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Agreeing on History: Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation

Finland’s 1918 Civil War tore the nation apart along class lines, wrecking the social narrative that made Finns trust each other and cooperate. The Finns’ inability to agree on what had happened during and after the war kept them divided until the novel trilogy Under the North Star (1959–62; Täällä Pohjantähden alla) and its film adaptations (1968–70) helped reconcile the nation. Social cohesion requires that people understand each other’s motives and behavior, and fiction can be particularly effective in conveying how others experience the world. A successful novel-film combination can bookend a contentious discourse, with a combative novel followed by a milder adaptation that can be assigned a more conciliatory position as restorative truth. This article examines how Väinö Linna’s novels and their 1968 and 2009 adaptations pursued such a strategy, then asks what is required for fiction to unite a nation and whether fiction can still fulfill such a role.

One of fiction’s functions is to provide a medium through which a culture can discuss itself. Not only to negotiate the proper approach to romance, friendship, and professional pursuit, but also for the bigger questions—like who we are, who we were, and who we want to be (Carroll et al.).1 When a nation faces systemic threat from not being able to agree on what is real and what is fake, this becomes more than a mere salon exercise. With Under the North Star, Väinö Linna helped reunite Finland behind a shared narrative after over four decades of deep division (Browning 203). The trilogy and its adaptations were so effective that they became cultural truth; or as prime minister Esko Aho expresses: “To understand Finland and the Finns one needs only read one book: Under the North Star by Väinö Linna” (qtd. in the preface of Linna’s Under the North Star, ix).

The novels and their adaptations chronicle how a century ago, the small Nordic nation was pulled into the undertow of their neighbor’s communist revolution. The Finnish liberals won the ensuing Civil War, but they did so in a manner so wretched that it created a taboo that prevented open discourse on these historical events. In the way of quicker reconciliation stood primarily neither the carnage (1.2 percent of the population), nor previous ideological differences, but a fundamental distrust and the winners’ rejection of the losing side’s reality. The winners—the liberal and conservative Whites—were mostly landowners, entrepreneurs, and intelligentsia. They generally did not understand why the socialist Reds—mostly industrial and agricultural workers—took up arms. But the Whites also insisted that the Reds themselves had been ignorant in respect to their own motivations; the Whites would not recognize the unique inequalities that working-class Finns had suffered. After winning the war, Whites permitted no other understanding than that the lower classes had acted irrationally—against those classes’ own interests; Finland’s poor had simply been duped by communists.2 In respect to their own wrongdoing, Whites “never admitted the severe consequences of the aftermath and were never persecuted for the crimes that they committed during the war” (Heimo 48).

The Whites’ paternalistic position was an extension of the narrative that had united Finns during their last decades as a territory of Russia (1809–1917). The hegemonic story was that the higher classes would educate and lead the lower classes, so that together they could achieve national independence, an idea that Laine’s adaptation makes explicit when the vicaress arrives in the village (see Figure 1). Under this liberal story, classes were complementary—instead of in opposition, as under the socialist story. The competition between these two stories, liberalism and socialism, also threatened the stability of Finland’s Nordic neighbors in the early 1900s. But from the 1930s onward, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway were able to negotiate a middle way that lessened class contention through an emphasis on Scandinavian sameness and social egalitarianism (Lindström 112–90). The result was a social-democratic model that was widely beneficial across population segments.

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Immediately upon arrival in the village, the vicaress demands to know what the state of the lower classes’ education and patriotism is. She needs them to believe in her story, so that everyone can work together for Finnish independence (Laine, 1968).

During this Nordic model’s embryonic period—from the 1920s through the 1950s—the Finns remained, to a greater extent, divided. Their social division was only brought to an end in the 1960s, as a result of the debate that came in the aftermath of Linna’s astoundingly popular trilogy, with further assistance from director Edvin Laine’s film adaptations of Linna’s novels. The trilogy broke the Civil War taboo; Laine’s adaptations helped negotiate a consensus for the discourse that ensued. Over a million Finns—of a population of 4.6 million—bought cinema tickets for the first of Laine’s two adaptations. The first film’s original TV run drew 2.4 million viewers (Alapuro 156–62).

