From The Phantom Carriage to Aniara – Swedish Nobel prize literature in cinema

An article by
Anders Annikas, journalist and programmer at the Swedish Cinematheque
Here Is Your Life

Nobel Prize winning literature has brought about good films and bad ones. In the case of Selma Lagerlöf, her work has has led to many films, period.

The Remains of the Day. Red Sorghum. Lacombe, Lucien. The announcement of the Nobel Prize is often followed not only by commentary on the awarded literature but also on films based upon it. The 2017 laureate Kazuo Ishiguro even prompted headlines such as “Author whose works have been turned into films wins Nobel Prize in literature”. This year the scandals surrounding the Swedish Academy and the so called “cultural profile” led to the temporary cancellation of the award, and thus there has not been any accompanying comments of adaptations.

However, a new film based on a Swedish laureate’s work is on the horizon. Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s rendition of Harry Martinson’s “Aniara” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and will be in Swedish cinemas in early 2019.

So why not take this opportunity to look back at how our eight Swedish laureates have been adapted for the screen through the years?

Paramount in this context is Selma Lagerlöf. She received the award in 1903, her works were frequently adapted in the silent era, resulting in some of the masterpieces of the so called Golden Age of Swedish Cinema. Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921), Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924) are perhaps the most prominent, but the first of these films, Sjöström’s Tösen från Stormyrtorpet (‘The Girl from the Stormyr Croft’) is dated as early as 1917. For further reading on Lagerlöf and the Golden Age, there is a link at the bottom of this page to Magnus Rosborn’s excellent article.

Works by Selma Lagerlöf were adapted for the cinema after the breakthrough of sound film as well. Essentially all of her most significant writing has been adapted for the screen, in Sweden as well as internationally. For instance, a French adaptation of “Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness” (the work upon which The Phantom Carriage was based) was made by Julien Duvivier in 1939 (the year before Lagerlöf’s death), and a new Swedish version by Arne Mattsson came in 1959. Douglas Sirk – at the time still known as Detlef Sierck – directed a German adaptation of “Tösen från Stormyrtorpet” in 1935, and the same novel has been filmed in Turkish, Finnish, Danish and Swedish – Gustaf Edgren’s sound film premiered in 1947. “Dunungen” (‘The Hatchling’), “Charlotte Löwensköld” and “Jerusalem” have all been filmed on multiple occasions – “Jerusalem” was the original work for the the latest big-budget Lagerlöf adaptation: Bille August’s 1996 film of the same title.

Next in line of most adapted for the screen is Pär Lagerkvist, the 1951 laureate – who received the award while he was himself a member of the Academy. The first Lagerkvist adaptation came two years later. Alf Sjöberg’s Barabbas, based on the novel about the robber pardoned in Jesus’ stead, competed in Cannes but received mixed reviews. The novel also prompted two Italian-American films (with Anthony Quinn and Billy Zane, respectively, in the title role) and one Armenian version.

Many of Lagerkvist’s novels and plays have been made into TV-movies, often directed by his son Bengt Lagerkvist – who coincidentally has also reworked several of Selma Lagerlöf’s books for television. However, Pär Lagerkvist’s arguably most influential novel “The Dwarf” from 1944 has not been made into film – yet. In recent years Peter Dinklage (known from Game of Thrones, etc.) has been announced as starring in an American adaptation of the story of a malicious dwarf scheming at the court of an Italian prince.

In 1974 Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson shared the prize. The two were also members of the Academy at the time, which in this instance led to fierce criticism (unlike Pär Lagerkvist these two members were largely unknown internationally). Fellow author Sven Delblanc stated in the daily Expressen that the award’s reputation would be “swept away by a jeer, rolling around the globe” – a statement that could as well have been used the spring of 2018. Johnson and Martinson both took offense, Martinson enough so to commit suicide two years later.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the Academy’s decision to award the prize to Johnson, his writing had already at that point led to one of the highlights in Swedish cinema. Jan Troell’s monumental 1966 feature film debut Here Is Your Life was based on Johnson’s 1930s set of four novels collectively known as “Romanen om Olof” (‘The Novel about Olof’). It was named Sweden’s third best film through history by cinema periodical FLM in a film critics poll (where Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage took first place). Also, two years before this, Troell had made one of the best Swedish short films of all time – Interlude in the Marshland – after Johnson’s short story. The dearth of Eyvind Johnson adaptations is a bit of a mystery but the stigma of the Nobel Prize scandal may be partly to blame. Perhaps there is still hope for future screen adaptations – his “Krilon” trilogy has been reworked for the stage and was recently produced at Stockholm City Theatre.

Harry Martinson has been made into film twice: Vägen till Klockrike (‘The Road to Klockrike’, after a novel which was published in Britain as “The Road”) premiered in 1953, and Aniara opens in the beginning of 2019 in Sweden . In 1960, a TV version of Erik Lindegren and Karl Birger Blomdahl’s opera Aniara (first performed in 1959) aired. Martinson’s epic 1956 science fiction poem is unquestionably one of the most exciting pieces of literature to come out of Sweden, and hasn’t just been made into film and opera but also into theatre, ballet, musical and graphic novel. The reason Aniara hasn’t been filmed until now is presumably that the technical prerequisites have become accessible only fairly recently. “Aniara” is a work of poetry – Martinson was a poet as well as a novelist, playwright and essayist. The works of the Swedish laureates whose outputs consisted mainly of poetry don’t seem to have engendered films to any large extent, which, in all fairness, is true for most of the world’s most distinguished poets. Neither Verner von Heidenstam (the 1916 laureate – and Academy member alongside Selma Lagerlöf) or Tomas Tranströmer (the 2011 laureate) have yet been interpreted on the screen. Two of Erik Axel Karlfeldt’s poems have been made into short films. Karlfeldt, too, was a member of the Academy, however not at the time of his award as it was given him posthumously in 1931. Finally, Nelly Sachs, who was born in Germany but fled to Sweden during World War II and spent her last 30 years here, was awarded the Nobel Prize for her poetry in 1966. Sachs wrote in German, and the only film based on her work is the German 1971 made-for-TV film Eli.

