Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mystery and Melancholia: The Wallander Television Adaptations

Krister Henriksson in Henning Mankell's Wallander

The international acclaim for Henning Mankell's Inspector Kurt Wallander mystery novels invariably led to television adaptions. The first television series, which adapted the first nine Wallander novels, was produced between 1994 and 2007 with Swedish actor Rolf Lassgard in the title role. Apart from selections found on YouTube, these episodes are not readily available. The one exception that can be seen in its entirety is "Pyramid," which is loosely based on the fifth and longest story from the book of the same name which features a younger Wallander over a twenty-year period before the debut of the novels in 1991. This film has the distinction of being the only dramatization of "Pyramid." I like that the filmmakers have used flashbacks to provide insight into the challenges faced by the newly minted idealistic graduate of the police academy, a device that helps us to understand the disillusioned senior investigator he would later become. We first notice that the young Wallander is fit and lean before drink, malnourishment and diabetes transformed him into a shambling, unhealthy middle-aged homicide detective. As the older Wallander, Lassgard’s natural rotundity helps him to look the part. In "Pyramid," we are reminded that from his earliest experiences, Wallander took every case personally and deeply-etched memories of them still burn within him several years later. Wallander was willing to put his principles above expediency, a quality that he demonstrates over the course of the novels and stories. Finally, the young Wallander’s reluctance to fire his gun is sustained throughout the novels and film adaptations. Over the course of his career, he rarely shoots anyone. When he does, it is a memorable moment for either the guilt that ensues or, at least in one instance, for the relief that it brings.

Most Mankell admirers in the English-speaking world will be familiar with the UK’s well-received, multiple award-winning three year series (2008, 2010 and 2012) Wallander that is based on the 1990s novels with Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander. Less known perhaps is the second Swedish series featuring Krister Henriksson as Wallander (Henning Mankell's Wallander), the first in 2005 and 2006, the second in 2009 and 2010. Although the UK films are graced with a glossy cinematography and are a showcase for its star, the strengths of the Swedish series outweigh those in the UK productions, rendering it superior television.

Kenneth Branagh as Wallander
Viewers familiar with the novels can find several attractive features in the UK productions. They have the opportunity to see some parts of the actual town of Ystad, made famous by the novels, on the southern tip of Sweden, even though the touristy medieval look has been excluded. They can visually feast on rural Sweden enhanced with a new camera technology, the so-called “Red One,” which has the effect of producing a moody atmospheric cinematography that underscores the mysterious and ethereal landscape. The results are uncommonly spectacular. They can decide whether the scriptwriters who translate Mankell’s tight plots into film succeed in conveying the spirit of the books. (I think that the majority of Mankell lovers will applaud their efforts, although I have some reservations.) Perhaps most importantly, they can assess Branagh’s interpretation of the grumpy but doggedly fixated Wallander. Undeniably, Branagh brings panache and his signature grit to his portrayal of the obsessive and depressive investigator. The energies of Branagh’s Wallander are so consumed by pain and grief for the victims of horrendous crimes that he has little to spare for sustaining a personal relationship with a woman. With his sleepless, red brimmed eyes, and unshaven, brooding looks, he appears at times as though he is almost on the verge of a breakdown; he is scarcely capable of answering questions as his colleagues gaze at him with expressions of horror. After a terrible attack on his colleague, Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart), in "An Event in Autumn," his fury at her attacker soon morphs into a more introspective guilt whenever he visits her at the hospital; she was only in harm's way because she'd accompanied him on an ill-advised hunch. In the opening of "Sidetracked," set in yellow rapeseed fields, watch Branagh start to tremble after a girl douses herself with gasoline and then immolates herself. As a vehicle for Branagh to demonstrate his slow-burning intensity, Wallander will impress viewers with his bravura performance.

Therein lies the rub. Apart from Anna-Britt and Wallander's daughter, Linda (Jeanie Spark), whose fraught relationship with her father is well-captured without a trace of sentimentality, the characters, particularly his colleagues, appear to be almost ciphers next to Branaugh. Yet I am not criticizing the other actors. For instance, Tom Huddleston as Magnus Martinson, although perhaps too young for the role since he should be closer to Wallander in age, is simply not given much to do beyond working at a computer or pointing a gun. (He and most of the other actors who were Wallander’s colleagues are not even in the third series.) The often-smoldering tension in the novels between Wallander and Martinsson, who have worked together for many years, is almost non-existent in these episodes. Wallander’s inner reflections, his imaginary conversations with a late mentor and his assessments on the deteriorating conditions in Sweden, are part of the pleasure of reading the novel, but these are generally absent from the series. Wallander is apolitical, focusing on plot, albeit dramatizing social problems, and Wallander's character.