This article argues that Under the North Star’s conciliatory effect is achieved by portraying both Reds and Whites as flawed but rational beings who act in what they perceive to be their best interest. Compelling and believable characters—forced into conflict by social position and economic and political peril—push audiences to spread their empathy. To achieve this dual audience alignment, both the trilogy and its adaptations made room for massive use of well-researched backstory. It is a risky strategy—with both novels and films—to frontload a narrative with a long, detailed, and slowly-unfolding prologue, as readers and audiences can get impatient.3 The story can feel detached or fall apart. Still, both Linna and Laine chose to incur this risk, because what happened in the decades before the atrocities of 1918 was crucial for understanding why Reds and Whites acted as they did.

Interestingly, both critics and readers were enthusiastic when Linna used almost forty percent of his over twelve-hundred pages to arrive at what can be read as the story’s inciting incident—the Russian Revolution. But for Laine’s three-hour-long first movie, both domestic and international critics expressed that too much backstory made the narrative fall apart (Uusitalo qtd. in Elonet “Täällä”). From an aesthetic perspective it is perhaps not an unreasonable critique. But among audiences, these artistic concerns were mostly ignored. By the time the novels became adapted for cinema, Under the North Star had become embraced as a new narrative for who Finns were as a people. Linna’s story had become part of their identity; their origin story. Even with generational hindsight, this cultural significance made the early critics’ narrative concerns irrelevant for general audiences. In 2007, the Finnish people voted to select the 1968 adaptation of Under the North Star as the greatest film in their cinema’s hundred-year history (Arto). Ten years earlier, the novels had been chosen by both the public and by cultural elites as one of the two greatest works of art during Finland’s eighty-year independence (Halmari 36).4

Under the North Star’s remarkable commercial and cultural success—and the interplay between the novels and the 1968/70 and 2009/10 filmatizations—makes Linna’s story apt subject matter for an adaptation study in the intertextual tradition. Insights from this exploration could be relevant for cultural challenges in our present era. We should, naturally, be careful when comparing century-old Finnish class division with today’s divisive politics and lack of opponent empathy. But an examination of Under the North Star can shed light on how fiction can help bridge divides, and on how a novel and its adaptation can play different roles when a nation must agree on new truths.

Forgiving the Unforgivable

It is not obvious what types of truth there are for a process of reconciliation, but South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) suggested a breakdown that is useful for our exploration. TRC’s four types of truth are: (1) factual/forensic truth, (2) personal/narrative truth, (3) social/dialogue truth, and (4) healing/restorative truth. This article argues that Linna’s thoroughly researched second novel—which dealt with 1918—brought new (1) factual truth to the public. The novels let the Reds’ (2) personal truths be heard. The contentious content of these two forms of truth triggered a (3) dialogue, which both in Finland and South Africa was seen as the most crucial step for reconciliation. The new narrative on Finnish history that arose from this process of reconciliation became expressed in the film adaptation as (4) restorative truth. This final type of truth “places facts and what they mean within the context of human relationships,” and the result can be seen as a renegotiated understanding of a painful past (TRC).

A novel that is meant to open wounds can take a combative position. But a different strategy could be beneficial for an adaptation that comes on the tail end of the discourse triggered by the novel. Instead of being equally confrontational, the film can have a more conciliatory effect if it adapts the story to align with what seems about to become a new cultural consensus on the past. This involves catering to both sides of the conflict. Because the losing Reds had been silenced, it was valuable that Under the North Star—in the second novel—showed the Whites’ war atrocities, prisoner abuse, and mass executions. Linna’s leftist critique aligned with the Reds’ far-left politics, which were political perspectives that had become inappropriate in public debate after the Civil War. That an author of Linna’s stature supported politics similar to those radical politics that the Reds had professed, helped humanize those on the wrong side of Finnish history.

Eight years after the second novel, however, the first film adaptation chose not to overly dwell with the Whites’ worst atrocities (see Figure 2). The films also cut the sharpest edges off Linna’s leftism. Key for all versions of the story was to convey the personal motivations that Reds and Whites had for doing what they did. In the following, we will investigate how the story of the fictional Koskela family is told in Linna’s 1960 novel, in Laine’s 1968 film adaptation, and in Timo Koivusalo’s 2009 film remake. The three storytellers’ shared purpose is to help their contemporary audiences understand both sides of the Civil War—but with a particular focus on what motivated the Reds.

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Akseli suffers in the prison camp in the film adaptation too, but the winning side’s atrocious abuse is toned down (Laine, 1968).

