While the promotional material for A Man Called Otto might give off the impression of yet another Tom Hanks-starring vehicle or another addition to the genre of heartwarming dramas centered around cantankerous old men discovering the joys of life, the history behind this film is far more intricate. A Man Called Otto originally emerged as A Man Called Ove, a Swedish novel penned by Fredrik Backman in 2012. This literary work later found its way to the big screen in a 2015 Swedish film directed by Hannes Holm, sharing the same title. In essence, this story has experienced multiple transformations in just over a decade.
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Although I haven’t had the opportunity to delve into the original Ove book, I can certainly shed light on the distinctions between the two film adaptations of Backman’s work, having watched the A Man Called Ove film. While the fundamental storyline remains consistent in both versions, Otto surprisingly retains a substantial portion of the darker elements found in its predecessor (most notably, the on-screen suicide attempts), rather than softening the source material to cater to North American sensibilities. Yet, nestled within these narratives are a plethora of divergences that mirror the underlying creative aspirations of Otto.
Differences Between ‘A Man Called Otto’ & ‘A Man Called Ove’
The key disparities between A Man Called Ove and A Man Called Otto become evident right from the beginning. In Otto, the characters converse in English and call America their home, a departure from the Swedish language and Swedish setting of Ove. These superficial changes explain why Ove, the central character in the original, is transformed into Otto (played by Tom Hanks) in the American remake. Another noteworthy contrast between the two adaptations lies in their opening sequences. Both films do kick off with their titular protagonists engaging in a purchase-related confrontation with a cashier. However, Ove commences by portraying its lead character attempting to buy flowers for his late wife’s grave, whereas Otto dives straight into the action, showing Otto trying to purchase rope for a noose, a grim symbol of his suicidal intentions.
While both scenes serve the same basic purpose—to establish Otto as a cantankerous individual prone to squabbles—they opt to reveal different facets of the character when introducing him to the audience. Ove chooses to immediately convey that heartbreak is the driving force behind this man’s demeanor. Despite being difficult to engage with, he can still express affection for others. In contrast, Otto shrouds its lead character in more mystery. We understand that he contemplates suicide (why else would he be trying to tie a knot in the store?), but the reasons behind this desire remain undisclosed. Otto thus envelops Otto in a sense of enigma, distinguishing it from Ove.
Both Adaptations Use Flashbacks in Different Ways
The narrative of A Man Called Ove relies significantly on flashbacks. Each time Ove contemplates suicide, the camera transports the audience into his past, creating the impression that Ove’s life is unfolding before his eyes. In these flashbacks within Ove, we traverse the entire spectrum of his existence, from his upbringing with a single father during his childhood to his initial romantic endeavors with the woman who would become his life partner, and even the events that forged a hardened shell around his soul.
A Man Called Otto retains the use of flashbacks and deploys them primarily when Otto appears on the brink of ending his own life. However, there’s been a substantial condensation of these flashbacks. For instance, Otto’s father makes only a fleeting appearance in his recollections, imparting to the boy his enduring affection for Chevy automobiles. We do not witness Otto’s father tragically getting struck by a train and perishing just after his son achieved a significant educational milestone, a sequence depicted in A Man Called Ove. In Otto, Otto merely casually mentions in one of the flashbacks that his father recently passed away. Similarly, pivotal moments from Ove’s past, like his neighbor’s house catching fire, resulting in the destruction of his childhood home, have been omitted.
Instead of dwelling on Ove’s early life and a chance encounter that led to his relationship with Sonya in A Man Called Ove, the focus of flashbacks in A Man Called Otto centers primarily on Otto’s meeting with Sonya (Rachel Keller), who would later become his wife. While Ove’s meeting with Sonya is by pure chance (a homeless Ove inadvertently boards a train and finds himself sitting across from a lovely lady), Otto’s introduction to Sonya occurs when he sees her drop a book and rushes to return it to her. This shift in focus highlights that the flashbacks in Otto predominantly revolve around the profound relationship between Sonya and Otto. Furthermore, in contrast to A Man Called Ove, A Man Called Otto often features the older present-day version of Otto briefly appearing in these flashback sequences. This blurring of lines between past and present in Otto underscores how Otto is consumed by memories of days gone by.
These alterations appear to be aimed at aligning the film with the expectations of mainstream American audiences. The flashbacks in A Man Called Ove extend over a considerable duration and intentionally convey the sense that they belong to an entirely separate narrative. However, general audiences may have less patience for protracted detours like this. As a result, the flashbacks in Otto have been condensed to save time and forge more noticeable connections between the two phases in Otto’s life. While it may be a concession for broader accessibility, the clever visual cues employed to integrate the older Otto into his recollections of the past manage to make this modification quite well-executed.
