(Making A) Killing

by Tania Carver

A few days ago, Linda and I came to the end of the second series of The Killing.  Not the American version that’s attracted so much opprobrium, but the original Danish one, Forbrydelsen.  With subtitles, you understand.  Neither of us speak Danish.  (Which actually is quite a shameful admission to make because the Danes, like so many Europeans, speak perfect English.)  To say we loved it is a bit of an understatement.  We watched the box set on DVD, trying to ration the episodes over two weeks.  It was half the length of the first series but just about as good.  It’s one of the few TV shows (possibly the only one) that we both not just watch but become active participants in.  When we’re not watching it we’re thinking about or discussing it.  Before each episode we put forward theories about who’s done what.  Who the villain is, what this character’s real motives are, the significance of what that character did or this one said.  Etcetera.  And that just adds to the fun.

If you haven’t seen the original then I thoroughly recommend it.  Both seasons.  And there’s a third to follow.  Sophie Grabol who plays the lead detective Sarah Lund is fantastic.  The writing is near-perfect, same with the direction and the actors have become household names in our house.  It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever seen on TV.  I even want to go to Copenhagen for my holidays.  (I don’t think Linda’s with me on that one – too cold.)

Coming to the end of the series coincided with the Hay Festival.  I’m sure you’ve heard of that – the biggest literary festival in Britain.  ‘Glastonbury for the mind’, as Bill Clinton famously called it.  I’ve never been, either as punter or participant, but it’s hugely successful.  This year Ian Rankin was one of the guests.  I’m sure you’ve heard of him too.  And, in a well-reported session, he chatted about many things, including the return of Rebus.  He was, from all accounts, on top form.  But on the subject of TV adaptations he was more disgruntled.  He did complain (and I’m paraphrasing slightly here) about his own work on TV saying that Scandanavian crime shows get twenty weeks and the adaptations of his novels get forty five minutes.  They take the title and change everything else, he said.

Now I think there are at least two ways to look at this.  The first is to ignore it.  He’s a very successful writer carping on about something that most writers would give their right arm to be in the position as.  Or so received wisdom goes – I’ve had interest in both my own books and the Tania novels.  I’ve still got a TV production company handling the rights to the Joe Donovan series. They did a stunning job of Val McDermid’s Wire in the Blood.  And if it ever gets made I’d like it to be them that do it.  But that’s slightly beside the point. 

I’d only be happy if it was a good production.  I remember a few years back (quite a few years back now) Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels were optioned by ITV.  They filmed one of them, A Pinch Of Snuff, starring a British comedy double act, Hale and Pace.  Now if you haven’t seen these two, all you need to know is that they were unique in the history of comedy double acts by having two straight men.  They filmed it, it was shown and it was universally hated.  A couple of years after that, the BBC optioned them again.  Having had his fingers burnt, Reg was adamant he didn’t want the same thing to happen again.  The BBC cast Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan, the series ran for twelve years, was a huge international success, critically acclaimed and award winning.  So that’s what happens if it’s done right.

I must admit, the Rebus TV series doesn’t really work for me.  And it’s for the reasons Ian said: they have the same title as his books and nothing else.  Ken Stott is a fantastic Rebus but everything else around him doesn’t work for me.  Because it’s not the book.  The earlier version with John Hannah was better in many respects because it was an excellent attempt to translate Rebus’s milieu to TV.  Unfortunately, John Hannah wasn’t, and never will be, right for Rebus.  So if they could have had the actor from the second version in the production of the first one it would have been perfect.  In my opinion.  As I said.

But getting back to what Ian said, I do think he has a point.  And it leads on to a larger one about Scandanavian crime fiction.  Crime fiction is the largest selling genre in the UK.  The US too, I believe.  And of course there is pressure to turn those successful crime novels into TV and movie fodder.  (I’m still not sure why – I think a book works best as a book and a movie as a movie.  Why take one medium and try to turn it into another?  But that’s a discussion for another time.)  So they do.  And crime series are some of the most consistently high rated shows on TV.  So what’s gone wrong with our TV?  I don’t know.  In the Seventies and Eighties British TV drama was fantastic.  But it’s now, for the most part, suffering death by focus group.  Death by committee.  The creative have been strangled by the suits.  There are exceptions such as Doctor Who, thank God, in which a showrunner is entrusted to bring his vision to the screen, but most drama seems to be going the other way while other countries, including the US, have overtaken us. 