Under the North Star chronicles three generations of Koskelas and the lives of those they share the fictional village of Pentti’s Corner with. From 1884 to the 1950s, living conditions improve due to agricultural innovation, economic growth, and political empowerment of society’s lower classes. This runs parallel with the story of the Nordic farmer in the twentieth century. But for Finnish farmers like Jussi, his oldest son Akseli, and Akseli’s oldest son Vilho, national and global politics puncture this slow progress with tremendous devastation. Akseli’s two brothers are executed after the Civil War, and his three oldest sons are killed in WWII. Ultimately, this tragic epic shows both the powerlessness and the resilience of those at society’s bottom rungs as the Western world entered modernity. When the story ends, Finland and the Koskela linage have survived the left-wing extremism of the 1910s, the right-wing extremism of the 1920s and ‘30s, and Soviet invaders during WWII. For the purpose of this article, focus will be on Under the North Star’s depiction of the 1918 Civil War, its causes, and its aftermath.

The 1960 novel and the 1968 adaptation begin the story in 1884, as does the 2009 remake after a half-minute flash-forward. In a pre-modern, rural Finland, a 30-something Jussi prospects a swamp that the church owns. He gets permission to put in years of back-breaking work to turn the swamp into productive farmland, but later gets cheated by clergy who reclaim much of the land from his family. Before the narrative arrives at the Russian Revolution, Linna’s trilogy spends 480 pages, and Laine’s first film uses over 75 minutes. The neighboring country’s upheaval can be read as the inciting incident for the journey of the protagonist, Jussi’s son Akseli. Up until this point, Akseli has mostly put up with what he experiences as unfair and systemic oppression of himself, his family, and of his tenant farmer neighbors. But when he learns that drastic change has been possible for Russians, Akseli decides for fight for a better tomorrow for Finns; with violence if necessary. The purpose of the novel and the film’s massive backstory is to give a generational justification for why ordinary people chose to risk everything by taking up arms.

Finland’s at the time uniquely precarious situation for tenant farmers, such as the Koskelas, was among what today are considered chief causes for the Civil War. This was a view not shared by experts in 1960. In fact, established historians were the first and most eager to discredit Linna’s work.6 The ensuing discourse, however, pushed new generations of Finnish academics to reexamine what caused the 1918 conflict. Younger historians concluded that the Whites were right in their accusations of external pressure, because the Russian revolution did ignite Finnish workers. But Finland’s class-based inequalities and dysfunctional politics facilitated the tremendous uprising that other Nordic countries avoided.7

Most rural Finns lived as tenant farmers that landlords extracted free labor from. This was an exceptionally feudal arrangement for its era. Even after putting generations of labor into making their land productive, tenant farmers risked eviction at whim. By this time in Sweden and Denmark, such arrangements applied to 30 and 10 percent of crops, respectively. In Finland, the percentage was 60. In the south of Finland—where Reds seized power—there were regions with 90–96 percent tenant crops. Unlike slaves, tenant farmers were free to leave, but their subjugated position was not very different. For Finland’s politically awakening lower classes, these relations became untenable. Their country had gone from having Europe’s most conservative, class-based parliament to becoming the first European country with universal suffrage in 1906. Drastic land reform felt inevitable and far overdue (Eskola et al. 185–92; Stormbom 168–9).

To dramatize this conflict, Linna lets Under the North Star’s vicar—to please his socially ambitious wife—take back a third of the Koskelas’ fields. Aroused by the era’s newfound belief in political change, young Akseli will no longer stand for his mother Alma’s customary acquiescence (see Figure 3):

ALMA But if it’s God’s will…
AKSELI Don’t drag God into it. God doesn’t need our marsh. It’s that damned priest that’s taking them.
ALMA Hold your tongue! You’ll have to accept God’s will at some point in your life.
AKSELI Any crime is explained away with the help of God. But I won’t bow to land-robbers.
ALMA Come on now! He is a servant of God, after all.
AKSELI He’s a servant to the Devil. And to the greatest Devil there is. (Koivusalo 32; translation from subtitles)

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Akseli tries to stand up to his mother Alma when he argues for why their family should no longer accept status quo (Koivusalo, 2009).

