In 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen released Fargo, a film bursting with black humor, grim violence, and captivating visuals that effectively captured the banalities and eccentricities of life in middle America. The film would go on to win two Academy Awards and receive nominations in five categories, including Best Picture. After failed attempts to translate the success of the film into series adaptations through the years, the Coen brothers finally approved a script written by Noah Hawley, who would later become the primary showrunner and writer for an adaptation of Fargo on the television channel FX.
In the 1996 film Fargo, a man pays two crooks to kidnap his wife in order to get the ransom money, with events spiraling on from there. In the television show, a man is seduced by the alluring charm of chaos that a murderous stranger brings into town, which leads to the death of his wife and begins a separate chain of events – but both attract the suspicion of local police and leave blood in their wake. Thematically, the film and the show share similar depictions of the prevalence of death and the eventual triumph of normalcy over chaos. While largely derivative in terms of narrative and character realization, the televised Fargo (season one specifically) pays homage to its cinematic predecessor by faithfully adapting its hyper-stylized cinematography, familiar setting, thematic values, and darkly comedic tone.
The Coen’s Fargo invites a feeling of curiosity and peaks the interest of the audience from the very beginning. In her review “The Coen Brothers’ Fargo” for The Velvet Light Trap, Kathleen Grant states that “the magnetic draw of the Coens is knowing only to expect the unexpected when the lights go down and the curtain goes up” (98). In Cambridge Film Handbooks: The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, William Luhr echoes this anticipation while describing his appreciation for the opening scene, detailing the “ominous music on the soundtrack” that serenades an “isolated car crawl[ing] across a frozen landscape” (2). Snow swirls and clouds the frame as two pinpricks of light form from the oncoming car’s headlights and grow larger and larger in the frame. The car skates along the icy road, coming from whiteness and leaving into the same oblivion. This desolate image is preceded by a black background overlaid with white text that bears a puzzling paragraph:
“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
In the past two decades it was often speculated that the story of the film was partially based on the life of a man named T. Eugene Thompson, who hired a hitman in 1963 to kill his wife and claim the insurance money. Due to the eerily similar elements that connected this crime to the events of the film and the silence on the Coen brothers part, these speculations seemed to gain solid basis over time. However, in the New York Times article “T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88,” Joel Coen was asked about this theory in relation to the infamous opening text in light of the man’s passing, and he finally revealed that there was no connection whatsoever. Joel Coen also admitted that he had “never heard of him” and that, in spite of the mysterious opening paragraph, Fargo was “completely made up.” In actuality, the only truth in the entire disclaimer is the fact that it’s a “story.”
It doesn’t truly matter however, whether this statement is true or not. In the context of the viewing experience, these words set a “somber mood that is reinforced by the tone of the opening scenes” which establish the feeling “of a grim buildup to a ‘true crime’ from the recent past” (Luhr 2). In Karl Heitmueller’s article “Rewind: What Part Of ‘Based On’ Don’t You Understand,” Joel Cohen is quoted as saying that “if an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.” The strange and violent incidents in Fargo that envelope the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota would no doubt be harder to swallow if the audience was not coached into believing that it all really happened. Perhaps the greatest trick of all is that the Coens’ story, while full of peculiar absurdities, is grounded in a reality so ordinary that it seems possible to garner a truth in what unfolds, even if it is fabricated.
In FX’s Fargo, the familiar and sorrowfully melodic score from the film – tweaked slightly for the television show – swells as this text appears:
“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
This message maintains the spirit of the film, which created a false story under a thin veil of truth, while cheekily changing the date of the event to 2006 and acknowledging that even though it will take place in the same mystically violent state of Minnesota, the Fargo series has a different tale to tell. It’s worth noting that the tiny twin pinpricks of light that appear this time come out darkness and not light. The setting is familiar – another icy road, another lonely car – but the switch from day to night, white to black, seems significant. The meaning seems to be the same, with people coming and going along a stretch of infinite emptiness as far as the frame can see, but it appears as though the creators of the television version are digging their elbows into the ribs of the audience and saying, “See? It feels the same, but it’s not the same at all.”