‘A Man Called Otto’ Offers New Takes on Familiar Characters
In the present-day segments of both A Man Called Ove and A Man Called Otto, much of Otto’s life mirrors the existence of Ove. He still has neighbors, such as a lady with her tiny dog and an exuberant jogger, to contend with. A new family moving into the neighborhood continually disrupts his plans to end his life. Even his former friend, Reuben, who is now paralyzed, remains a fixture. However, there are distinct variations in the details of these neighbors. In both iterations of the story, the new family hails from a different culture than Otto’s, compelling him to broaden his horizons and open his mind. In A Man Called Ove, this family is led by Iranian immigrant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), whereas in A Man Called Otto, the most prominent member of the family is mother Marisol (Mariana Treviño). While their personalities largely remain the same (outgoing, witty, capable of holding their own in conversations with Ove/Otto), their respective countries of origin reflect different immigrant populations that are highly prominent in either Sweden or America.
An intriguing character alteration can be observed in how A Man Called Otto adapts the two characters Adrian (Simon Edenroth) and Mirsad (Poyan Karimi). In A Man Called Ove, Adrian is a twenty-something who initially appears as a troublemaking youth wanting to fix a bike, which Ove dismisses. However, Ove later discovers that Adrian’s intention is to repair the bike for his girlfriend and that the young man is working multiple jobs. During a visit to the eatery where Adrian works, Ove crosses paths with Mirsad, Adrian’s co-worker and a gay man. Eventually, Mirsad is evicted from his home by his homophobic father, and Ove reluctantly offers him a place to stay for a while.
In A Man Called Otto, the characters of Adrian and Mirsad from the original story are merged into a single character, Malcolm (Mack Bayda). Malcolm is also a young man with a bike that Otto initially underestimates, mirroring Adrian’s role. However, in this adaptation, Malcolm, unlike Adrian, is portrayed as a transgender individual, adding the dimension of a younger queer character to the narrative. Malcolm’s role in the story aligns with that of Mirsad in the original version, as he faces eviction from his home due to being transgender, and Otto offers him a place to stay. Similar to Mirsad, Malcolm prepares breakfast for Otto the following morning and accompanies the grumpy protagonist on his daily errands. While the essence of Adrian and Mirsad’s characters is retained in A Man Called Otto, they have been integrated into a single new character.
The present-day sequences also introduce variations in Otto’s attachment to physical reminders of his deceased spouse, which appears to be more pronounced compared to Ove (although this element may exist in the book). Coats that once belonged to Sonya spill out of a coat rack right next to Otto’s staircase, and Otto holds onto a quarter that holds sentimental value as it is associated with fond memories of Sonya. This aspect informs a significant scene in A Man Called Otto involving a confrontation with a clown.
In the original film, the clash with the clown was primarily driven by Ove’s cantankerous behavior and impatience with people. In A Man Called Otto, the physical altercation with Beppo the Clown (ironically, one of the few characters in this American adaptation to retain his Swedish name) occurs because Beppo uses Otto’s quarter for a magic trick and fails to promptly return it. It’s another example of how A Man Called Otto diverges from the original film adaptation to highlight the profound influence of Otto’s past on his present-day world.
What Do ‘A Man Called Otto’s Changes Signify?
The final act of A Man Called Otto closely parallels that of A Man Called Ove, with only minor divergences. In both versions, the main characters and the residents of the neighborhood come together to ensure that Rune/Reuben is not taken away from his home. However, in A Man Called Otto, the role of the antagonist tasked with retrieving Rune/Reuben falls to a real estate developer. Nevertheless, the endings of the two films are nearly identical, with only slight variations in the final shots. A Man Called Ove concludes by highlighting the people Ove touched in his life as the camera pans upward, while A Man Called Otto ends with a shot of Otto’s tombstone, revealing his resting place beside his wife and the trinkets left around the grave, indicating regular visits from Marisol and her children.
The changes made in A Man Called Otto compared to the original A Man Called Ove film are sometimes amusing (for instance, a newspaper journalist in the original film becomes a “social media journalist” in Otto, although the implications of this are left to our imagination). Most of these alterations seem to have been made for practical reasons. The number of characters in the story has been streamlined, and the scope of the flashbacks has been condensed. These adjustments also reflect A Man Called Otto’s commendable willingness to offer something unique that sets it apart from a simple rehash of A Man Called Ove.
As for which movie is better, it’s a challenging question. A Man Called Ove and A Man Called Otto possess distinct sensibilities as cinematic works, making it akin to comparing apples and oranges when determining the superior adaptation of this curmudgeon’s life. A Man Called Ove excels in its ability to subtly convey internalized torment, which may give it a slight edge. However, A Man Called Otto’s interpretation of the story introduces unique elements that make it clear this is not a mere copy of what has worked in the past.