Astrid Lindgren and the early film years

An article by
Kalle Lind, pop culture all rounder specializing in history that just happened and men with beards
Eskil Dalenius and Elof Ahrle in Bill Bergson and the White Rose Rescue

In a cinematic climate where the scriptwriter ranks below the roll changer in the studio lavatory and where s/he who came up with the story can move about entirely unnoticed at the grand opening gala, at least one name certainly provides a splendid exception. The name is Astrid Lindgren.

Notwithstanding writer-directors like Ingmar Bergman and Bo Widerberg, she remains our indisputably most famous scriptwriter. The reason being obvious: long before the stories entered the screen, she was already firmly associated with them as their creator. Lindgren was, far and away, one of the twentieth century’s most authoritative authors.

The films she wrote, as well as the relatively few adaptations of her literature done by others, are more associated with her than the directors or actors who administered her characters or followed the stage directions. Although there have been a few nationally and internationally well known directors handling her scripts – author/comedian Tage Danielsson did Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (Ronja Rövardotter, 1984), a soon Hollywood-bound Lasse Hallström did The Children of Noisy Village (Alla vi barn i Bullerbyn, 1986) and More About The Children of Noisy Village (Mer om oss barn i Bullerbyn, 1987) and Ingmar’s son Daniel Bergman did Brenda Brave (Kajsa Kavat, 1988) – the films are generally regarded as hers rather than theirs.

The name of her foremost film interpreter, Olle Hellbom (1925-1982), will register with a couple of million Swedish citizens with the most rudimentary knowledge of cinema, but chiefly as the Lindgren director par preference. Hellbom’s early output of documentaries and shorts – including the Cannes-awarded Döderhultare (1952), a portrait of sculptor Axel Petersson – as well as his one and only Lindgren-unrelated feature Blackjackets (Raggare, 1959), will on the other hand be of interest only to those signed up for the master’s programme.

Between 1957 and up until his death, Hellbom helmed more or less every Lindgren production, excluding two “Madicken” adaptations in 1979-80, produced but not directed by Hellbom for health reasons. Here, Göran Graffman, a regular of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, stepped in and showed a fine hand with the child actors, as already proven when he directed the Gunnel Linde novel The White Stone for television in 1973.

Without competition, the Lindgren-Hellbom collaboration, reinforced by producer Olle Nordemar, formed the most successful team in Swedish cinema during the 1960s and 1970s. “The true and real Astrid classics”, according to a couple of Swedish generations, are also usually productions from this constellation.

However, the story of Astrid Lindgren on the silver screen starts well before Mr Hellbom’s arrival. Before this, five impressions from different corners of Lindgren’s imaginary universe saw the light of day. Four of them were successful, appreciated by audiences and respected by critics, and one became a fascinating failure. Because they are in black and white and perhaps also because they are based on scripts written by others, they have all been remade since, which may explain why they are now confined to various degrees of obscurity when it comes to the Lindgren cinema oeuvre. Let us therefore take a closer look at these tottering steps, increasingly stable, towards the indisputable star status of Astrid Lindgren.

In retrospect, Astrid Lindgren has been presented as a kind of fairy tale lady, a wise woman who was in some sort of connection with the inner source of the legends, who operated in some parallel dimension, unmoved by the waves and trends of the time. This image should be taken with several grains of salt. Added to Astrid Lindgren’s craftswomanship as a writer should be her very good nose for public tastes – if you will, her commercial nose. She probably loved her children – the ones she created as well as the ones she created for and those who embodied her creations – but she also knew how to make good use of their cuteness and to give them what their parents would pay for.

In connection with the opening of the fifth and last instalment in the “Seacrow Island” series, Skrållan, Ruskprick & Knorrhane (1967), distinguished critic Jurgen Schildt posed a question in his review, on whether “the wise and for so many right reasons well-loved Astrid Lindgren has become an industry”. Fair question indeed. The “Seacrow Island” success, first on television and then theatrically, had created a veritable machinery, into which the Lindgren–Hellbom–Nordemar trio went full throttle while the going was good.

The original “Seacrow” TV series consisted of 13 episodes and within the next five years there were four feature films as well as assorted chapter books, picture books, records, cassettes and other cash-ins. And when the main kids – Tjorven, Pelle, Stina et al – ever so slowly grew into their teens, there was little Skrållan, the daughter of big sister Malin and thus Pelle’s niece, present, accounted for and ready to feed the audience’s hunger for some soft and pinch-friendly cheeks in close-up.

