Headhunters: Nordic novelty

By Helen Barlow

Headhunters. Picture / Supplied
Headhunters. Picture / Supplied

For many years Jo Nesbo avoided doing interviews.

The Norwegian rock star, successful stockbroker and prolific author of 16 novels in 14 years, had better things to do. And he just isn't the type to sing his own praises. Now, as his crime thrillers are flying off shelves around the globe, and the first movie of one of his stories, Headhunters, is landing in cinemas, the so-called new Stieg Larsson (aka Mr Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is coming out into the open. Though he shrugs off comparisons to the Swedish writer.

"Well it could be worse, it could be Dan Brown!"

Unlike Brown and Larsson, Nesbo, who is famous for his Harry Hole (pronounced Hooler) series of detective novels, has resisted having his stories turned into movies.

"Cinema is such a strong medium compared to novels, so I was worried they would interfere with my writing and also with my readers' enjoyment," the 51-year-old explains. "I'd prefer that rather than having one actor defining Harry Hole there should be thousands of Harry Holes in readers' minds."

The only reason he allowed Headhunters to be committed to celluloid is because it's a stand-alone novel and the proceeds would go to his Harry Hole Foundation, which invests in literacy projects in the third world. An avid adventurer and traveller - who regularly takes writing trips to Thailand - Nesbo has witnessed poverty first hand and is somewhat embarrassed by his own wealth.

He is understated, dresses in jeans and the kind of T-shirt a rock star might wear. A single dad, he dotes on his 12-year-old daughter, Selma. So close is their bond that Selma also became the muse for his children's books. When she asked her dad to make up a story over dinner he wrote Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder, which surprise, surprise, was a huge hit and led to a series of three books as well.

Harry Hole meanwhile was based on a police officer Nesbo had never met, but who had been used as a threatening force when he visited his grandmother. "If you don't do what I say Harry Hole will come to take you away."

Interestingly, that character was further developed and came together when Nesbo was on holiday in Sydney and staying in a seedy hotel near Kings Cross. So in his first novel, The Bat Man, his Norwegian detective, like himself, was in Sydney amidst the pimps and drug pushers, as he helped the Australian police solve the murder of a Norwegian celebrity.

Nesbo wrote The Headhunters when he needed a break from Harry.

"I wrote the story in the way I used to write pop songs," he explains. "Sometimes I'd wake up in the morning with a three-minute pop song that was all ready to go and I wondered if it was me who wrote it. With The Headhunters, I just sat down and wrote the whole story and it was effortless."

The story casts an acerbic view on the world of high finance. While Nesbo says he let the film-makers do their thing, most of his story remains in the film, which is directed by Morten Tyldum.

Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie) is a high-flying headhunter for an Oslo technology company and despite being a big money-earner he is struggling to keep his trophy wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) in the manner to which she has become accustomed. So he moonlights as an art thief. In what has been described as a Coen-esque satire, Brown comes a cropper when he tries to steal Peter Paul Rubens' much sought after The Calydonian Boar Hunt from a client, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).

The latter happens to be an ex-special forces tracker and doesn't take kindly to being robbed. "I'm a big fan of the book and of Jo's universe and I've worked with Morten a few times now so know he'll do whatever it takes," Hennie admits with a wry laugh. "The biggest challenge though is that while Jo creates such complex characters, at some point there's no logic whatsoever. We have this sympathetic guy who loves his wife and then three lines later he's f****** another girl."

The complex Euro-thriller had been the first of Nesbo's books that Tyldum had read. "Immediately afterwards I knew I had to make it into a film. Roger is such an interesting character because you can experience his journey both physically and mentally. He's so different from the first moment you meet him to last. It's like a character going through purgatory and coming out a changed man."

There's no doubting that Scandinavian crime cinema, which came to the fore with Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher Trilogy about the criminal underworld in Copenhagen, and took off into the stratosphere with Larsson's Millennium Trilogy set in Sweden, is surging ahead.

"We have to approach action thrillers on a different scale to Hollywood because we don't have big budgets," says Tyldum. "Interesting stories and characters have to make up for the long car chases and big explosions. Our thrillers have to be based on good ideas."

Nesbo though has held out on Hollywood. He would only allow Working Title (Britain's version of Hollywood) to film a Harry Hole novel if the likes of Martin Scorsese came on board.

And what do you know? The legendary New Yorker will be the first to have a go at Harry in a screen adaptation of Nesbo's seventh Harry tome, The Snowman.

Lowdown
What: Headhunters, action crime drama based on the novel by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo
In cinemas: March 8
Where and when: Speaking at Rialto Cinema in Newmarket on March 6; and at the Writers & Readers Festival on March 10 at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington.

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