Hollywood’s love for Nordic tales runs deep
Why American filmmakers and audiences are drawn to Norse mythology and culture
A blood-drenched warrior maniacally screams as he runs across a battlefield to slay his enemies. His Viking mates clench their iron swords and wooden shields and charge toward the nervous Wessex frontline from the North. The Viking clan knew that they may not make it home to enjoy a traditional feast of horsemeat and bread, but they were happy to fight and protect their people. At the end of the debauchery, dozens of corpses lay strewn across the green fields, engulfed in fog.
This is one of the many dramatic scenes from the hit TV show “Vikings,” which has captivated audiences since it first aired in 2013. The show has gained a loyal following because its gives viewers a visual and an emotional sense of what life was like as a Viking. Hollywood writers have only recently drawn to the treasure trove of tales and mythologies from the frozen frontiers of Nordic countries, and it’s proved to be fruitful.
According to a report by the media measurement and analytics company Comscore, the American movie industry generated over $42.5 billion in revenue in 2019. To sustain a robust revenue model, screenwriters draw from stories and characters inspired by exotic traditions from all parts of the globe.
Norse Gods, such as Thor and Loki, were added to the pantheon of characters in Marvels multibillion-dollar franchise. The widely popular HBO TV series “Game of Thrones” was adapted from the works of George R.R. Martin, an American novelist best known for his epic fantasy novels, who drew inspiration from thematic and symbolic elements from the myths and legends of Norse mythology. The Disney Oscar-winning blockbuster Frozen was inspired by Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen.”
The unprecedented success of these productions shows an increasing fascination for Norse folklore and mythology. Lecturer and expert on Scandinavian myth and legend Kimberly Ball at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said she believes that American audiences are entranced by these stories because of their timeless quality.
“One reason for its popularity is the fascinating and visually compelling nature of the stories themselves,” she said. “It has a contemporary feel to it unlike your typical medieval text. It’s starkly told and has a straightforwardness to it that people find appealing.”
Ball said that another reason that some Americans connect with pre-Christian Scandinavian narratives is they take them back to their roots. “Americans who have maybe lost track of their specific hyphenated identity are seeking something that takes them back to their European ancestors,” she said. “It gives them a sense of comfort to know these traditions.”
Norse mythology is a collection of religious stories followed by the Vikings, who were active in the period between 793 and 1066, before they converted to Christianity. The narratives of vibrant pagan symbols and practices became the centerpiece of their culture. The Vikings worshipped Norse gods and goddesses such as Thor, Freya, Loki, and Odin.
Danish-American scholar and UCLA Professor Emeritus Timothy R. Tangherlini, who wrote Interpreting Legend: Danish Storytellers and their Repertoires (2015), said in an interview that the Viking tales appeal to the American sensibility, because Vikings were rough, rugged, and independent explorers—much like a cowboy from the American Old West. “It’s almost like a Western movie with tall bearded people wielding axes that’s set on the sea,” Tangherlini said.
Among all the Nordic-inspired tales in cinema, the Disney animated movie Frozen, released in 2013, put Scandinavian culture on the global map. One of Disney’s most commercially successful movies, it features several landmarks in Norway, such as the Akershus Fortress in Oslo, the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, and Bryggen, the series of Hanseatic heritage buildings lined up the edge of the harbor in Bergen. The movie contains other Nordic elements, such as Viking ships, stave churches, fjords, trolls, and runes. Clothing styles, musical scores, and the use of reindeers for transportation were drawn from the Sámi, the indigenous people who live in large areas in northern Norway.
Tangherlini was one of the cultural experts that Disney animators consulted for the highly anticipated sequel Frozen 2, released in November 2019.
“They actually spent a very long time on this and took multiple trips to northern Norway, as well as Sweden and Finland,” Tangherlini said. “They met with folklorists in Norway and a group of Sámi elders from many of the different tribes. They also spoke with folklore experts in the United States about folklore structures and supernatural beings. They did a really rigorous and robust job of research.”
Disney’s team visited Rørosrein, a Sámi family-owned company in the village Plassje that produces reindeer meat and hosts tourist events. They also visited Nærøyfjord, a branch of Norway’s longest fjord, Sognefjorden, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The trip to Norway provided animators with a sense of the color, light, and atmosphere to add to the aesthetic of the film.
As a result of the movie’s popularity and authenticity, more American tourists are visiting Nordic countries. Harald Hansen, U.S. spokesperson for Visit Norway, said that tour operators in Norway saw a 40% sales increase after the release of Frozen in 2013, and that it increased steadily thereafter. Hansen organized a press trip to Oslo with Disney officials in preparation for the launch of Frozen 2.
Thor Forsberg, a Scandinavian travel expert based in Los Angeles, said that Iceland saw an increase in visitors after the release of TV shows “Game of Thrones” and “Vikings.”
“After watching these movies and shows, Americans want to experience Scandinavia’s nature and adventure, as well as the culture and history, particularly Viking history,” Forsberg said, “They want to get in touch with the authentic heritage of Northern Europe by experiencing its picturesque natural beauty. Popular tours include boat rides on the fjords, hiking in the forests, sailing in Stockholm archipelago and visiting the hot springs, waterfalls and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.”
Norwegian-American scholar Andrew K. Nestingen, chair of the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Washington in Seattle and associate editor of the Journal of Scandinavian Cinema, said that this uptick in interest is significant, considering that Nordic countries have remained mostly hidden from mainstream media, unlike other European nations. “I’m happy to see that people are interested in the Nordic countries and wanting to learn more about the country’s beautiful culture and heritage,” he said.
Nestingen believes that Hollywood is enriched whenever it features other cultures. “People who identify with a Scandinavian-American background are excited to see themselves in this representation of their cultural past in these movies,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.