Before the Frost, by Henning Mankell [TV4, BBC]

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Last month I wrote about the final run of episodes of Swedish TV’s Wallander series starring Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander; next year we’ll have the final three instalments of the BBC adaptations of Mankell’s novels, without which the Corporation likely wouldn’t have thought to shown the Swedish series on BBC4 in 2008 thereby unexpectedly igniting what became the phenomenon by the name of Nordic Noir. So successful were these imported subtitled films that in many ways they’ve somewhat eclipsed the British version – at least in terms of critical and highbrow reception, if by no means not in terms of viewing figures.

I confess I myself have loved the Swedish version and tended to be rather dismissive of the British one. Is it just the exotic allure of the foreign language and the subtitles that’s beguiling us into thinking one is better than the other, or does that stand up to objective review? In many ways it’s hard to tell, because the BBC version is a series of adaptations of Mankell’s novels, while the Swedish version starring Krister Henriksson features original stories and is consciously more of a television series, the novels having already been ticked off with Rolf Lassgård playing Wallander in a run of theatrical films. Where Kenneth Branagh is the unequivocal centre of the novels and therefore the BBC version, Henriksson – at least at the start – is positioned more at the head of a ensemble of crime fighting detectives.

To date the only story in which the BBC and Sweden’s TV4 have overlapped is in an adaptation of Mankell’s novel Before the Frost. The Lassgård films omitted this one because it’s not really a Wallander story at all but is instead focussed on the character’s daughter Linda who despite her strained relationship with her father has decided to follow him into the police force. The novel is told entirely from her point of view which gives us a very different take on Wallander: we see him from afar, rushing off to urgent meetings about cases that Linda is not party to that leave him insufficient time to spend with his daughter or to listen to her concerns about an old school friend who has gone mysteriously missing. It takes a frustratingly long time for her to be able to convince him (or even herself) that it might be tied in with one of Wallander’s current homicide investigations.

It’s the first time that I’ve read an original Mankell novel, and I was surprised by the simplicity of it: it’s written in very straightforward style, with short declarative sentences baldly stating the events and what Linda is thinking or feeling at any given stage. There’s little ornamentation and even less concession to any sense of literary flow, so it’s hard to describe the novel as ‘well written’. It may be that this novel is not representative of Mankell’s work (it was meant to be the first in an unrealised spin-off series of books away from Wallander, focussing on Linda) and of course there’s always the question of whether translated works really retain the same sense of style in English as they had in their original tongue. However that said, this stripped down prose really worked for me and propelled me through the story which was well plotted and fast moving, and it’s been a long time since I powered through a full novel as quickly as I did this one. Any academic literary shortcomings can take a hike as far as I’m concerned when the book works this well for its readers.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 and production companies Svensk Filmindustri, Yellow Bird and ARD Degeto decided to take this idea of a more ensemble series and run with it in creating their series. Like the book, the 2005 Swedish adaptation of Before the Frost centres very strongly on the character of Linda (played here by Johanna Sällström) but also sets up a supporting cast some of whom – Mats Bergman as Nyberg, Fredrik Gunnarsson as Johan Svartman, Douglas Johansson as Jan Martinsson and Marianne Mörck as receptionist Ebba – make it all the way through to the final episodes in 2013. Most of all the TV companies know that the character of Wallander has to be the first among equals, so even in the first outing Krister Henriksson has more of a leading role to play than in the novel. By the last of the 32 outings he’s once again become very much the dominant character of the show.

The BBC version (made in association with Left Bank Pictures and Yellow Bird) is working from the novels in which Wallander is the central character throughout, so Kenneth Branagh is front and centre from the start. Maybe this is why highbrow fans and critics have a lesser opinion of these adaptations – because it’s all about Branagh’s character and everything that happens in the story is essentially there to put Wallander through the mill time and again, just as in Mankell’s original novels. Unlike Sweden’s production, this isn’t a long running series that can allow a slow-burn build-up for the character: the BBC series consists of three stories per ‘season’, four seasons in all, and all of them very spread out because of Branagh’s other commitments – not unlike the drip feed we get with another prestigious BBC production, Sherlock, for much the same reasons.

No where is this difference in approach between Swedish and British versions more apparent than in Before the Frost. The BBC has no interest in teeing up a spin-off series about Linda, so the story has to be completely reimagined to be Wallander-centric. Linda does appear, but in the BBC version she’s not a police officer and only returns to Ystad when her old school friend Anna Westin is reported missing. Thereafter she’s present strictly as a secondary supporting character to work through her issues with her estranged father but she is allowed virtually no investigative role, all of which is rewritten to fall to Branagh’s character who seems to be working almost entirely on his own by this stage. (The BBC version did start with more of a recurring cast, but the long gaps between series meant they dropped away as other opportunities came along, such as Tom Hiddleston who played Martinsson in the early episodes but who has since become an international movie star not least thanks to the Branagh-directed original Thor movie.)

