter ego Erik Ponti

“In my personal history there is a lot of experience, like no other writer has” Guillou says to the Danish film magazine Ekko. The story is written from Erik’s personal perspective. The writing is simple, personal and written with ease. It’s like a journal and it occurs so trustworthy, that you are sure that it’s based on true events. “… This required discipline and training only to turn his head so much that the punch did not hit the nose, but the cheekbone instead.”

Erik is strong-willed, and he aims to be the best, the toughest and the strongest outside his house. Although he is not the biggest nor the strongest person in the local school-gang, he is without doubt the most intelligent. “Nasal blood was important, very important. Partly because it impressed the surroundings, and partly to make the victim more afraid.”

Jan Guillou himself, claims that the events from the book is 100 % true. “Some things, like the identity of the love interest, the placing of the swimming pool and such were changed to make the story better. But the stuff you’re wondering about – the violence, the crap, the psychological terror – is absolutely true.” The book got a lot of attention when it came out in 1981. The boarding-school originally called Solbacka later on closed, because of the book exploration of the events that have occurred throughout the years. You might say that Guillou have been fighting and winning over both his demons – his father and his boarding-school, he managed to put both of these in the right place.

When your favourite book is on film

We all know it. Your favourite book turns into a film. It’s hard to imagine how it will turn out, but you still watch the film. Not because you expect it to be better than the book, but to see how the universe you’ve been creating in your mind matches the universe on film. Taking the universe into consideration. I was very pleased to see that his house, his local school and the boarding-school looked the way I imagined. Also the way the 50s were portrayed right with language, looks and mentality. What I was very displeased to see in the film is the wrong portrayal of the main character. I like Erik Ponti from the book, I like that he is an antihero. It’s not hard to understand why he respond to violence with violence, and the fact that it is one minority beating up another minority. I don’t accept violence, neither does Ponti – but I do understand why he does it. In the film when he goes to the boarding-school he is not fighting until the very end, like he is being pushed to do it in the end. Guillou himself says that he disapproves of this in the new script and that it makes Ponti’s character seem too good. “I have had much to do with the script, and we have agreed on all points except this one. I think it’s something strange in the film that Erik Ponti always exerts violence of goodness. There is a hidden paradox there.”

The film from 2003 by Mikael Håfström was nominated for an Academy award for the best foreign language film. The grading is in my opinion to bright and light for the environment, the acting unconvincing and the portrayal wrong. The theme ‘evil’ doesn’t stand out strong in the film as in the book, because Ponti is not being portrayed as evil, but more as a guy that stands up for the minority. You can relate more to the character from the book, you understand why he is evil and as a reader, you put the term evil up for a debate yourself.

If I hadn’t been reading the book I would have liked the film better. I think that in this rare case, the reason that the film was nominated for an Academy award was not because of the cinematography or the actors, but because of the story. The story is honest and inspirational and I would recommend everybody to read the book and even see the film. Just because it’s an honest story. The film did not win an Academy award, and it’s still Ingmar Bergman sitting on the throne of the last Swedish director winning for Fanny and Alexander from 1984. But even though it didn’t win an Oscar, the story still won our hearts.

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Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.