In Steven Carter’s article “‘Flare To White’: ‘Fargo’ And The Postmodern Turn,” he observes that Fargo “was filmed in color, and yet it’s the absence of color – the bone-chilling whiteness of a Minnesota winter – that sets the movie’s quirky tone from beginning to end” (238). Despite the switch to black in the opening sequence, the television show utilizes this “bone-chilling whiteness” frequently, using the cold, wintry isolation of Minnesota (this time Bemidji) to echo those recognizable feelings of desolation and detachment that the film captured so well.
Both the film and the series have beautiful cinematography that ironically undercuts the violent actions of its characters with sweeping shots of surrounding landscapes and a wholly unique aesthetic. There is often a feeling of too much empty space in the frame, and this framing style and overwhelming whiteness of the snow and sky work to flatten the images and characters. The minimalist nature of both texts provokes a feeling of loneliness. Theseries and the television show also deal bluntly with its violent subject matter, and the blues and whites of wintry Minnesota allow any blood spilled, which there’s a lot of, to pop out at the viewer without shame. Violence in the Fargo universe is always theatrically presented and never hidden.
Carter makes an interesting observation that no one in the film Fargo“has an iota of respect for the dead” (239). One would expect this from the characters who kill for a living, but this applies to everyone else as well. Even Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who one would suppose – as a woman and a police officer – to be a character of moral fiber, shows an indifference to the victims whose deaths she’s investigating. At one point, while inspecting a dead body, Marge is overcome by the need to puke, but it soon disappears as she says sunnily, “Well, that passed. Now I’m hungry again.”
This indifference towards death also lends itself towards the characters’ misplaced emotions. There is a moment when “callous Wade Gustafson” winces as he watches a hockey game and Minnesota lets a puck in (Carter 240). Later on he’s shot to death by Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and he barely reacts, “looking merely puzzled and emitting the mildest of ‘oooohs’ as he falls to the ground” (Carter 240). He shows more emotional investment in a televised hockey game than he expresses in his own demise. The vile characters tend to express more human emotion than the seemingly normal ones do, and even though that emotion exhibits itself in violent ways, often through fear, desperation, and rage, they still are more in touch with their feelings than the characters who stand on the right side of the law.
This idea comes across with particular clarity in the scene where Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) is kidnapped. Jean sits on the couch, knitting and laughing at the television as it broadcasts a cheery morning talk show. Suddenly Showalter, wearing a ski mask and wielding a crowbar, looks inside the house through the glass door. Noticing him, Jean sits transfixed with her face blank and her body stiff with inaction. After five painfully long seconds, Showalter smashes and careens through the glass door and Jean finally reacts, but by then its too late for her to escape. While the scene is harrowing, it utilizes the same dark comedy that prevails throughout the film.
First, while trying to barge into the bathroom where Jean has locked herself in upstairs, several large thumps are heard from the other side of the door. Showalter crams his crowbar into the crack of the door over and over again ad nauseum, until the score itself – which had been rising in intensity and gaining a cryptic melody as Jean tried to escape – quells as if losing its patience. This is followed by a hushed, “Do you want to do it?” as the exhausted Showalter turns to his partner. Finally the door flies open as they find themselves in the empty room. As Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) searches the medicine cabinet and methodically applies ointment to the hand Jean bit in their struggle, Jean abruptly jumps out of the shower, tangles herself in the shower curtain, and trips down the stairs to her death. This scene is a prime example of character inaction, black humor, and the film’s oddly anticlimactic treatment of death.
