Jo Nesbo's Headhunters Thrills on the Big Screen: An Interview with Director Morten Tyldum

Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown in Headhunters/Image © Magnolia Pictures
Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown in Headhunters/Image © Magnolia Pictures

As Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy blew up seemingly overnight, there was something bittersweet about discovering this “new” author: His catalog of work was finite. The late Larsson wrote only three novels before his death in 2004, and left readers hungry for more of this new breed of fiction: the Scandinavian thriller. Enter Jo Nesbo.

Nesbo is hardly new to the literary scene. In his homeland Norway, more than two million copies of his novels have sold. He’s been publishing books for more than a decade and his work has been translated into dozens of languages. But it is amid the current Larsson mania that Nesbo has truly arrived stateside. How does one define “truly”? Apparently, the mark of arrival for a Scandinavian author is the American remake of the film adaptation of his or her novel. We saw it with Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; first the Niels Arden Oplev-directed adaptation of the story premiered overseas and then, after the film came to America, David Fincher stepped in and took the reins, bringing his own vision to the story.

Now, the word on the street is that Sacha Gervasi (“The Terminal”, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”) will be adapting Nesbo’s Headhunters for American audiences. But lo and behold, this won’t be the first appearance of Headhunters on the big screen; Norwegian director Morten Tyldum in 2011 adapted Nesbo’s novel for audiences abroad. Tyldum’s “Headhunters,” now open in U.S. theaters, is everything you’d want in a Nesbo adaptation: There is sex and greed, power and mystery, lies and love. It’s a heart-pounding romp, if you could imagine such a thing. If you’ve ever read a Nesbo novel, you’re familiar with how fast his prose pulls you through the story. Good news, fans: The film keeps pace. Nearly two hours long and, still, you don’t want it to end.

In discussions of book-to-movie adaptations, it’s inevitable that the conversation will turn to how closely the script sticks to the book. Filmgoers might assume that screenwriters will do everything possible to keep as close to the source material as possible, but one of the surprisingly gratifying things about “Headhunters” is the deviation from Nesbo’s original work. There are multiple plot twists in Tyldum’s film that are distinct deviations from the novel. In a recent conversation with Tyldum, he told Signature, “Film is a shorter time span. In movies you’re in there for one hour. That means the thing has to make sense on a different level. When you’re reading the book the author can play with you, can take you on a journey. They can distract you a little bit.” When asked his reason for making one choice in particular (which we shall not reveal as we don’t want to spoil the ending) when adapting the story, Tyldum said the original piece of the story “slowed things down and it became a more heavy-handed drama.”

Morten TyldumThe chatter around the differences between the movie experience and the book experience is ongoing and much-embraced by readers, viewers, authors, and moviemakers. Tyldum, too, is willing to offer an opinion on the matter: “Film is a lot more about moments, about seeing that split second ... Film is so much more fun because you work with discovery and tension and surprises in a different way than the book.” And when working from a book, sometimes deviation is unavoidable. Says Tyldum, “I think [Jo Nesbo] is a wonderful writer and I love the book, but there are a few things that you don’t think so much about when you read it because he writes so cleverly. But when you shoot it, it doesn’t work … you have to find some other way to give the information.”

But still, one would imagine that it’s hard for a novelist to let go of his or her work. Tyldum confronted the issue head-on in a conversation with Nesbo. "I sat down with Jo when I got on board as director and I said, ‘Thank you for letting me take on this wonderful book. I’m a huge fan, but … this story has to be mine now. I have to take your story and shape it how I see fit,'” Tyldum continues. “And he was so cool about it; he said, ‘Yeah, of course.’”

The casting of Tyldum’s movie is fabulous. Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown is part Patrick Bateman, part Napoleon Bonaparte, and part, well, Eeyore. In spite of his gargantuan flaws, you root for him. His wife, Diana, played by Synnøve Macody Lund, is perfect, as is Roger’s newfound nemesis, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of “Game of Thrones” fame) as Clas Greve. One might wonder why a production studio would consider remaking such a well-done movie. And one might also wonder how the director of the original might react. In Tyldum’s case, he was flattered: “I take it as a compliment, that they want to make a remake. I have big respect for Summit. But they have the right to the book, not to the movie, so they have to find their own solutions to the things we changed.” And he continues, “I wonder if they will be brave enough to make [Roger] such an asshole at the beginning as we have.”

It’s been said that mimicry is the highest form of flattery, and Summit’s pick-up of the project only proves further that Tyldum is worthy of the accolades. Next up for the director is his American debut, “What Happened to Monday?” It’s a wild story about seven brothers, identical to one another, who live in a time and world of overpopulation where siblings are not allowed. They each go out one day a week, and they share a life. “Thematically,” says Tyldum, “it’s a little about what it means to live a complete life.”

But back to “Headhunters.” In spite of the vast amount of movie material mined from the pages of books and in spite of true love of adaptations, book and movie are often so closely aligned that one, ultimately, has to be declared as superior. But in the hands of Tyldum, Headhunters becomes something brand-new. Credit for this new creation owes to Tyldum’s philosophy about quality adaptations: “A good adaptation frees itself from the book at one point. You have to understand and really respect the spirit of the book – the atmosphere, the characters, the intention – but then you have to take the book and just leave it,” which is precisely what he did with Nesbo’s extraordinary novel. Ultimately, “Headhunters”/Headhunters is that rare pleasure, the rare double-feature, in which one can find two complete and independent thrilling and engrossing romps – both on the screen and on the page.

Want more? Check out the trailer here. If you'd rather get a sneak peek at the book, check out an excerpt, here.

Photo of Morten Tyldum © Magnolia Pictures