Already her 1940s characters Pippi Longstocking/Pippi Långstrump and Bill Bergson/Kalle Blomkvist were planted onto stage, into comic books and onto the big screen within a few years. A key figure here was Elsa Olenius, who ran and cultivated Vår teater/”Our Theatre” in the borough of Södermalm in Stockholm, a theatre that has given several professional thespians their first experience. Ms Olenius also happened to partake in the very jury that awarded Ms Lindgren second prize in the “Literature for girls” category in a competition arranged by the Rabén & Sjögren publishing house in 1944. The novel, “Britt-Marie lättar sitt hjärta” (”Britt-Marie Unburdens Her Heart”), was Lindgren’s debut, and Olenius immediately became curious as to what would come next. During the forthcoming decades, Olenius would commission a number of stage scripts from Lindgren’s hand to her theatre. And Lindgren would often show up at the theatre in order to get inspired by the little ones. That some of the classic characters were developed in this way, by means of interaction between different media and through audience reactions, is quite clear.

The first Lindgren screen adaptation arrived in 1947, three years after her book debut, two years after her hit with the first Pippi Longstocking book, one year after the first Bill Bergson book. The young actors were found partly at Vår teater (who had already done a Bill Bergson play in 1946) and partly through ads in Vårt Hem/”Our Home”, a weekly magazine that also simultaneously published a Bill Bergson comic strip version.

Bill Bergson, Master Detective (Mästerdetektiven Blomkvist, 1947), was written, directed and edited by Rolf Husberg, who had shown fine handling with child actors in The Children (Barnen från Frostmofjället, 1945), based on Laura Fitinghoff’s classic weepie novel from 1907, “The Children of the Moor”. The Children, which also had a run at American cinemas, could quite possibly be labelled as the first Swedish film made especially for a young audience. This is a period with a lot happening as far as Nordic children’s fiction goes : Pippi shows up, as does Fin Tove Jansson’s first Mumin book, as does Dane Jens Sigsgaard’s “Palle Alone in the World” and Norwegian Torbjörn Egner’s story about the two “tooth trolls” Karius and Bactus. It has often been called a golden age, and with good reason.

With her stories about the Sherlock Holmes-bitten Bill Bergson, Lindgren got aboard an established genre on the rise: the juvenile detective stories. In the years to come, especially the B. Wahlström publishing house would reap great success with the translated works of Enid Blyton’s long-running series with assorted crime-solving youths, the many mysteries surrounding Nancy Drew, a little later The Three Investigators and so forth. Lindgren proves her ability to both move about within an established field with its given clichés and to bring some new perspectives into the picture. In the second Bill Bergson adventure, “Bill Bergson Lives Dangerously” (“Mästerdetektiven Blomkvist lever farligt”, 1951), an actual murder occurs, which triggers a trauma when Bill’s friend and crime-solving partner Eva-Lotta finds the body. Things like this had rarely, if at all, been seen in children’s fiction before, and the murder motive was quite controversial in itself. Perhaps some assessments from various child psychologists were needed before the film version; it showed up not less than a full six years after the book.

Usually, things moved at great speed for Lindgren. Pippi showed up in the 1945 book, again courtesy of a competition conducted by the Rabén & Sjögren publisher (again with Elsa Olenius in the jury!). Pippi soon became a phenomenon, widely discussed by literature connoisseurs and child experts alike. The young ones loved her. 1946 and 1948 brought the first two book sequels, “Pippi Goes on Board” (“Pippi Långstrump går ombord”) and “Pippi and the South Seas” (“Pippi Långstrump i Söderhavet”). More or less simultaneously picture and comic books showed up, as well as adaptations for radio and stage.

The Pippi stage plays were written for and performed partly at Vår teater, who would have an ongoing relationship with the Pippi character all the way through the 1950s with tours and special holiday shows, and partly at a more professional stage, Oscarsteatern, The Oscar Theatre (named after king Oscar II). At Vår teater, Pippi was played by a child actor, at Oscarsteatern she was entrusted to a full-grown young actress by the name of Viveca Serlachius. In the belief-suspending theatre format no one reacted to the fact that Pippi was two heads taller than her friends Tommy and Annika. Things would get stranger, however, when Serlachius played the same part on the screen a year later.

