Long before he was busy traipsing around the world being one half of the the ickily embarrassing phenomenon “HiddleSwift”, and a few years before he landed the career-defining gig as Loki (the Asgardian God for mischief, madness, and evil in The Avengers), Tom Hiddleston developed quite a fan following when he played the Swedish police officer Magnus Martinsson on Wallander, BBC One’s expensive and super-acclaimed adaptation of the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels.
This was back in 2006. Of course, Mankell’s Wallander novels have been in publication since the 90s, and like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, there had already been a Swedish film/TV version before. But for English-speaking audiences, the exotic realism and the dark colours of Ystad (where detective Wallander lives and works), the series’ morally ambiguous and complex mood, a visually stunning setting, and a long-drawn narrative completely opposite to the overworn “whodunit” murder mystery, was incredibly captivating. Enough to start an avalanche of English remakes of Scandinavian thrillers: The Killing, The Bridge, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Those Who Kill, this year’s Feed the Beast, and the in-the-pipeline Borgen. Let’s face it, saunas, salmon, ready-to-assemble furniture, LEGO: there are certain things that Scandinavia produces better than anywhere else in the world. Add crime fiction to that list. Nordic Noir is in!
So what makes Scandinavian crime thrillers so compelling? Author Hugh Hart kind of hit the nail right on its head last year, when he listed a binge-watchers' guide to Northern European thrillers, “Maybe it’s a propensity for complexity and inner turmoil, exemplified by Denmark's status both as one of the top-ranked consumers of antidepressants and the widely recognised Happiest Country on Earth. Maybe it's the state funding for public television that empowers storytellers to go dark without worrying about happy endings and big ratings. Maybe it’s the cinematic legacy rooted in Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s melancholy vision of human relationships….or the long winters that bring with them an appetite for spell-binding yarns. Whatever the reasons, Northern Europe has become a hotspot for bone-chilling thrillers.”
And it’s not just Scandinavian film and television, but literature too. We’ve reached a point where (just like the term 'Orwellian' describes totalitarian or authoritarian social practices or the term 'Dickensian' conveys something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, including poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters), if you’re a Japanese author (Keigo Higashino) who writes murder mysteries as a study of the psychology of murder and the intricate webs woven between people, you’re automatically called the “Japanese Stieg Larsson”. Never mind that Larsson’s novels involved detailed political content and character complexity whereas Higashino is more embroiled with “…crimes that, however brilliantly plotted, remain within the capabilities of your next-door neighbour”. This is just an indicator of how deeply entrenched Scandinavian crime thrillers (literature, TV, movies) are in our psyche.
Then there are the female protagonists. For every Detective Kurt Wallander, there’s a Detective Sarah Lund, she of the constant brooding, crime-solving, oversized sweater-wearing kind on The Killing (known in its home country of Denmark as Forbrydelsen). Each episode of the show corresponded to one day of the primary investigation. When AMC’s version of the show released in 2011, with Mireille Enos (a female American character quite unlike any other before) and a pre-Robocop Joel Kinnaman playing the protagonists Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder, it garnered instant critical acclaim; the season-long arcs, the absence of a CSI/Criminal Minds type cookie-cutter police procedural, and Seattle’s dull grey and rainy landscape notwithstanding.
The Bridge had Detective Sonya Cross as a member of the El Paso Police Department; Diane Kruger’s portrayal of the detective with an undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome won her many well-deserved rave reviews (the Danish/Swedish original had Saga Norén, the lead homicide detective in Malmö). In Borgen, the Danish political drama, there’s Birgitte Nyborg, a politician who becomes the first female Prime Minister of Denmark. Besides Borgen being the perfect binge-watchable show, the impact of the character has been felt on fashion, and even Denmark’s real-life politics. Life imitating art at its Nordic best. No wonder HBO and BBC can’t wait to remake it in English!
The latest Scandinavian show getting its own English remake is the Danish series Bankerot. AMC has remade it Feed the Beast (starring David Schwimmer, fresh off the success of American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson). Set in New York, the crime drama explores the city’s restaurant world and its underbelly of petty criminals, corrupt officials and violent mobsters. Expectedly, AMC is trying to combine the network’s gritty aesthetic with the original’s starkly quirky dramedy sensibilities.
Plenty has been written about comparisons between the original Scandinavian shows and their English-language remakes (the originals mostly win, but the Brits have a soft spot for the UK version of Wallander), and plenty more has been said about still-elusive potential remakes (Arne Dahl and The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey). Britain is clearly obsessed with Nordic Noir (over the past decade, BBC One and BBC4 have aired almost all of the originals and some remakes); America and the rest of the non-Nordic world seem to be catching up!
The “why” is trickier; history and sociology would suggest that a well-made, well-packaged, well-intentioned piece of art or literature will almost always be well-received. Others, like Mr Hart above, can rationalise the effect of Scandinavian thrillers by analyzing them from a geo-sociopolitical standpoint. As film and television aficionados, we should just be thankful. For whatever reasons — whether it’s the region’s pompous happiness, their history, the climate, or the strong female characters — Scandinavians just keep churning out irresistible thrillers for us. And as we binge-watch Wallander, we'll say amen to that!