Disproportioned Revenge

At this politically tumultuous time, subversive attitudes like those of Akseli Koskela spread quickly, undermining societal stability and demanding response. In addition to the external influence of the Russian revolution, and the internal pressure of inequality, the third cause of the Civil War that historians emphasize is dysfunctional politics. The bourgeoisie’s liberal narrative of national unity had long been hegemonic. When it ceased to convince the lower classes, the middle and upper classes proved incapable of reevaluation and proper response. The Whites’ strong emphasis on unity was not irrational, as the long-held priority of many Whites was to gain independence from Russia. They too saw that land reform was inevitable, but they thought it could be postponed. So instead of negotiating a new consensus on how a modern society should be structured, the privileged classes insisted on the utility of their old story. Linna believed that if Finland had had a middle class who supported liberal values, Finnish independence could have played out less violently (Stormbom 187).

This bourgeois dysfunction left an ideological void that prevented Finns from effectively maneuvering through the turmoil caused by their neighbor’s revolution. No new ideas proved broadly salient, and reform that could have defused desperation among rural and urban workers did not manifest. As a consequence of being unable to agree on a new narrative that explained the reality of their shared situation, neither Whites nor Reds were willing to share power. They headed toward what seemed an inevitable confrontation. Whites strengthened their Civil Guard, and Reds had to decide whether they too should arm themselves. For Akseli, this decision becomes the mid point—the point of no return—in both film adaptations. Before the decisive vote at the People’s Hall, as an emerging leader Akseli makes the pivotal argument: “Non-socialists don’t have the exclusive right to carry arms. I second Hellberg’s proposition. The worker gets nothing unless he has power” (Koivusalo 92).

Under normal circumstances, ragtag militias of inexperienced workers like Akseli and his comrades could have been more quickly crushed. But the final chief cause of the Civil War was the vacuum left by the Russian power apparatus that retreated due to their domestic revolution, which led to sudden Finnish independence. This gave local Reds a chance to seize the south of Finland. Whites regrouped in the north and waited for German reinforcement. The Civil War began with Red progress and revolutionary fervor, but quickly became an onslaught from Whites who dominated due to military experience, superior equipment, and German help. Once again in power, the Whites felt deeply betrayed. They could not accept that their former and now-again underlings had legitimate reasons for revolt. The winning side took gruesome revenge.

That 5,700 Reds were killed in battle before the surrender—although naturally tragic—is how wars play out. But another 10,000 defenseless Reds were slaughtered in ensuing or related terror. 12,500 Reds were starved to death in prison camps. By contrast, 3,500 Whites were killed in battle and 1,650 by terror. The inhumanity of the Whites’ disproportioned and extrajudicial bloodbath scarred the Reds’ trust, and the victors would not admit wrongdoing in the decades that followed. The official story was that Whites had secured their nation’s independence from Russia and saved Finland from communism. Reds had opposed this out of reckless irrationality. This one-sided fiction created a division that cut all the way from national politics to local dance halls. The untenable divide lasted until Linna told a much fuller story of the Civil War to an audience who at first did not know what to do with it (Armstrong 596–7; Tikka 117–8).

Linna centers his narrative argument for shared culpability around the sequence of switching fortunes from Red progress to White revenge. The long backstory makes clear the causes for Red desperation, so that when they get a chance to settle old scores, readers and audiences sympathize at least with the Reds’ temptations. But the Reds’ cruel abuse and slaughter of former masters also garners enough sympathy so that when Whites regain power, we understand why they too crave revenge. The Whites’ payback quickly becomes excessive, though, and in the aftermath of this, the novel and its adaptations somewhat diverge.

Silence While a Bomb Ticks

Akseli and his comrades hand over their weapons to the White victors. Both the 1968 and 2009 adaptations show death, starvation, and cruelty during the films’ final twelve minutes. But not to the extent that Linna’s second novel wallows in this White-imposed misery over its final sixty-five pages, before a harrowed Akseli is reunited with his Elina. In the novel, gleeful torture, mock trials, and ideologically-fueled dehumanization paint a more devilish picture of Whites. Interestingly, Koivusalo’s 2009 remake deemphasizes this cruelty even more than what Laine’s 1968 version did. How the 1960 novel and 1968 film diverge in their portrayal of violence could perhaps partially be explained by what Anne Gjelsvik has called “a tendency for what I will term ‘downplaying’ of taboos and provocative content in mainstream cinema, where challenging depictions of violence or sex are modified to suit the conventions of cinema” (246). But this divergence is also likely informed by how the cultural discourse—in the eight years between novel and the first film—made White vilification less conducive for a Finnish culture that was beginning to heal. With even greater temporal distance, the 2009 remake chose to dwell even less with White transgressions toward defeated Reds.

