The Snowman: why is the 2017 crime thriller so popular on Netflix - and what went wrong during production?

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The Snowman is currently one of the most watched films on Netflix - but it was a massive critical failure when it was released

The Snowman is currently one of the most-watched films on Netflix, jumping up to the streaming service’s Top 10 list in the days since it was added to the platform. It didn’t enjoy similar success when it was released theatrically in 2017, though, grossing just $43 million worldwide against a $35 million budget.

At the time, it was met with near-universal derision – collecting professional reviews, Rotten Tomatoes awarded the film just 6% and summarised it as “a mystery that feels as mashed together and perishable as its title [which] squanders its bestselling source material as well as a top-notch ensemble cast” – and even now much of the conversation around the film is coming down to its quality (or lack thereof).

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Unusually for such a recently released film, though, the cast and crew who worked on The Snowman have been particularly candid about the film, its quality, and how the behind-the-scenes difficulties they faced impacted both. As a result, the challenges that arose during production of The Snowman are well-documented, and it’s relatively easy to explain “why” the film is, well, bad. 

Or, put another way: they gave you all the clues, Mr Audience. 

What’s The Snowman about?

Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole in The Snowman (Credit: Universal Pictures)Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole in The Snowman (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole in The Snowman (Credit: Universal Pictures) | Universal Pictures

The Snowman is a Nordic noir crime thriller, following alcoholic detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) as he investigates a trail of dead bodies and sinister snowmen in pursuit of a serial killer. Notably, the killer leaves cryptic-yet-childlike clues for Hole to find; this inspired the marketing campaign for the film, which was much-mocked for its crudely-drawn snowman and accompanying note to the police. 

What went wrong during production on The Snowman?

Attempting to replicate the success of the Alex Cross and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films, production company Working Title commissioned an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s crime novel The Snowman – the first in a series of ten books focusing on detective Harry Hole. For a while, Martin Scorsese was attached to direct; ultimately, Scorsese ended up executive producing, with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson chosen to helm the project.

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Principal photography (i.e. the bulk of the actual filming) on The Snowman began in Oslo in January 2016, and concluded – unexpectedly and ahead of schedule – in April the same year, just a few months later. Speaking to Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the release of The Snowman, Alfredson explained that “our shoot time in Norway was way too short, we didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing.” He went on to estimate that 10-15% of the script had been left unfilmed, describing the editing process “like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.”

Around a year later, financing came through to finish the film – in London. Alfredson and Fassbender, alongside a new crew, assembled to shoot as much of the script as they could. According to Alfredson, though, “it happened very abruptly”, and they lacked the time to meaningfully prepare for the additional filming. It’s because of this that why certain scenes are still edited together out of incomplete footage, why supporting characters appear and disappear throughout the film, and why Michael Fassbender sometimes has an entirely different haircut with no explanation. 

Val Kilmer’s involvement in The Snowman presented another issue. At the time, Kilmer had recently completed a course of treatment for throat cancer, leaving his tongue swollen and making it difficult for him to speak. As a result, whenever his character in The Snowman is speaking, he’s shot at angles that obscure his face – in silhouette, from behind, or simple off screen. The intent was to make it easier to dub over his lines with another actor, which is indeed what they eventually did

Why is The Snowman so popular on Netflix now? 

Hard to say for sure, but easy to guess: if you haven’t heard of The Snowman – and why would you have? – you’re unlikely to know its reputation, and it otherwise looks like a basically engaging crime thriller starring actors known for other, much better work.  

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As soon as it ends up on Netflix’s Top 10 list, which is one of the first things you see when you log into the site, more and more people will start watching it; as it climbs in the rankings, it reaches a wider audience, and that has an obvious multiplier effect until The Snowman finds itself at the top of the Top 10. After a while, people start talking about how bad it is – or write articles about it – and then even more people watch it out of curiosity to join the conversation and find out if that’s really the case. On it goes for the rest of the weekend.

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