Friday, 10 July 2009

Kurt Wallander and Perceptions of Sweden

It is interesting how people's views of a place are often defined by fictional crime stories set in those locations. I think this is particularly the case when those stories become television series. In the UK I think in particular of the Oxford shown in the 'Morse' series (1987-2000 based on novels by Colin Dexter published 1975-99) and the 'Bergerac' series (1981-91) set on the island of Jersey. Often, in fact locations featured are not in the locations they are supposed to be. This was particularly the case in the middle episodes of 'Morse' in which St. Albans which is far cheaper to film in than Oxford, often stood in for that city. Of course it is not just detective stories that have this impact I have commented before about the veterinarian stories of James Herriot and how they attracted fans to the Yorkshire Dales and the Jane Austen craze since the 1990s has had a similar impact on certain locations in England.
 Sometimes a television series has to go right outside the real-life setting in the novels to show appropriate locations, primarily because the time that has passed since the novels were set. I have recently been watching the 1992-3 British series of 'Maigret' (based on novels and short stories written by Georges Simenon between 1931-72), starring Michael Gambon as the eponymous detective. As with the David Suchet 'Poirot' series and the Joan Hickson 'Miss Marple' series on British television, rather than straddling the decades as these characters did in the novels, the makers select a decade that they feel best suits the detective's manner. Poirot has been allocated to the 1930s and Maigret, like Marple, has been put into the 1950s. To reproduce 1950s Paris in 1990s Paris, in fact, in the bulk of 1990s France, would be impossible, so locations in Hungary were used. Yet, watching the series you feel they have reproduced the era and its French settings perfectly.

Anyway, place is important for these series and this contrasts with other detective series such as 'A Touch of Frost' (1992-2009) which has a very uncertain setting, sometimes seeming to be located in the Thames Valley, sometimes somewhere in northern England instead. This is how I come to my perception of south-eastern Sweden and how it has been shaped by stories featuring the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. The novels of Henning Mankell featuring Wallander were published 1991-9 though another is due for publication this year, and another featuring Kurt playing a secondary role to his detective daughter, Linda, appeared in 2002. Though unlike Morse, Wallander has been married, his manner is similar. In many of the stories he eats poorly, exercises little and drinks too much alcohol. Whilst he can get inside people's minds and be sympathetic to the ordinary people he is involved in cases with, he is also pretty socially dysfunctional especially with colleagues and his daughter. He also has a bad relationship with his artist father, though in turn he is not an easy man to deal with. The Wallander stories do not pull punches and the murders that he investigates are often brutal and stem from unpleasant occurrences and lives. There is also often a political element involved too.
 The Wallander series was translated into English 1997-2008, but it was the fifth novel in the series, 'Sidetracked' (1995; translated 1999) which really broke through into the UK market and this is why it was the first one to be made into an English-language production. In recent months I have seen episodes from both the Swedish language television series starring Krister Henriksson from 2005-6 (there were previous/concurrent Swedish movies 1994-2007 starring Rolf Lassgård) and the English-language television series of this year starring Kenneth Branagh. Many of the Henriksson episodes are stories written for television rather than being based on original novels. This happened with the Morse series too. With a television series usually with a minimum of 4 episodes, but often 6 or 13 (representing an eighth or a quarter of the year) there is a need for a lot of stories and the television producers get through them quickly. It is only when you have so many as in the case of the Sherlock Holmes, Maigret, Marple and Poirot stories, written over decades, that you are unlikely to run out. They made all but 17 of the original 60 Sherlock Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, 1984-94. Similarly Derek Jacobi featured in 13 episodes of 'Cadfael', across four series, based on the 20 novels and one collection of short stories published 1977-94 by Ellis Peters. So, it seems that to keep a series satisfied and author needs at least 20-40 stories and so far Henriksson is already slated to appear in 26.

In my general discussion of television detectives I have wandered from my key point which is about the perception of Sweden which has been thrust upon me by the two Wallander series I have seen episodes from. Of course, series often act as travelogues for the region they are showing. People easily write off the murderous aspect. 'Bergerac' had 87 episodes, now not all of the stories featured a murder, but some had more than one, so let us say it showed 87 deaths over a 10 year period. In 2001, Jersey had a population of just over 87,000 people, plus of course it has thousands of visitors, but it would have been a pretty high murder rate, way above the actual level for the island. It clearly did not impinge on tourists going there and in fact probably helped contribute to the numbers by showing how nice the place is.

The Wallander stories are located near Ystad, probably the most southerly town in Sweden with a population of only 17,200 people. So it is a rural area though with ferry and train connections to Denmark and ferries to Poland and Estonia too. However, its level of preservation is very high and it looks historic and picturesque. I suppose this is like Colin Dexter using Oxford as the backdrop for his Morse stories. The way it is shown in the series is as an almost unpopulated area, though Skåne County has a population of 1.2 million and though it only covers 3% of Sweden, contains 13% of its population. The skies are big and you feel a similarity with the northern states of the USA. The filming is often done in an almost under-exposed way, especially in the British version, to emphasise the length of the Summer days and the purity of the light in the region. With the lack of people shown it almost gives it an ethereal feel. Given that Kurt Wallander's father is supposed to have painted the same landscape 7000 times it fits in with the other-worldliness of the location, perhaps as a counterpoint to the brutal murders which Wallander and his daughter investigate. Perhaps boredom is a motive as characters are shown having perverse sex lives, torturing animals and getting involved in religious or political fanaticism.

Another counterpoint is between the beauty of the landscape and how dull all the characters' homes appear to be. They look as if they are living in East German barracks at the height of the Cold War. I am surprised that Ikea, the Swedish furniture company has not stepped in to try and alter this portrayal of Swedish interiors as being so dull. Despite all the wide open spaces portrayed and the outdoor lifestyle you come away from watching this programmes feeling that everything is very stifled, claustrophobic.
In some ways watching series featuring Kurt Wallander, I find them as almost as uncomfortably dreary as the settings of the series 'Supernatural' (running since 2005, currently the 5th series has been commissioned). This is a US series about two young men who travel through small-town USA fighting demons, ghosts and other supernatural creatures. I find it unnerving, not because of the horror aspect, but because each week they are in yet another dreary dead-end, one-horse town in the USA and even those people not experiencing supernatural events are facing the bleakest lives possible. Ironically, like many US series, it is actually filmed in western Canada.

Even the police in the Wallander series seem housed in something resembling a community centre which is constantly being reorganised. Liberals in Britain have often pointed to Sweden as being a model society, but perhaps as in all model societies it is a very dull society. Women are shown as playing an equal role. This is something that is striking if you access websites of companies and public institutions of Sweden and neighbouring Scandinavian states, that you see women in prominent positions, in equal quantities to their male counterparts, sometimes in the majority. In the UK we may pay lip service to equality, but it only takes some moments looking at Swedish counterpart comapnies to see it is a reality there. Taken as a whole, however, the Wallander television series challenge the 'sexiness' people in UK perceive in Sweden and instead show the country as much screwed up as Britain is, and perhaps even worse, because when it is not dysfunctional it is tedious and is a country that will drive you mad through its bland nature. Of course I will continue to watch because I am always interested by crime stories set in different times and places, but I do wonder if the Swedish tourist board should worry about the international success of the Kurt Wallander stories on television and in movies. They do show a beautiful landscape, but very convincingly a country you could not stand to be for more than five minutes without falling into utter despondency.


Rooksmoor said...

You might be interested to see the BBC blog entry from December 2010 about Nordic Noir thrillers at:

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