So to go back to Ian’s point – why will we sit through a twenty episode series examining the criminal and political system in Denmark – with subtitles – and love it?  Why won’t we do this with our own TV?  Well, I try.  But to be honest, it’s just not as good.  It’s timid where it should be brave, formulaic where it should be different.  There are, as I said, exceptions.  But they’re exactly that.  Exceptions.  A few years ago when The Wire was at its peak, a lot of British writers were asking why there couldn’t be a UK equivalent.  A TV series that unfolded over five seasons, each episode like the chapter of a novel, that made no concessions to the casual viewer and that drafted in some of the best US crime novelists around to write it.  Why couldn’t we have that over here?  Because we couldn’t, that’s what we were told.  That’s not how things are done over here.  You want to do that, move to America.  In the meantime, here’s some more Midsommer Murders.  No wonder Ian Rankin is disgruntled.

So the talent’s there, but the will isn’t.  And this leads on to a larger discussion about Scandanavian crime fiction.  I’m getting really sick of reading pieces by literary editors in broadsheet newspapers who’ve discovered Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell asking where their British equivalents are?  Why can’t British crime fiction have the same sense of contemporary social engagement that the Scandanavians have?  Why do we just produce Agatha Christie style whodunnits in this country?

Well, here’s some news.  British crime fiction does have that same sense of social engagement.  Or at least the best ones do, just like the best Scandanavian ones, the best American ones, the best Italian ones . . .  The only difference is it’s not in translation and therefore there’s less snob value to be seen reading it in public.  And we don’t produce Agatha Christie style whodunnits.  Haven’t done for years.  As any crime fiction reader will tell you.  After all, crime fiction is the bestselling genre in this country so we must be doing something right. 

And there’s an appetite for longer, more complex adaptations of our own crime novels in this country too.  That’s why viewers are resorting to watching US or European drama instead.

Linda and I have the first season of The Bridge to watch next, a Swedish/Danish co-production.  I’m really looking forward to it.  Rationing the episodes, discussing and theorising what’s going on when we’re not watching . . . all of that.  And then we’ve got Braquo, a French crime drama with Jean-Hughes Anglade.  Really looking forward to that one.  So yes, I’ll be watching.  But I’ll be wishing we could do something as good here. 




11 thoughts on “(Making A) Killing

  1. Reine

    I'm fascinated by the way you two blog together. It's so… together. Not just complimentary. Unified yet blended. How do you do it?

    What you say here about Danish production is right. Just a thought on that, something to consider, is the highly developed Danish self concept: This is Danish; That is not. Yet, this apparently bi-polar view comes together in social awareness that is directed at sharing: We do this well, and they do that well, so why should we compete on that?

    This self concept might be what makes the drive for doing very well, one's best, possible to pursue in Denmark. It is expected. There are social supports for it. Best, however, does not necessarily mean one class of thing is better than another, but if you are Danish and you are going to make a TV show, it should be done Danish – done right.

  2. Karen, NZ

    The internet and DVD availability has helped I think. Here in NZ recently tvnz played Sherlock series 2 then 2/3 of series 1. Fortunately the library has the DVD… a repeat of the Jubilee concert took precedence, then we had 'Endeavour', which I watched out of curiousity (I'd only seen a few episodes with John Thaw, though had read Sheila Hancock's book), and – in a nod to Pari's post – caught sight of Abigail Thaw in the cast list, trundled off to find out about it, and read the article where they had included her, and the 'Don't I know you from somewhere? because they could.

    My point – DVD's with commentaries, and being able to access background info can make episodes/series much more meaningful for me.
    I happened to see the last episode of CSI with Grissom a few years ago now, and really wish I'd seen the entire story arc with Lady Heather – to me it was clever and intriguing, and probably fostered lots of debate, whereas I'd quickly got tired of the formulaic nature of the series – it was the backstory and the depth of exploration of those elements that caught my attention.

    I have mixed feelings about ever seeing Charlie Fox onscreen – it may be great, which would be awesome…. she's my favourite protagonist though, so that could be a challenge.
    Bookchat today – another reader talking about Kathy Reichs says she has to separate the TV series completely in her mind from the book, perhaps that is easier.

    I don't know how NZ drama stacks up… though some NZ writers have series overseas like Paul Cleave. A UK friend has told me about a couple of series incl 'The Killing' I don't know whether we will see it over here.

  3. Barbie

    Marketability of crime drama abroad is HUGE. Here in Brazil, it simply does NOT exist. Like, there's NONE. I mean it, there is not a single crime fiction show here — though, we don't really tend to have series like that. I'm saved by American tv shows, which, pace wise, I'm compelled to enjoy more than European shows. I don't know why, like movie, everything needs to be so slow. I tried to get into Sherlock. And the stories ARE good. But the sloooooow pace and the hour and twenty minute long episodes tire me. (Also, Cumberbatch is a gazelle — I just watched the second Sherlock movie with Robert Downey Jr. and there's no comparison!)

