Byline: Jennie Yabroff
The Swedish film let the right One In is set during a Nordic winter so bleak that just watching it practically makes your nose run. The two main characters--a lonely, ostracized boy and the creepy, bedraggled girl who befriends him--are as somber and mournful as the chilly, austere landscape. The movie was a critical hit in America and is currently being remade here, retitled Let Me In. Set in sunny New Mexico. Starring two appealingly pink-cheeked, glossy-haired tween actors. The film hasn't been released, but howls of protest are already ricocheting around cyberspace, where the consensus is that remakes inevitably suck. As one commenter cracked, "Who is going to do the voice of the lovable, wisecracking, skateboarding dog?"
The assumption that Hollywood will take all that quiet, moody atmosphere and stomp the life out of it with Godzilla-like clumsiness is understandable: when it comes to remakes, American studios don't have the best track record. And Scandinavian films seem especially likely to lose something in translation: if La-la Land is all about surface, lightness, and escapism, the land of Bergman, IKEA, and the Nobel Prize is somber, cool, and understated. Yet when it comes to cinematic source material, Scandinavia has never been hotter. A remake of the Danish film Brothers came out last year, and many more adaptations are in the works.
Once you watch a few of these films, the attraction becomes clear: unlike Bergman's often arty, ponderous parables, modern Scandinavian movies are brilliant at telling universally recognizable stories without sacrificing an aura of art-house good taste. Often the drama plays against a mournful backdrop of fog-cloaked streets or desolate fields of winter-bleached wheat. The austerity of the landscape lends a gravity to the human drama that American malls and suburban cul-de-sacs cannot. "Scandinavian films are very clean, precise, and the design is functional," says Kyle Reinhart, film programmer for Scandinavia House in New York.
But strip away the Nordic sun filtering through ice-encrusted pines, the eerily pale-skinned children, and the general sense of hushed decorum, and you'll find most contemporary Scandinavian films actually have much in common with the Hollywood films they are allegedly superior to. Let the Right One In might be an exceptionally restrained film, but it's also a vampire flick, part of the same bloodline that brought us Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
By definition, genre films are more concerned with meeting conventional expectations than defying them, and so are the films being remade. Let the Right One In is a horror film, a genre Hollywood invented. The Danish film Terribly Happy, the story of a sheriff with a mysterious past who moves to an insular small town, is, at heart, a Western in the tradition of High Noon. Sweden's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is based on the bestselling crime thriller by Stieg Larsson and has elements of an odd-couple buddy movie. Brothers and After the Wedding, both from Denmark's Susanne Bier, are classic melodramas. The Icelandic Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which will star Mark Wahlberg in the remake, is a straightforward heist flick.
Genre movies, books, and TV shows, especially crime, were huge in Scandinavia long before international audiences took notice. In addition to Larsson's books, crime writer Henning Mankell's Wallander series of thrillers was the basis for a popular TV series in Sweden before being remade for British audiences by the BBC, suggesting that the cool, cerebral Scandinavian aesthetic is surprisingly well suited to conventional plotlines. "No Scandinavians watched their own cinema until they …