In short: Do read our Nobel Prize laureates, but don’t miss the films based on their works. Feel free to work your way backwards, beginning with Aniara, and keep your fingers crossed for The Dwarf as a future classic.

(originally published in Swedish in October, 2018; in English in November, 2018)

Statistics, adaptations of works by Swedish laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Selma Lagerlöf 61 %
Pär Lagerkvist 26 %
Others 13 %

Ten films based on works by Swedish Nobel Prize laureates

  • A dying drunkard is forced to join Death's coachman but is rescued by a kindhearted Salvation Army sister. Victor Sjöström directs and plays the lead role in Sweden's most prominent silent film, where the eerie cinematography by Julius Jaenzon and groundbreaking double exposures contribute to turn Selma Lagerlöf's melodramatic morality tale into a cinematic masterpiece.

  • Harald Molander – son of Gustaf Molander – directed this quaint short film which opens and closes with Gösta Ekman (the elder) reciting Erik Axel Karlfeldt's poem "Längtan är vår arvedel" ('Longing Is Our Lot'), and spends the time in between contemplating life, longing and happiness – which constantly seems just out of reach – to sequences from the archives of the company Svensk Filmindustri. The film is available streamed at (link below).

  • Gustaf Molander directed the "Jerusalem" films Ingmarsarvet ('The Ingmar Inheritance') and Till Österland ('To the East') as early as 1925-1926, made Charlotte Löwensköld (1930) the first sound film based on the work of Selma Lagerlöf, and filmed Sir Arne's Treasure in colour in 1954. Ten years prior he orchestrated a unique collaboration between Victor Sjöström – who had directed an American adaptation of "The Emperor of Portugallia" titled The Tower of Lies with Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney in 1925 – and Rune Lindström – writer of Nås' yearly theatrical event "Ingmarsspelet" ('The Ingmar Play') after the first part of Lagerlöf's "Jerusalem". The production was SF's most expensive to date with 75 days of filming. Unfortunately the critics were unimpressed by the result and dismissed it as a crude version of Lagerlöf.

  • Pär Lagerkvist's "Barabbas" was published in 1950 and became an international success, which is considered the main reason for his Nobel Prize. Two years later Alf Sjöberg's film version came out, with Ulf Palme as the robber racked with guilt over having been pardoned in Jesus' stead. Sjöberg's previous film, the 1951 rendition of Strindberg's "Miss Julie," had previously won the Grand Prix (the top honour before the Palme d'Or was introduced), but Barabbas was scornfully dismissed by audience and critics.

  • The first feature film based on Harry Martinson's work came in 1953. Anders Ek portrays the vagrant Bolle, who wanders around in the hope of finding the mythical Klockrike. Martinson wrote the screenplay himself and plays a small part as a prisoner. Sven Nykvist was cinematographer and Lille Bror Söderlundh composed the score, which eventually took on a life of its own as "Klockrikesvit" ('Klockrike suite').

  • The misconception of Selma Lagerlöf as a children's storyteller stems from "The Wonderful Adventures of Nils", which was actually her only children's book, and written as geography reading material for schools. Kenne Fant's colour film in the Swedish widescreen format AgaScope likely also contributed to the story's popularity. It also became animations in Japan and France – the latter as recently as 2017.

  • Jan Troell's short film based on Eyvind Johnson's short story was part of the Nordic co-production 4 x 4, with one Norwegian, one Swedish, one Finnish, and one Danish episode. Max von Sydow plays the man who stops the train, climbs a hill and pries loose a block of stone in a marvellous snapshot of Sweden.

  • Jan Troell's first feature film, based on Eyvind Johnson's semi-autobiographical tetralogy, was received as a masterpiece. Eddie Axberg's masterful portrayal of Olof's arduous encounter with working life was described in national press as "an exquisite film, unique in contemporary cinema", as well as "grand, beautiful and genuine". Troell was himself responsible for the film's acclaimed cinematography, with montages, freeze frames, double exposures and sudden sequences in colour.

  • Selma Lagerlöf's two part novel about the farmers of Nås following a preacher to Jerusalem and the journey's consequences in regards to love, heritage and homeland was filmed by Victor Sjöström as early as 1919-1920. Bille August's 1996 version is considered one of the most underestimated Swedish movies of the time, with brilliant efforts by Sweden's acting elite. Surprisingly, it only garnered Guldbagge nominations in the supporting role categories– the Guldbagge for Best Film the same year was awarded to Jan Troell's biopic about Norwegian writer and Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun.

  • Ingenious adaptation of Harry Martinson's epos, in which a transport vessel on its way to Mars loses its steering power and drifts in space, off course, with no hope of rescue. What was a mere allegory back in 1956 today seems like a likely scenario, and Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja's film unabashedly earns its place in a post-apocalyptic space film tradition alongside works such as Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1971) and WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008).