    My point is, to me, it's all about pace, much more than social engagements or whatever. A good whodunnit with a fast pace will serve me much better. A slow pace will have my brain sleeping — no matter how brilliant it is.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Well, I gotta say that The Prisoner series was one of my all-time favorites. But that was a long time ago.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love this post. I am so addicted to off-beat crime television it's not even funny. I am THRILLED to be reminded that yes, there is an original and I am entirely certain far superior Danish original of THE KILLING, which (US) I so wanted to like but just could not get into. I will find it right away.

    I love WIRE IN THE BLOOD (Val McDermid doing whatever, Robson Green in anything, old stuff, TOUCHING EVIL was great, too…). I love LUTHER – it's shocking and sexy and wonderfully cast. I think PRIME SUSPECT was some of the best crime television ever.

    THE WIRE I was painfully addicted to, but its draw is that it is uniquely American, and the draw of everything else mentioned is that they are uniquely whatever country they are. If you ask me.

    Like the Scandinavian KINGDOM, for example – stupefyingly great, subtle, horror TV series by Lars Von Trier – completely untranslatable to US TV, even by Stephen King.

    And let's not forget SHERLOCK – sheer UK genius, which will be nothing short of torture in an American version. Travesty.

    We need to support these great shows. I buy DVDs of all of them.

  6. Reine

    Alex, I buy the DVDs, too. You are so right in your points about untranslatabilty. You said it much better, but that's what I was getting at.

    SHERLOCK… oh… oh – oh – oh… .

  7. Tom

    "But I’ll be wishing we could do something as good here."

    You in the UK have done, and will do again, the next time a first-rate showrunner gets top-notch writers, directors and actors together without strangulation by bean-counter commitee.

    It happens. Always feels like a miracle.

    Remember that the 'word' on 'Sherlock' was deeply unfavorable before the premiere. It took much courage to press on when 'everyone knew it was already a failure.'

    Like most creative efforts, it will take wisdom, bravery, and the banishment of naysayers. It will happen.

  8. David Corbett

    It seems a natural progression, fiery artistic inventiveness that ossifies into focus-group dreck. Money chases creativity then kills it because money hates risk. (Risk takers? It is to laugh.)

    Anyone who thinks UK crime fiction lacks for social vision isn't reading any of it. That's of course the problem. Half-baked "social conscience" crime fiction from Scandinavia crowds out excellent work by UK or US authors — yes, precisely because a translator wasn't required. Snob factor indeed.

    It's maddening. But I wasn't aware the degree to which UK authors were in the same gravy as us on that score. That's grim.

    Great post, Martyn. Thanks you.

  9. Karen, NZ

    Thought I had better check that Paul Cleave is in fact a NZ author – he doesn't have much of a profile here – he had to take his work overseas to do so, it seems…

    This isn't strictlyfiction… though unfortunately sometimes it takes an actor/director with profile to draw attention to something… the other day I saw a review of Peter Jackson's 'West of Memphis' apparently at the Sundance Festival it was the most emotional screening the NZ reviewer had been to…. a couple of the accused and people involved with them were in the audience incognito, and got up and spoke afterwards..after the profound silence when the film had finished.

    I haven't seen it, or know much about it – but recall something being said about the intractable nature of the case, and how making the film was a way to draw more attention to the issues and hopefully get something done, many people had been trying for years – Kiwi eyes on an American case/situation – I'm left wondering what it will be like.

    The library (amazingly) has The Killing…THANKS to this post for prompting me to check. I almost didn't watch the Sherlock episodes – it was just by chance as I thought, oh no not another one…. I am so glad that we have access to dramas like that over here.

  10. PD Martin

    I think the same can be said of Aussie crime dramas – mind you, our population is smaller than the UK's, not to mention America's. We've had a few good ones, but they've always been beaten in ratings by the US crime shows (or the crappy Aussie ones!).

    Like Martyn and the others, I also get frustrated by TV viewers and readers going for the big name US (and UK) crime authors rather than supporting their own talent. We have lots of great crime writers in Australia, but too often books and careers don't make it off the ground. But it's probably the case in every country, because international authors are seen as different and more appealing in some way – and even more so if the books are translated!


  11. Reine

    Phillipa, frustrating to hear that. Must be more so to live with it. I think your books, and Katherine Howell's would make fantastic television. I'm just starting to read Australian authors, so I can't name more yet, but I will.

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