Grant attests that “there is a narrative, thematic, and aesthetic strategy” within the film that is “built upon the twinning of elements at odds with each other, be they characters, moralities, or visual motifs, to the effect of both anchoring and destabilizing the film” (Grant 99). In the television show these warring elements can be seen in a single character: Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). The biggest difference between the texts is that the series explores entirely different storylines and characters, but conceptual echoes of certain characters return. Both Lester and Jerry are salesman, unsatisfied husbands, and stammering ball of nerves.
However, while William H. Macy’s character facilitates the actions that unravel in the film, and largely remains a static character throughout, Freeman’s character Lester has the benefit of expanded screen time that allows for more character development – we see him go from a weakling to a villainous plotter through the course of the series. He starts out as weak, pitiful, and sympathetic, a man who is unable to express himself much like the stoic characters in the film Fargo, who remain unperturbed lest they allow themselves to be affected by the gritty and dark realities that surround them. He feels as though he is drowning in a listless marriage, paired with a verbally abusive wife who constantly berates and belittles him into submission.
Towards the end of the first episode, Lester and his wife, Pearl, are arguing in their dimly lit basement over a broken washing machine (in the larger context of their broken marriage.) Pearl keeps rattling on, telling Lester that she should never have married him, that she never loved him, that he’s not “a real man.” Finally, Lester lashes out and slams his fist down on the fried washing machine, showing his first burst of real, physical emotion since the audience was introduced to him. Pearl refuses to stop as Lester eyes a hammer sitting in a toolbox nearby. He picks it up and threatens her with it, as she laughs at him, using her final words to diminish him further. He smiles sardonically and then smashes the hammer down on her head. She falls backwards dead, and he keeps hitting her, his face contorted with disgust as he snorts, “Ah, geez… ah, geez…ah geez” with each slam of the hammer. His Minnesotan accent and anxious words of apology undercut every violent action with a strange sort of innocence, securing the claim that Lester is a man of contradictions.
His white, pristine collared shirt is now drenched in red, and in an additional twist of irony, Lester looks up from his wife’s dead body to see a poster on the wall, splattered with Pearl’s blood. Aesthetically similar to the posters seen in elementary schools, the picture depicts a group of gold fish swimming with a single red fish going in the opposite direction. It is bordered by big block letters that read: “What If You’re Right And They’re Wrong?” Here the poster leads Lester, and the audience, to question the advantages and disadvantages of living within the confines of a community where everyone behaves the same. Like the folks of Fargo from the film world, Lester began as a simple, unemotional character who accepted the boundaries set by society around him. Once he stepped beyond that moral barrier he was finally able to express himself, but now he has more in common with the Carl Showalters and Jerry Lundegaards of the expanded Fargo universe.
In the film, after Marge finally confronts Showalter’s accomplice Grimsrud and is driving him to jail in her police car, she puts the pieces of the case together in her mind: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there..and I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper..those three people in Brainerd.” She pauses for a long time, mulling over all the evidence of death this man has left in his wake, before saying, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, y’know? Don’t you know that?” She sniffs, “And here ya are and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
In his essay “Praising Minnesota: The Coens’ ‘Fargo’ and the Pressures of Stoic Community,” William Chaloupka believes that Marge’s speech is about “the breakdown of social commitments” in a world where “everyone knows they are supposed to act according to a broader set of values than the simple pursuit of money that otherwise dominates American life” (20). Fargo examines what happens when people step beyond that boundary of set values and act of their own volition, and follows the consequences that those ripples create in small, isolated towns.
Marge’s perplexed innocence at the horrors that she has just witnessed is justified; she trailed a pair of murderers only to arrive too late to save the victim and watch helplessly while Grimsrud forced his ex-partner into a woodchipper, blood gushing out with nauseating volume and intensity onto the virgin snow. It is the fact that she does not understand Grimsrud’s intentions that separates her from film’s villains. In his review of the film for Film Quarterly, critic Devin McKinney refers to the ending as a particularly revealing moment, a scene which finds “Marge and phlegmatic hubby snugly abed with talk of postage stamps” (34).