Another significant change—also likely temporally informed—is how Laine in 1968 spends the film’s opening eleven minutes on Jussi’s proto-Finnish clearing of land before Jussi’s son is born (see Figure 4). In 2009, Koivusalo unfolds this part of the narrative using only three minutes. To national-romantic music and images, 1968-Jussi establishes his family and hearth with so much patriotic pathos that even the audience’s most White-aligned nationalist should be touched. Because the novel and its adaptation won the cultural discourse in the 1960s, such a lengthy prologue was simply not needed in 2009. By then, the fictional Koskelas had become as Finnish as saunas and lakes. Apart from this shorter opening and less White cruelty in the end, the two films have been perceived as remarkably alike in, for instance, plot structure and cinematography (Kinnunen).8

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Jussi turns swamp into farmland, accompanied by an invigorating score (Laine, 1968).

This fidelity suggests that the Finns’ restorative truth from 1968 was not in need of a twenty-first-century renegotiation. An underwhelming 2009 box office suggests that audiences agreed. Even with the changes that do exist between these three versions of Under the North Star, the narrative of the novel and of both films are so similar that reader-audiences likely feel that the same story is being told. Considering this story congruence, it is striking how dramatically different these works’ public receptions were.

Knowing that Linna was writing a trilogy, Finns suspected that something drastic could be in store with his second instalment. Eerily, the first novel ends short of the Civil War. Linna had already earned a position as Finland’s national novelist with The Unknown Soldier (1954; Tuntematon sotilas), which also was fantastically successful and culturally influential both as literature and film. The Unknown Soldier’s controversy came from how it challenged truths about Finland’s Continuation War (1941–44). Would Linna dare rip up the painful sores from 1918? He most certainly would. But when he did, Linna’s revisionist history was met with silence or evasive acclaim. Critics had been split over book one. The second received near uniform praise, even for the artistic merit of Linna’s realism at a time when modernism was the rage. His novels sold in the hundreds of thousands. Awards abounded. There was even talk of a Nobel Prize (Schoolfield 237). But no one—not a single public voice—wanted to acknowledge that their dearest novelist had dropped a bomb in their midst.

Linna himself had to break the silence by explaining publically that he really did mean what his novel proclaimed. He went to a foreign news outlet to make his first such statement. In a Swedish newspaper, under the title “Finland’s White Lie,” Linna insisted that independent Finland had been built on a lie that still hurt the Finnish people. When he began work on the trilogy, it had not been his intention to expose lies or cause controversy. But his research could not be ignored. After over four decades, Finns had to have a talk, and everyone should contribute. Linna could not have been clearer in his appeal to the Finnish people, but still, no one wanted to participate (Stormbom 171–85).

Days and weeks passed. Finally, a Swedish-language newspaper in Helsinki published uniformly negative responses from six historians and sociologists. Linna was told to stay in his lane and leave history to the pros. These six experts insisted that Linna was wrong, and even if he were not—which he absolutely was—more harm than good was likely to come from reopening these wounds. A professor Blomstedt disputed that inequalities could have caused the 1918 uprising among the Finnish lower classes, because “hunger, suffering, and oppression are more contemporary propaganda than historic truth” (qtd. in Stormbom 182; my translation).

The glove Linna had thrown down had been picked up and slapped across his face. But Linna was prepared. The author sat on massive research and had allied himself with Finland’s leading revisionist historian. Linna engaged his opponents, argued his position, and his version of the Civil War eventually became hegemonic. The process would take years, but Finland’s national author had factual truth on his side—and wildly popular narrative truth to convey these facts with. This combination let Linna’s perspective increasingly dominate the discourse until mostly eccentrics opposed him.

An Adaptation with Farcical Drunkenness

Linna’s director friend Edvin Laine also wanted to contribute to his nation’s reconciliation. Laine became a tremendous ally, as he had been when he turned Linna’s The Unknown Soldier into Finnish history’s most successful film—seen by 2.8 million in theaters (Elonet “Tuntematon”). Interestingly, it was not Linna’s novel that came to represent the Finns’ indisputable cultural truth on what the Continuation War had been. That honor befell Laine’s film. The Unknown Soldier was an enormously popular novel that won over even the least inclined to read—but only for a few decades. Today, much fewer people have read Linna. Laine’s 1955 film, however, still makes Finns gather for a ritualistic TV séance every December 6, which is their Independence Day. Even with impressive remakes from 1985 and 2017, Laine’s The Unknown Soldier remains what Finns unite behind as cultural truth (Eskola 365).