The 1949 film adaptation of Pippi Longstocking is among the most vilified of all the Astrid Lindgren films, possibly in competition with Vladimir Grammatikov’s Swedish-Soviet-Norwegian-British co-production Mio in the Land of Faraway (Mio min Mio, 1987) or Ken Annakin’s The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988), a U.S. production where the action takes place in the city of Rocksby on the American east coast. As for the 1949 version, Lindgren herself saw to it that distribution got as limited as possible and almost managed to erase it from history. While certainly no masterpiece, it is not without interesting aspects.

The director, Per Gunvall, who spent more or less his entire career in the margins, did have his visions but sadly not the ability to realize them. His most successful production was the second instalment in the popular Lilla Fridolf/”Little Fridolf” series, Lille Fridolf blir morfar/”Little Fridolf becomes a grandfather” (1957), based on a popular radio show, later also comic strip, about a henpecked fellow and his imposing wife. In other words, he just had to roll the ball straight into an open goal.

Gunvall did not completely lack talent. It is quite clear that he, more than most of his jobbing director colleagues at the quaint little Swedish film factory, had a little yen for an American school of absurd humour that Swedes referred to as “crazy” at the time. In his Pippi film he employed, for example, one Povel Ramel, who would later revolutionize the Swedish entertainment industry, as songwriter. The result, a ditty called “Dideli didela didelej”, is somewhat forgettable, but a certain ambition must be noted.

The Gunvall Pippi film is a bloated misch-masch, featuring, in far too prominent parts, a mailman played by Danish jazz violin ace Svend Asmussen, and a romantic couple in their twenties. Simultaneously, an admiration of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Olsen and Johnsen’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941) can be noted – a no-holds-barred comedy style, refined first on Broadway and later very successfully explored by the Hollywood studios. The result, albeit deeply unsatisfactory, still warrants some credit on Gunvall’s behalf. In Pippi Longstocking, he managed to see a child of the same anarchistic ilk as a Mary Pickford or even a Charlie Chaplin.

He was met by considerable ingratitude. Twenty years would pass until Pippi re-entered the screen, this time via a nine-year old Inger Nilsson in the lead and some German co-production money that would pay for the special effects.

Next in the Lindgren line was yet another Bill Bergson adventure, again helmed by Rolf Husberg, who also wrote the script. Bill Bergson and the White Rose Rescue (Mästerdetektiven och Rasmus, 1953) was the first Lindgren film to be produced by Olle Nordemar. Nordemar’s company, Artfilm, would be involved in most of the Lindgren films up until 1977 and The Brothers Lionheart. Rolf Husberg also directed Rasmus and the Vagabond (Luffaren och Rasmus, 1955), this time with a new script credit: Lindgren’s own name. As scriptwriter, she would from now on do the job herself. And after one more film, Rasmus, Pontus och Toker/”Rasmus, Pontus and Toker” (1957), directed by Stig Olin, Olle Hellbom was to take a seat in the chair that would be his for a couple of decades to come.

Attentive readers may notice that the name Rasmus turns up both here and there. They are in fact three different characters, all named Rasmus and all played, incidentally, by the same little natural talent: Eskil Dalenius, later Eskil Dalenius, MD. Eskil Dalenius, six at the time, was discovered by Elsa Olenius, our tireless Lindgren patron, who happened to know that Lindgren at this very time was looking for a young interpreter of a four-year-old character for her Bill Bergson radio series. Dalenius was six at the time, which was regarded as close enough.

He made his debut on the radio in 1951 and was a smash hit in the first incarnation of “Bill Bergson and the White Rose Rescue”. This was Swedish pre-television state monopoly radio, so everyone listened. Eskil Dalenius became an instant household name. Lindgren immediately seized the opportunity to explore her young talent before puberty and self-consciousness set in and made him the central character in several radio shows and films.

First came the radio version of “Rasmus and the Vagabond”, the story of a little boy who escapes from his orphanage and becomes best friends with Paradise Oscar, a cheerful hobo who travels the roads with his accordion. According to legend, the film version was named The Vagabond and Rasmus because it was beneath the popular actor-entertainer Åke Grönberg, internationally famous as the circus manager in Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton, 1953), to star in a film with a title where his character was not mentioned first. The 1981 version, starring the more lenient Allan Edwall (and of course directed by Hellbom) was re-re-named Rasmus and the Vagabond!

The third “Rasmus film” was Rasmus, Pontus and Toker (1956), a rather conventional kid crime story which included some travelling funfair people with foreign accents, which today would be regarded as incorrect. It is the only one out of all of Lindgren’s 1940’s and 1950s film productions that has never been remade.

