vulture guides

Everything You Need to Know About the Original Norwegian Maniac

Photo: Rockzeline

In the run-up to the launch of Netflix’s Emma Stone-Jonah Hill trippy, sci-fi limited series, Maniac, it was almost impossible to avoid one word when reading about the project’s backstory: “loosely.” Yes, creators Cary Joji Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville were remaking a Norwegian series with the same title, but their new show would only loosely adapt it. Loosely!

When that qualifier is pinned so tightly onto a project’s origin story, it’s usually for a good reason. The original Maniac must have been enough of a success on some level or another that Netflix thought an American redo with star power in front of and behind the camera, and the right borrowed elements would work. So, then, what’s the deal with the original?

Since both versions are currently streaming on Netflix, we binged the original after seeing the remake to find out what Fukunaga and Somerville lifted, what they discarded, and whether it’s worth your time.

What is it?

Created by comedian and actor Espen PA Lervaag in 2015, the original Maniac is centered around the idea of mental health, but in an entirely different setting. The main character — also named Espen — was a functional professional until one day, he lost his grasp on reality. When we meet him, he’s living full-time in a psychiatric ward, intermittently dipping in and out of fantasies.

Each 21-minute episode features a new hallucination scenario, usually based on the TV or movie Espen happens to be watching. In these dreams, he’s powerful, suave, and wealthy — all stereotypical male ego fantasies and the exact opposite of the portly, near-mute Espen. His words and actions within the daydreams also play out in the real world, which inevitably leads to trouble.

At the same time, a new psychologist at the institute, Mina (Ingeborg Raustøl), is working to discover what happened to Espen that caused him to detach from the real world so suddenly. As she tries to question him, we see both characters’ perspective — with Espen usually imaging Mina as a seductress desperate to pry his secrets from him.

What is the same?

You could watch a trailer for the Norwegian Maniac and understand why Fukunaga saw it as an decent jumping off point for whatever he wanted to do. He’s a master technician and stylist whose work has run the gamut from a cop show to a Bronte adaptation. Maniac gave him an excuse to skip from genre to genre without much need to connect the vignettes visually. Once the drug trial starts in the U.S. version, the structure of the episodes moves closer to the original, with each installment messing around in one set of tropes or a single setting.

The most literal the American Maniac gets with the adaptation is Hill’s character, Owen. Before the tests at Neberdine, he has dissociative episodes featuring a fictional version of his brother, played by the incredible Billy Magnussen. Espen’s fantasies usually draw in the people around him in the psych ward, with the exception of his constant companion, Håkon (played by Håkon Bast Mossige), who exists only in his mind.

Apart from the genre switching, both Maniacs explore the idea of processing trauma — and life in general — through narrative. They’re about how immense and intangible concepts can be simplified and shaped by storytelling conventions and the problems that can come with that.

Although, that might be giving the Norwegian version too much credit.

What is different?

A lot.

Espen, though he doesn’t know it, is an extremely lonely figure. There’s no one around him who sees the same world that he does, and no one to relate to him. Every one of his actions is dictated by fantasy, so the audience doesn’t really get to know him, either.

sThat’s where you see Fukunaga and Somerville’s first major fixes come in. Adding Emma Stone’s Annie and changing the nature of the fantasies make the characters more human and give the flashy genre sequences heft. Where the Norwegian Maniac aims for parody, the remake goes for metaphor. What happens to Owen and Annie in those sequences ties back to their past trauma. It’s not just a reflection of what’s happening immediately around them. There’s so much more at stake.

The Norwegian show also uses Espen’s reality as a contrast to his hallucinations. The ward is drab, and so are the people who populate it, as opposed to the twisted and hilarious retro-future of the remake.

Should you watch it?

Maybe. It depends on how into the new Maniac you are.

The Norwegian series is more than a bit problematic. Espen’s condition and the situations it lands him in are the show’s primary sources for laughs. On the whole, there’s very little empathy for him and mental illness in general, and Mina, the only real character, is mostly there for Espen to gawk at. If there’s some deeper commentary at play, I’ll have to chalk it up to not speaking a lick of Norwegian.

Fukunaga and Somerville zhuzh every element of the original. They mined its visual framing and structure to make something more much emotional and accessible and set that concept in a funhouse mirror version of our mundanely dystopian present. Basically, the U.S. Maniac is better in every single way, though admittedly, it is interesting to see what the hell went into the front-end of the Remake Machine.

But hey, the episodes are 21 minutes-long. If you watch one, you’ll get the picture.

A Guide to the Original Norwegian Maniac