With Under the North Star, Laine faced a new challenge. The Unknown Soldier premiered the year after Linna’s novel, but financing issues created an eight-year gap for Under the North Star.9 The director therefore had to consider the effect of the long and intense discourse that his novelist friend had mostly won by the late 1960s. The story Laine was about to tell would certainly not be an underdog narrative there to kick open doors, for a new truth on the Civil War was already emerging. The prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize had been awarded Linna in 1963 for his third installment in the trilogy. The Finnish high school curriculum’s new term for the 1918 War of Liberation had become the more neutral Civil War. Publications from a new generation of historians supported Under the North Star’s version of causation and events. Oral histories were collected from both sides. Also, the social upheavals of the 1960s brought back the Reds’ politics as an accepted part of the public marketplace of ideas. Gradually, what had been a White myth about Finnish history became replaced by a Red version also somewhat mythical. But even if this new Red-aligned narrative was not perfectly balanced, it was nowhere near as inaccurate as the White version had been (Tepora 393).

By the time Laine’s adaptation premiered in 1968, the public controversy around 1918 was mostly deflated. What remained was to unite people around a consensus on what had transpired half a century past, and Finns seemed ready to let the film become this new truth. A novel is most often read individually; the images and conclusions it evokes are not as easily shared.10 With cinema, people come together—elbow to elbow in the darkness—to experience emotional journeys synchronized by image and sound. In theaters, a few modernist poets were observed giggling, but ordinary Finns told the poets to be silent (Rajala 368). What audiences witnessed aligned with Laine’s reputation as Linna’s apolitical court adapter. Where the novels dwell on political critique with timeless potential to alienate, Laine’s adaptation watered this down to prioritize entertainment.11

For instance, when Reds rule Pentti’s Corner during the Civil War, tenant farmer Antto Laurila grabs his son Uuno to get revenge over their landowner Töyry. Both Laurilas are drunk and bring rifles. In Linna’s novel, this horrific episode transpires with petty cruelty and disturbing abuse of Töyry and his wife. The visit also foreshadows how Uuno—who has already been to prison for murder—executes Töyry the next time he visits. In this interaction, generations of bitter conflict well up through hateful accusations:

“From the time you took over the farm, my life has been hell . . . A bullet through you, that would be the right punishment.”
Töyry’s wife had been wailing the whole time, but Antto’s threat caused her to step hurriedly to her husband’s side:
“Now don’t… we haven’t done you any wrong.” . . .
“You keep your mouth shut too, you high-and-mighty bitch… You don’t deserve any better… The right thing for you would be to pour melted tin into your twat.” (Linna 1960, 261)

Antto accounts for real grievances, but the readers also know that Antto is a confrontational and unreasonable tenant farmer. The Laurilas and the Töyrys have genuine conflicts of interest. This is class politics at their most personal; revved-up by lawlessness and booze. While Antto unloads, “Töyry listened to the outburst with a cold, expressionless face.” The seriousness is emphasized with how—when Antto finally leaves—Antto was “totally lacking in even the joy of malice” (263).

In Laine’s version, however, this confrontation plays out as an, at times, hilarious scene (see Figure 5). Throughout the adaptation, the director gets considerable comedic mileage from portraying many villagers as habitually drunk morons. The rural alcoholic has a long history as a comedic character in Finnish culture, and in the jokes Scandinavians tell of Finns. Stumbling steps, slurred speech, and bushy mustaches become frequent comedic relief in Laine’s version of Pentti’s Corner. In a story so weighed down by paucity and atrocities, farcical portrayals of drunkenness offer intermittent levity that probably explains a significant part of the film’s popular appeal.

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The film turns a life-and-death scene into comedy of drunken manners (Laine, 1968).

