Knut Hamsun as a Literary and Film Character

Katrin Kangur

Abstract


This article uses as a case study the historical-biographical drama film Hamsun (1996) in order to discuss the complications that arise when considering biographical films as adaptations of biographical and/or autobiographical works of literature. Hamsun by the Swedish director Jan Troell is an adaptation of the Danish author Thorkild Hansen’s documentary novel Processen mod Hamsun (The Trial of Hamsun, 1978), which in turn draws most extensively on the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun’s own writings, primarily his autobiographical novel Paa gjengrodde Stier (On Overgrown Paths, 1949). Hansen, in telling the story of Hamsun’s life, concentrates on the events surrounding the Second World War and its aftermath in Norway. The focus is set on the court trial of 1945–1948 when Hamsun was accused of being a quisling and his mental state was seriously questioned not only by the court, but also the general public. Hansen in his novel interprets his extensive source material with a very clear intention of rehabilitating Hamsun as a great writer with a brilliant mind instead of considering him a traitor. It is Hamsun’s own perspective in Paa gjengrodde Stier that clearly lays the groundwork for Hansen’s portrait of the writer. However, Hamsun’s account of events is most selective: his often sharp and ironic descriptions of the present are combined with lyrical and philosophical reminiscences of the past, hardly providing the reader with any answers or explanations. The character Hamsun in Paa gjengrodde Stier seems to be a rather carefully constructed figure whose primary intent is to evoke the reader’s sympathy and to remind us of his status as a writer, an artist. The director Troell has said in several interviews that it was very important for him to use Hansen’s book as source material, but that he and his screenwriter Per Olov Enquist have included many other sources, among them Hamsun’s own Paa gjengrodde Stier. Viewing the film as an adaptation of Hansen’s book, one easily recognizes the connections to Hamsun’s own writings. An interesting question is whether or how the main character differs in each above-mentioned text. Naturally, the longer the period of time that separates the source material from the film adaptation, the more significant a role the changes that have occurred over time in social, political and ethical values play in our interpretation of depicted events. Hansen’s portrayal of Hamsun was very original and controversial in its time. However, the release of the film Hamsun to an international audience in 1996 reopened the debate of “Hamsun’s guilt”. Troell chose to focus on the drama of Hamsun’s personal life through the war and its after-effects. The image of an artist instead of a collaborator – similar to what Hamsun created of himself on the pages of Paa gjengrodde Stier – prevails in both the novel and its film adaptation.

Keywords


biographical film; documentary novel; autobiographical novel; adaptation studies; Knut Hamsun; biography

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References


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.12697/IL.2013.18.2.08

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