Branagh, fine actor though he undoubtedly is, also gives a far more familiar portrayal to British audiences as an angst-driven man facing his demons and emotionally overrun by the horrors that he faces in his job every day. The stories pile on more and more anxiety and dread onto the character with every story, but we’ve seen this sort of thing in many British detective stories over the years from Cracker to Rebus. By contrast the Swedish series takes great pains not to overplay this aspect – Wallander is haunted, no question, but Henriksson is allowed to play the emotions much more internally repressed and therefore comes over as a far more interesting version of the morose, anti-social and misanthropic detective character, and it’s this that probably accounts for the differing reaction from the audience: the appeal of the different and exotic wins the battle between two excellent, equally valid but markedly contrasting portrayals.

Outside of the central character, the two adaptations also have contrasting strengths and weaknesses. The Swedish version is much closer to the novel and focusses on characters and interactions which allow for some strong performances throughout the rest of the cast. However, it does so at the cost of significantly streamlining the plot to the point where most of Mankell’s painstaking gathering of evidence is discarded and replaced by some very clumsy plotting that relies heavily on coincidences any one of which would strain credulity if it appeared in a routine British detective program. For example, Linda discovers a dead body and then in the next scene, quite independently, decides to move in with Anna who just happens to be at the heart of the case. Later on, a significant clue as to what is going on occurs when Linda happens to be handed an old video tape of Anna’s which when watched fills in the backstory linking the case to the infamous 1978 Jonestown massacre. She also later remembers the blurry background of a photograph and links it to a picture in an estate agent window that was being looked at by a colleague, and from this deduces where the murderer is hiding out. It’s a leap of intuition that defies any sort of belief or logic.

The novel has no such problems: Linda only links Anna’s disappearance with the dead body after the name of the victim shows up up Anna’s journal. for example. Linda may commit any number of breaches of the law (breaking and entering, lock-picking, warrantless searching, removing evidence) and protocol (countless times rushing off into danger on her own without telling anyone) but no more so than is usual for a crime genre story, and all the while her investigation and deductions slowly build up the story in a way that the TV version simply doesn’t have time to bother with.

The BBC version also avoids the clanking coincidences, but it does so by rewriting much of the story and retaining only a very few touchpoints with the novel. The passage of time between the publication of the novel and this latest TV version also means dropping the novel’s central conceit of a link to the Jonestown massacre. However if you can forgive the liberties it takes with the source then it’s a very well done adaptation, solid and clear and giving something of the sense of actual police process in a believable fashion. It even restores one element of the book (a strand involving Anna’s mother played here by Lindsay Duncan) that the Swedish version omits entirely. Overall the production values of the BBC version are significantly higher than the Swedish version and more much stylishly cinematic in the hands of director Charles Martin than the Swedish version which has a much more spartan, television budget look to it and which does itself no favour by going for a big all-action explosive finale that it doesn’t have the cash to fully pull off.

That’s rather ironic, because while the BBC version is a resolutely made-for-TV production, the Swedish version actually did receive a domestic theatrical release. Maybe this just shows how much more funding you get as an international co-production, or else the BBC’s cachet and ambition, or perhaps simply how much TV production has come along in the intervening eight years. Whatever, Branagh’s version of Before the Killing is certainly the better-looking one and is much more polished and slick – which may in turn be another reason why so many fans and critics prefer the stripped-back naturalism of Henriksson’s maiden outing.

Overall, reading the book and then watching the two deeply contrasting screen adaptations makes for an interesting education in the problems, pitfalls and opportunities of translating a story from the page. For various reasons outlined above, neither of the adaptations ends up being a particularly faithful one and both have their flaws; the BBC version makes for the stronger piece of television but at a high cost of what it has to leave out from the novel, while the Swedish version’s tendency to go for the easy outrageous coincidence in the plot undermines very solid work elsewhere including some terrific performances from the new team.

But actually what comes out most is the strengths of each of the three: I greatly enjoyed reading the book and will definitely take time to read more of Mankell’s work; the Swedish version still has the appeal that made it such a huge success when it aired on BBC4 that makes you want to watch every episode that follows; and the BBC version also had much to recommend it, more so than I’d perhaps given it credit for in my own mind when I watched it on TV and hence leaving me considerably more favourably inclined to the show as a whole.

In other words, I come out of this not declaring one winner but instead finding that all three make me want to carry on and consume more of their respective fare. And that’s not a bad result by any means.

The novel is available from all good bookshops and also in eBook format. The TV4 adaptation is available as part of the DVD boxset ‘Wallander Collected Films 1-7’ and the BBC version is contained on the DVD ‘Wallander 3’, all of which are available in stores and to download.

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