Iceland: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves and Ian Watson

To learn more about Iceland past and present, check out some of these books and films. (And see our similar lists for elsewhere in Europe.)

Books: Nonfiction

Some of these books may be difficult to find outside Iceland, though used copies are usually available through online retailers.

  • Bringing Down the Banking System (Guðrún Johnsen, 2013). A finance scholar and banking regulator explains Iceland's colossal 2008 bank failure in layman's terms.
  • Does Anyone Actually Eat This? (Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, 2014). Iceland's best-known food writer reviews the country's food traditions.
  • The History of Iceland (Gunnar Karlsson, 2000). This well-written general history of the country also comes in a condensed version, called A Brief History of Iceland.
  • The Indian (Jón Gnarr, 2015). Iceland's best-known comic actor — and recent mayor of Reykjavík — recalls his childhood, during which he was bullied and sent to a boarding school. Two sequels, The Outlaw and The Pirate, carry his story into adolescence.
  • Lake Mývatn: People and Places (Björg Árnadóttir, 2015). This is a friendly introduction to the popular Lake Mývatn region.
  • The Little Book of the Icelanders (Alda Sigmundsdóttir, 2012). An Icelander returns home after living in America and explains 50 aspects of Icelandic culture with a critical and sometimes cynical eye.
  • Names for the Sea (Sarah Moss, 2013). A British academic writes about the year she spent in Iceland with her husband and kids, teaching university-level English.
  • The Ring of Seasons (Terry Lacy, 2000). An American and long-term Iceland resident describes an idealized year in the life of an Icelandic family.
  • Ripples from Iceland (Amalia Líndal, 1962). In 1949, a young woman from Boston marries an Icelandic student, moves to Reykjavík, and has five children. Her observations are still interesting and relevant.
  • Viking Age Iceland (Jesse Byock, 2001). Byock provides a good introduction to the society and politics of Iceland in its earliest years, from settlement through the 13th century.
  • Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland (Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, 2010). This book focuses on the period from 1870 to 1940, when Iceland grew from a shivering, impoverished colony to a land on the brink of prosperity and independence.
  • The Windows of Brimnes (Bill Holm, 2007). Minnesotan writer and poet Bill Holm, who spent several summers in a cottage in Skagafjörður near the home of his ancestors, reflects on the differences between Iceland and the US.

Fiction

  • Angels of the Universe (Einar Már Guðmundsson, 1993). An intelligent young man's descent into mental illness in 1960s Reykjavík is the focus of this gripping, award-winning novel.
  • The Blue Fox (Sjón, 2003). This short, poetically written book is a fable about a 19th-century Lutheran pastor who hunts an arctic fox.
  • Burial Rites (Hannah Kent, 2013). Kent writes a fictionalized account of the final months of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, whose 1830 beheading (for taking part in a murder) was the last time the death penalty was used in Iceland.
  • Frozen Assets (Quentin Bates, 2011). This book is one in a series of gripping crime novels starring Gunnhildur "Gunna" Gísladóttir — a shrewd policewoman who in the course of a murder investigation uncovers corruption at the highest levels. It's set against the backdrop of present-day Iceland's rapidly changing society.
  • Independent People (Halldór Laxness, 1934). Generally considered the Nobel Prize-winning Laxness' best novel, this book tells the story of Bjartur, a farm laborer, who jumps at the rare chance to have his own farm. In his single-minded quest to take charge of his destiny, he destroys everyone around him.
  • Jar City (Arnaldur Indriðason, 2005). An older man is murdered in a basement apartment in downtown Reykjavík. A troubled police detective follows a trail of clues back many years, and ends up solving a medical mystery. Silence of the Grave, another crime novel by the same author, is also good.
  • Someone to Watch Over Me (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, 2013). Police detective Thora Guðmundsdóttir tries to prove that a young man with Down syndrome was innocent of arson. This book is part of another popular series of crime novels.
  • The Sagas of the Icelanders (edited by Robert Kellogg, 2001). These classic stories, set appealingly amidst the Icelandic landscape, are still fresh after 800 years. Kellogg's edition includes a good selection of sagas, as well as the account of the Greenland settlement.

Film and TV

These films and shows are generally available for streaming in the US.

  • 101 Reykjavík (2000). This comedy is set in downtown Reykjavík in the 1990s — before tourism took over — when it was still bohemian. Hlynur lives with his mother and is having problems committing to his girlfriend. He winds up involved with Lola, who is his mother's friend — in fact, more than her friend.
  • Devil's Island (1996). This film highlights the adventures of a lower-class Reykjavík family living in the barracks abandoned by the Allies after World War II. It includes big cars, gangs, an Elvis soundtrack, and a main character aptly named "Baddi."
  • Life in a Fishbowl (2014; Icelandic title: Vonarstræti). Three lives intersect during Iceland's financial collapse in this drama: an alcoholic writer who has left his family, a young unmarried mother who has turned to prostitution to survive, and a successful but morally compromised banking executive.
  • No Such Thing (2001). This bizarre American-Icelandic indie film, with its Beauty and the Beast theme, stars Sarah Polley as a journalist who tries to tame the beast — who incidentally killed her fiancé. Half of this offbeat movie is set in Iceland, half in New York.
  • Nói the Albino (2003). Nói is a teenage boy in the remote Westfjords who hates school and lives with his grandmother and alcoholic father. He falls for a girl at the local gas station in this portrait of small-town adolescence.
  • The Seagull's Laughter (2001). In the 1950s, shapely Freyja returns to her hometown in Iceland from America, where she has been living with her soldier husband, and stirs up all kinds of trouble.
  • Trapped (2016; Icelandic title: Ófærð). This TV series stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a small-town cop whose personal life is a mess. As the car ferry from the Faroe Islands arrives one day, a body is found floating in the fjord. The pass is snowed in, so none of the passengers can leave town, and investigators from Reykjavík can't arrive. Whodunit?
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). Starring and directed by Ben Stiller, this is worth considering not for its story, but for its use of wondrous Icelandic landscapes — which stand in for Iceland as well as Greenland and Afghanistan.

The films below may be harder to find (check Icelandic Cinema Online).

  • Angels of the Universe (2000). Páll descends into mental illness after being dumped by his girlfriend. The movie (based on Einar Már Guðmundsson's book) is a masterpiece, but also tragic.
  • Children of Nature (1991). A man and a woman, once childhood friends, meet again when they move into the same senior citizens home. They decide to escape together and go on a car trip into the countryside.
  • The Icelandic Dream (2000). Tóti tries everything he can to get ahead, but keeps messing up. This dark, realist, somewhat-amateurish comedy explores class differences in Reykjavík and the effects of the former American military presence.
  • Mr. Bjarnfreðarson (2009). This black comedy stars Jón Gnarr as a sadistic misfit, damaged for life by his mother's left-wing activism and trying to regroup after serving prison time for an "accidental" murder. This movie was an extension of the TV show The Night Shift (Næturvaktin), a very popular Icelandic sitcom about three employees at a gas station.
  • Remote Control (1992; Icelandic title: Sódóma Reykjavík). Axel goes in search of his mother's lost TV remote and gets mixed up with a gang of mobsters. This low-budget comedy with a hard-rock soundtrack has been called Iceland's equivalent of The Big Lebowski.
  • When the Raven Flies (1984). An Irish boy whose parents were killed by Vikings travels to Iceland to take revenge.

Ian Watson is the co-author of the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.