Rolf Lassgård as Kurt Wallander

The Swedish series, apart from the first episode, "Before the Frost," in which Linda (Johanna Sallstrom) becomes a member of the Ystad police force on September 11, 2001, is based on stories written by Mankell and scripted by a variety of Swedish writers, dramas that powerfully illuminate the social problems confronting contemporary Sweden in the twenty-first century. I suggest that Krister Henriksson, an older and less unkempt Wallander, offers a more nuanced and understated interpretation: he is stunningly intuitive as an investigator and as an interviewer, and often right as he confronts the doubts of his colleagues. Whenever possible, he relies on the “muscle” – the SWAT team – to enter a potentially dangerous situation. Yet when circumstances demand it, he can project a steadying calmness when a volatile situation threatens to careen out of control. Watch him as he talks down a hostage-taker near the conclusion of the first and outstanding program of the second season, "The Revenge," in which a series of explosions send the citizens into a state of hysteria by pressuring the authorities to close down a controversial exhibit. Bristling at the knee-jerk racism of some of his compatriots, Wallander will not budge: "We must stand up for democracy." Henriksson also evokes an underlying humanity, quietly communicating a melancholic disposition as he takes consolation in his music. By the second season, he finds further solace in his house by the sea and his dog (hinted at in the later novels), and he is open to a relationship with the new prosecutor, Katarina Ahlsell (Lena Endre). In his work, that state of mind is frequently in evidence. Consider one example from the last episode from season two, "The Witness." A case against a corrupt businessman in the construction industry who has resorted to brutal intimidation and fear is on the verge of collapsing. Katarina, who lives close by and has already sent her children to Stockholm because she fears for their safety, has just informed Wallander that she submitted her resignation as prosecutor and plans to leave Ystad to be with her children. Wallander walks home, takes a few drinks from a bottle, lies down on the couch and pulls a blanket over him; in this sequence, there is no dialogue but Henriksson communicates throughout his body a heavy sadness and the burden of defeat which is deeply moving. Then a sound is heard which changes everything...

Perhaps the most important contrast between Henriksson's and Branagh's interpretations of Wallander is that the former's is a team leader. Because Henriksson’s Wallander is firmly committed to the law, he sometimes needs to challenge his longtime colleague, Martinsson (Douglas Johansson), who resents that he has worked in the shadow of Wallander, yet crosses a line by harassing a known pedophile who may or may not have had anything to do with the disappearance of a child. In the first season, Wallander has to negotiate the difficult task of dealing with the presence of his daughter Linda in his workplace. When he cannot discourage her from policing because he is afraid that she will live as he has, so committed to solving crimes that she could sabotage personal relationships, he attempts to juggle his role as her boss and, when the situation requires it, to support her as his daughter. In the second season, he has the responsibility of mentoring – balancing the need to support with reining in, even sanctioning when appropriate – two young trainees, Pontus (Sverrir Gudnason) and Isabelle (Nina Zanjani), who, although gung ho about proving themselves, can at times be overly reckless and put their and other lives at risk. We learn much more about these complex characters, including their backstories, and the satisfying result is that the series comes much closer to being an ensemble drama led by Henriksson.

Joanna Sallstrom as Linda
One cast member who deserves a special mention is the tragic Johanna Sällström, who played Linda. She is vividly memorable in the most disturbing program in the first season, "The Mastermind." The episode is unsettling partly because Wallander and his team are always under surveillance by an unseen person – think of Rear Window in reverse – and partly because this "mastermind" is plotting his revenge for the death of his daughter years before. Since the daughters of policemen are his targets, the Martinsson's daughter and Linda are among his chosen victims. In this episode, Martinsson abandons his role as a police officer and acts more like a grieving father bent on exacting his own form of retribution, whereas Wallander, relying on his intuition and his professional skills, is able to contain his anger and work out a resourceful strategy. (This rescue of Linda reminds me of the scene from the UK series' "One Step Behind" when Branagh’s Wallander rushes into a house only to see a gun held to his daughter's head.) Given that the genre, unlike an espionage series such as MI-5, demands a successful outcome, lives are saved but no one, especially in the case of the physical and emotional trauma suffered by Linda, could easily slough off that pain. Yet I was surprised that there was no reference to these horrific events in the following episode. I realized later that "Mastermind" was the final program of 2006 and the next program was not aired until three months later. But the episode, especially, Johanna Sällström's strong performance, stayed with me.

When the second series opened, the actress was of course no longer in it because she had committed suicide in March 2007, never having recovered from the depression she experienced in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, which she narrowly survived while vacationing in Thailand. I wondered how the writers and producers would deal with Linda in the second season. Early in the series, Wallander glances at her photograph after the new prosecutor asks him if he has children and he briefly says yes; in a later episode when she wonders how he responded to his children when they were difficult, he parries the question with, "I don’t remember." By the end of the last program, when he is contemplating a major change in his life, he and the camera linger on her photograph. Is this gesture the producers’ way of indicating that Linda will return in the final third season? Press reports do indicate that Charlotte Jonsson will fill that role in the 2013 series, which will probably be available for the North American market in 2014. I am looking forward to the final seasons for both adaptations as each will dramatize the final Wallander book, The Troubled Man. But, for this viewer, the Swedish series will tug more at my heart.

- Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. You can find more at his website

1 comment:

  1. Hello!
    I'm an English teacher in Florida, looking to change my curriculum in the wake of revisions to the International Baccalaureate (IB) "prescribed reading list." I would like to try a "Kurt Wallander" novel, but am unsure which title would be best for 15- to 18-year-olds.
    Can you offer some suggestions for 12th-graders? I would appreciate hearing from someone who is familiar with the work of Henning Mankell.
    I can be reached at
    Thanks, again, for your help.