Laine’s Töyry—instead of responding with a cold, expressionless face—follows the Laurilas’ demeaning orders with cockeyed cackling. The actors who play Antto and Uuno pretend to be so drunk that they almost fall over. Linna’s story too has its comedic moments—in some scenes—but Laine turns many scenes into comedy of the variety show variant dear to audiences at the time. The result is that serious political issues and personal confrontations are given a sheen of blitheness that lets audiences disconnect emotionally so that they can enjoy the action more like pure entertainment. What plays out as violent and hateful confrontations in the novel, in the adaptation, at times, becomes light-hearted kerfuffles evocative of The Benny Hill Show from the same era. A lively musical score contributes to this impression.

A Perfectly Fine Remake

At least commercially, this entertainment-over-politics strategy was successful, and positive reviews spread quickly. With an audience of over a million movie-going Finns, and more than double that in front of TVs two years later, Laine’s epos became the nation’s restorative truth (Elonet “Täällä”). Perhaps to tie a ribbon around this new Finnish unity, Linna wrote a new ending for the 1970 adaptation (see Figure 6). The last novel tapers off with all the Koskela men dead, except Akseli’s youngest son Juhani. To emphasize the harmony of Finland’s emerging welfare society, Laine’s 1970 film version replaces the trilogy’s more muted ending with Akseli being alive and enjoying his daughter’s well-attended wedding party.

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Linna wrote a new, more cheerful and communal ending for the film adaptations in which Akseli is alive to celebrate his daughter's wedding (Laine, 1970).

The film adaptations’ new cultural truth constituted a reevaluation of the past that was sufficient at least until the 1990s. Around the turn of the century, a new generation of academics began to reexamine the Civil War, initiating work on a database that in 2004 was complete with 40,000 names of victims and information on how they died (Tepora and Roselius 12–3). Around the same time, writer-director Timo Koivusalo acquired rights to retell Linna and Laine’s story for those too young to remember the 1960s. When Koivusalo announced that he would offer his take on the Finns’ modern epos, he faced puzzled expectations. Koivusalo was known primarily as a lowbrow comedian (“Pekka the Bachelor”) whose films audiences flocked to but critics vehemently detested. For some, the nation’s cultural heritage felt at risk.

When the first of Koivusalo’s two remakes premiered, however, critics agreed that the self-taught director—after ten films—had finally made a film that was not painful to watch. In fact, the 2009 version of Under the North Star was perfectly okay. The acting was good, the story more or less the same, and visually the remake was so similar to Laine’s adaptation that it too seemed made in the 1960s. The director’s biggest plot change was to use Linna’s original ending instead of the cheerier version Linna wrote for Laine’s film, but this was of little consequence. Tonally, Koivusalo dramatically reduces Laine’s comedy of drunkenness. Such a choice was perhaps surprising, coming from someone of “Pekka the Bachelor” fame. But simpleminded alcoholics no longer enthralled Finnish and Nordic audiences as broadly as they had in the 1960s. The result was a more serious film, with a more subdued musical score, but this solemnity had no significant narrative or thematic consequences.

Critics and audiences’ general consensus was that Koivusalo had created a generic update with no new interpretation. Although this update would be good for teaching history to high school students, the same could still be said for Laine’s adaptations. Even after the extra round of academic research, Finns seemed perfectly content with the Linna-Laine-version of their painful past (Kinnunen; Lehtonen “Koivusalo”; Piela). The 2009 version of Under the North Star went on to sell 166,000 tickets; a respectable number but below Koivusalo’s stated goal of 300,000 (Lehtonen “Koivusalon”). In terms of Jussi Awards (Finnish Oscars), the 1968 adaptation had won four. Koivusalo’s version was nominated for five Jussis, but won none (Elonet “Täällä”). The 2009 remake thus neither felt relevant, nor became a fiasco. Perhaps the exalted status of Laine’s version prevented Koivusalo from making more significant changes. Or it could be that Under the North Star’s take on the Civil War was a restorative truth as functional as the Finnish culture required. For this historical injustice, Finns have a canonical version so broadly embraced that it would require a lot from a new perspective in order for audiences to accept a renegotiation.

A Medium Still Shared

This article has shown how fiction can help divided groups understand each other’s perspectives in a way that facilitates reconciliation. We should be careful with exaggerating storytelling’s general utility for social impact. But for some exceptional works—like Under the North Star, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), The Jungle (1906), The Gulag Archipelago (1973), etc.—these stories’ ability to let us experience the narrative truth of others, and to spread previously hidden facts, let the stories fuel dialogue that changed the world. Sometimes a successful film adaptation can bookend this process and become embraced as restorative truth. Such fictions are naturally not as precise as academic truths; their function is not forensic but cultural. Still, stories of this type can be beneficial for a nation that needs to properly deal with a painful past. Finland’s current prosperity and high levels of trust are argued to be partially a result of effectively laying the past to rest so that people, together, can focus on the future (Zook 160–1).

