by Alvin G. Burstein
In 2012, The Swedish author Fredrik Backman published a novel, A Man Called Ove. His book was on the The New York Times best seller list for almost a year. A film version appeared in 2015 that won multiple awards and is reportedly the most frequently viewed Swedish film. Unsurprisingly, 2023 saw the appearance of an American version, A Man Called Otto.
Because the protagonist is a quintessentially cranky old man, what may be surprising is that the American film stars Tom Hanks, who in both his public persona and in most of his starring roles appears as almost quintessentially likeable. That paradox tempted me into binge viewing both Ove and Otto. I wanted to see how Hanks handled the challenge and how the American version of the film might differ from its predecessor. So, I shall focus on the differences and similarities of the two films. Both are available on Amazon Prime, the latter is also playing at theatres.
The basic plot is the same. A long-time employee is forced into retirement and finds himself diminished in his central role in his residential community. He is recently widowed. If Freud is right about the central role of work and love in mental health, Otto/Ove has experienced massive blows. It may well be that one of the reasons for the popular appeal of the story inheres in its capturing the painful injustice of ageism in modern society. In neither film, however, is the protagonist portrayed in a way designed to elicit the classic tragic reactions of pity and fear. They are almost stock comic characters: the cranky old man hollering for the kids to get off his lawn.
But there are important differences between Ove and Otto. Both movies open with the protagonist making a purchase. But Otto is purchasing five feet of rope that he intends to use in his suicide, Ove is purchasing a bouquet that he intends to take to his wife’s grave on his customary visit. Both get into a dispute with the cashier. Otto because the rope is sold by the
yard and he doesn’t want to pay for six feet when he needs only five. Ove has picked out bouquets with a “two for…” price and he doesn’t want two,
As both scenes unfold, Otto’s grumpiness has a clearly angry edge, while Ove’s objections seem more morally or logically grounded. He takes both bouquets to the cemetery. This difference is amplified in another variation. Both movies make heavy use of flashbacks to flesh out the protagonists’ history and character. Ove’s begin in childhood and portray the early loss of his mother and father. Otto’s begin in young adulthood, with his being rejected for military service. I think overall, one feels more sympathy for Ove.
While Otto is not a carbon copy of Ove, their stories are alike in the extraordinary, almost Chaplinesque combination of comedy and pathos. We find ourselves laughing at them, while our hearts ache at the blows they suffer. If you want my advice about which one to watch, I would say A Man Called Otto, if only because in the flashbacks young adult Otto is portrayed by Hanks’ son, Truman. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to wonder at and about that.