The book “Rasmus, Pontus and Toker” (1957), was written after the film, which itself was preceded by the radio series. On the cover sheet Lindgren attempts to sort out all the different Rasmuses in order to lessen the possible confusion among some of the readers: “This book is about Rasmus Persson, eleven. It is not a single bit about Rasmus Oskarsson, nine, or even about Rasmus Rasmusson, four. The three Rasmuses have nothing in common except their Christian name, one of our more common ones. Got it?”

The 1950s proves to be an expansive and formative decade for Lindgren the author, but also for Lindgren, the media personality, and Lindgren, the ruler. At her desk at home, she writes classics such as the “Lotta” books, “Mio, My Son” and “Karlsson-on-the-Roof”. At the same time, she tests out ideas together with other creative allies, listens to the suggestions and requests from her readers and creates a position where she gets increasing influence over her works. In 1957, she meets her very special interpreter for the big and small screen in Olle Hellbom, a fairly unremarkable filmmaker, but with the ability to take to heart and gently guide the children in the right direction.

Bill Bergson Lives Dangerously (Mästerdetektiven lever farligt, 1957) is Hellbom’s rite of passage. After this, he will harbour the infinite trust of his matron during a very productive quarter of a century. Lindgren herself will get a position in the production hierarchy rarely bestowed upon an author. With the result that the films connected with her will be and look pretty much just as she wants them to look.

Hellbom’s judgment may not always have been fortunate; his choice to shoot The Children of Noisy Village (Alla vi barn i Bullerbyn, 1960) entirely without dialogue or to give a tonsure shave to a ten-year-old and have him play Karlsson-on-the-Roof, or to have the 25-year-old Staffan Götestam play an early-puberty Jonatan Lionheart. But the critics could shake their heads all they wanted; when producer Nordemar, director Hellbom and author Lindgren monitored audience figures, television ratings and the sacks upon sacks of letters from the young fans, there was little, if nothing, to disagree with – all things considered, they seemed to do something very, very right.

(originally published in Swedish in October, 2018; in English in February 2019)

Statistics for the early Lindgren film adaptations

Better safe than sorry 70%
Experimental curiosity 10%
Squeaky clean, robust and healthy children 10%
Eskil Dalenius 5%
Rolf Husberg 4%
Misfit children with strange personalities 1%

De tidiga Lindgrenfilmatiseringarna

  • The child actors in the Bergson series who played Bill, Anders and Eva-Lotta were replaced for every new film. One actor would return as the same character, the friendly constable Björk, played by the widely popular Sigge Fürst. And, of course, Bill’s Swedish name, Kalle Blomkvist, inspired “Millennium” author Stieg Larsson to call his main character Mikael Blomkvist (quite possibly Lisbeth Salander has a little Pippi in her as well).

  • The ill-fated director Per Gunvall later managed to carve himself a small niche in boxing films; as the Swedish broadcasting monopoly had a ban on professional boxing matches, he had some theatrical success with his footage from the 1959 world heavyweight championship, won by Sweden’s very own Ingemar Johansson.

  • The main plot concerns a kidnapping, perpetrated by the typical Lindgren hoodlum duo. These two are named Nicke and Blom and are cheerfully dumb (although their boss, engineer Peters, is rather diabolical). Nicke was played by the popular comedian Elof Ahrle, who was as jovial off-camera as when it was on, which led little Eskil Dalenus to request that Astrid Lindgren did not knock him off in the final act, as was originally intended. The request was granted, and the script was changed accordingly.

  • “They were the easiest scripts I ever wrote”, writes director Rolf Husberg in his memoirs. “Every line in the books was already there to copy.” For one of his Lindgren films, the only thing he changed was a location (“I couldn’t find a castle ruin, so we had to make do with a silver mine”). For this, his third and last collaboration, Husberg was immensely proud to get the musical score composed by the distinguished Lille Bror Söderlundh, who’s “Kattvisan”/”The Cat Song” also was performed in the 1981 remake.

  • Stig Olin, who played the male lead in Ingmar Bergman’s debut Crisis (Kris, 1946), directed, played Ernst, the silver thief, and wrote the music (one song was covered by ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog many years later). He became a big shot at the national radio service and left filmmaking and acting altogether. His daughter Lena Olin has later done quite well in the acting world herself.

  • Bergson/Blomkvist had a victorious run in the Swedish 1950s with several popular quotes that were known by one and all. There was also the Robber Language, the Bergson gang’s own version of argot slang, reportedly created by Lindgren’s husband Sture. A song from the film, "Kok-a-lol-a-sos-fof-i-non-tot", partly used the slang and became a novelty hit.