Historically, fiction with popular appeal and new perspectives has been able to affect change. But perhaps with today’s media fragmentation, such an effect is no longer possible. For Americans, literary reading is at an all-time low (Ingraham). Scandinavians—who had one or two state channels everyone watched synchronously—now stream the world on demand. Instead of gathering in darkness to experience story together, we watch in isolation at home. Economies of Global Hollywood also push productions toward tent-pole superhero fare, which perhaps nods to social issues but without the courage or corporate permission to risk overly alienating. On the other hand, streaming platforms—hungering for buzz—seem to grow increasingly brave with series that engage race, suicide, inequality, and other social issues. Our current peak TV does produce a deluge that atomizes viewership, but outstanding shows like Game of Thrones can still gather over 40 million Americans in front of screens, and millions more internationally (Katz).

Although Netflix is yet to unite politically divided Americans, or nations-states in our era of returning nationalism, it seems premature to detach fiction from social ambition. This article has shown that when the past has been too painful to deal with, compelling and well-researched fiction can open wounds in a way that lets an entire culture participate in the healing. If there can be multiple events—like novel, public debate, political process, film adaptation, etc.—this gives a structure to the process that lets it keep evolving. Our era’s multi-season drama series also extend in time and have proved receptive to audience feedback. Considering the utility of such a prolonged process, contemporary storytellers should have no less potential for influence with the right story and timing. Other arenas have become increasingly atomized and divided along echo-chamber lines. That fiction can still gather mass audiences from across the political spectrum, and from nations around the world, suggests instead the possibility for even greater influence.


1  Carroll et al. list a variety of functions that evolutionary literary theorists argue that fiction can have, such as “reinforcing the sense of a common social identity, fostering creativity and cognitive flexibility, enhancing pattern recognition, serving as a form of sexual display, providing information about the environment, offering game-plan scenarios to prepare for future problem-solving, focusing the mind on adaptively relevant problems, and making emotional sense of experience” (10).

2  Tepora writes that “the established middle-class view” was that Reds had been “hooligans” or “misled by the Bolsheviks” (391).

3  Bordwell (28–9, 36) sums up the prevailing advice from the most influential screenwriting experts. The story’s inciting incident should occur at some point in the film’s beginning twenty-five percent, usually near the middle of this first act. A more conventional prologue would thus only have a few minutes to show how the past influences the protagonist.

4  The other novel was Linna’s even more popular war story The Unknown Soldier (1954).

5  Leitch accounts for how adaptation studies, which earlier had a primary focus on medium specificity, around the 1990s evolved toward embracing intertextuality as the leading principle. Within this new direction, “the adaptations of texts that had been adapted repeatedly were particularly worthy of study” (2–5).

6  Six historians and sociologists were the first who responded publically to Linna’s revisionist history; in a uniformly negative way (Stormbom 176–85). See more on the academic backlash later in this article.

7  Heikki Ylikangas (b. 1937) were among the historians who developed new frameworks for understanding what led to the Civil War. Ylikangas emphasizes Russian agitation, economic inequality, and the power vacuum that left Finnish politics dysfunctional in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. See Ylikangas’s 1999 monograph on Finnish history; or for an English-language account, see Jääskeläinen.

8  The film critic Kalle Kinnunen points out how the cinematography of both films is marked by television-like aesthetics. The influential critic and journalist finds that although post-conflict abuse is toned down in the 2009 version, a brief prisoner rape scene is added to the same sequence. Kinnunen notes that Koivusalo has added a romantic sex scene, but all-in-all the director adds no new interpretation to Linna’s story or Laine’s adaptation.

9  See Uusitalo; quoted in Elonet “Täällä” in section “Taustaa.”

10 While it is generally the case that novels are consumed individually, which limits the communal aspects of the reading experience, there are of course numerous examples of novels with enormous effect on the feelings and experiences of a variety of communities. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997–2007), also written fiction has shown its capacity for creating shared experiences.

11 According to Mikael, Laine was Linna’s “court director” whom critics accused of “watering down” and “making entertainment out of” Linna’s literature (my translations).

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