Her aforementioned dialogue now gives the audience pause when, after saying “there’s more to life than a little money,” she is celebrating the achievement of her husband’s artwork on the the three cent stamp. She squeezes his arm and snuggles up against him with encouraging words as he stares blankly ahead at the flickering TV and the camera slowly tracks forward, closing in on their chaste embrace as he reaches over and pats her pregnant belly, saying, “two more months.” This scenes accepts “banality as an eternal verity, the value for which Middle Americans deserve the approbation of their cultural betters: postage stamps and a baby on the way” (34).
In FX’s Fargo, Marge’s television counterpart is Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), a young female deputy at the Bemidji police department. While Marge remains a fairly static character in the film – knowledgeable, strong, and chipper – Molly is given an expanded story due to the length of the series. While she is consistently intelligent and often the sharpest person in the room, Molly’s story arc revolves around her gaining respect from her coworkers and strengthening her voice until it’s impossible to ignore. Like Marge, Molly also becomes pregnant through the course of the show, but she never allows it to hinder her in her investigation of Lester. While Marge has the satisfaction of driving Grimsrud to the police station herself, Molly is unable to catch Lester directly.
She receives a phone call saying that Lester fell through the ice as he tried to escape arrest, and Molly looks resigned. Hearing the sound of the television carrying from the other room, the camera follows Molly as she walks in on her husband and stepdaughter watching a game show on TV and discussing whether they’d take the money or keep playing. This talk about the importance of money, centered on a small family gathering around a flickering TV as the camera tracks in slowly, mimics the same sentiments of the conclusion to the film. Marge and Molly are satisfied with their homely, albeit unexciting lives, finding blessings in the same situations other characters, like Jerry Lundegaard and Lester Nygaard, tried desperately to escape.
The television show adaptation of the film explores a new story with new characters, but nails the chilling atmosphere of its predecessor through its location, character actions and interactions, and darkly comedic treatment of death and violence. The lead characters – Jerry Lundegaard from the film and Lester Nygaard from the television series – are visited by “quotidian horrors” that enable them to believe that they deserve to live “not the lives they have been given but the lives they envision in their own master narratives” (McKinney 32). While Jerry grapples with his “grand designs” being abandoned by the “incompetence, conflicting motives, or undifferentiated hostility of those who will not play their parts,” Lester’s own delusions of grandeur stem directly from himself and his own missteps (McKinney 32).
Ultimately Fargo is a “haunting and delightful [film] that explores middle-American themes and settings from an original and unsettling perspective” while observing “the self-destructive nature of many of the characters” amidst an “overall atmosphere of doom” (Luhr 2-3). Both the show and the film create small communities shaped by moral, yet emotionally stagnant, people. While the events that shake up these seemingly idyllic communities differ – and evolve from both external and internal forces – they have the same effect. Both the film and its adaptation are about normal people stepping outside of their mundane lives and crossing paths with the darkest of humanity. Characters in the Fargo universe are destined to accept their ordinary and unfeeling lives, or deviate from their fated path and suffer the deadly consequences.
Carter, Steven. “‘Flare To White’: “Fargo” And The Postmodern Turn.” Literature Film Quarterly 27.4 (1999): 238. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Chaloupka, William. “Praising Minnesota: The Coens’ “Fargo” and the Pressures of Stoic Community.” Theory & Event 1.2 (1997): 18-42 Print.
Grant, Kristen. “The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”.” The Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006): 98-100. Print.
Heitmueller, Karl. “Rewind: What Part Of ‘Based On’ Don’t You Understand?” MTV News, 11 Apr. 2005. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
McKinney, Devin. “Fargo.” Film Quarterly 50.1 (1996): 31–34. Print.
Roberts, Sam. “T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88.” The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Ruhr, William G. Cambridge Film Handbooks: The Coen Brothers’ Fargo. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.