Along with thousands of British readers (and book group members) I was delighted by the translated version of Jonas Jonasson’s 2009 Swedish novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. It’s a droll story about Allan Karlsson, a geriatric Swede who absconds from his retirement home rather than endure a party to mark his centenary. He then embarks on adventures that involve vicious drug dealers, a suitcase full of money that comes his way, and meeting an assortment of new, if somewhat hapless friends. Not to mention an elephant.
Allan’s story is also a brisk gallop through 20th century history. A man of humble beginnings, he becomes an explosives expert with a knack of being present at epoch-making moments; he meets General Franco, Presidents Truman and Reagan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the team that developed the atomic bomb.
The book has been a runaway bestseller across Europe, and it was inevitable that a movie version would follow. Starring Robert Gustafsson, one of Sweden’s best-known comedians, it has become the highest-grossing film in that country’s box-office history; still, one wondered if it would ‘travel’ successfully.
Broadly, the answer is ‘yes.’ Though many readers will prefer Jonasson’s book and its imaginative flights of fancy, the film at least captures its tone and its deadpan humour. And Gustafsson (who is 49) makes a decent job of playing Allan the centenarian.
The film’s marketing has encouraged comparisons with Forrest Gump, which have some validity: the story deals with a simple, uncomplicated soul who stumbles upon major world events. But hearteningly, the tone of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is not remotely as sentimental or relentlessly upbeat as Forrest Gump: no eye-rolling mantras along the lines of ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ here.
Instead, the new film strikes an amused, nonchalant attitude towards life and humanity, and its humour is darker – more Scandinavian, one supposes. Besides, I’m not sure Forrest Gump is the best comparison: I was more sharply reminded of Woody Allen’s mock-documentary Zelig, also about a nonentity who is somehow on hand to witness great moments in history.
One aspect of the book that survives the transition to the big screen is the way minor characters meet their deaths – suddenly, randomly and often comically. (Allan’s prowess with explosives comes into play here.) These depictions thumb their noses at notions of good taste, but they’re also integral to the story’s spirit: the old man’s adventures have a knockabout, absurdist quality to them. There’s a generous spirit to the film, a matter-of-fact shrug in the direction of mortality. Maybe after 100 years on earth, it’s not so hard to accept that life is but a joke.