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Writing

The Killing II — turning a TV classic into a book

My adaptation of The Killing II is now available in hardback, ebook and audio in the UK from Pan Macmillan so it’s time to say a few words. The first you’ve heard already. It’s that word ‘adaptation’.

Lots of people describe books based on TV programmes or movies as ‘novelisations’. For me a novelisation is a book that takes a dramatic narrative and turns it, pretty much unchanged, into a fictional one.

That was never the intention with The Killing. The first series was a massive, ambitious complex drama and would never have survived such simplistic treatment. The second is half the length but much the same in scale and intention. As we all know when a book is adapted for television or film it changes, sometimes considerably. This isn’t because scriptwriters have it in for novelists. The two are different media and require very different approaches. The same problem arises when you try to move something as rich and prolix as The Killing from screen to page. It requires not novelisation but adaptation — moulding to a fresh but recognisable shape to match the new medium.

Let me give you a simple example. Both The Killing II and the current third series start, in dramatic terms, quite slowly. The first episode is effectively a setup for the story to come, putting events and characters in place before we see them start to move. TV can do this with an established series precisely because it is established. Sarah Lund is a big enough draw in herself to bring in an audience who will give her the time to attract their interest.

Books aren’t like that. Popular fiction can’t assume prior knowledge. It needs to capture the reader early on, not least because, as I now know, many of the readers of my adaptations haven’t seen the TV at all, and a good number only turn to the broadcast version after reading the book. So when I write the story of Lund, Ulrik Strange and the sad, lost soldier Raben and his family in the second series I need to start things moving quickly while, at the same time, staying true to the original spirit of the narrative.

That’s my aim anyway. Only you will be able to decide how well I’ve managed. The Killing II is a different kind of story to the first series. In a way it’s a more conventional thriller, almost a serial killer story in one sense. It also presented very different challenges. In the first series I wanted to whittle down a little a massive story based on the classic A, B and C storyline system of TV (those story threads being the hunt for Nanna’s murderer, the question of whether her parents will survive her murder, and the issue of the politician Troels Hartmann who somehow seems unable to throw off suspicions he’s involved).

The second series is half the length of the first – ten episodes – but still quite complex, with three different storylines, and a rapid succession of key, and sometimes not-so-key, events. There was less chance for cutting, so it’s still a long book, though quite a bit shorter than The Killing I. Unlike the first series though, I found myself having to add in a little to make the story meaningful to an audience outside Denmark.To understand  why take a look at this short trailer which shows you the beginning of the series…

A murder in a war memorial garden. At least that’s the way most audiences outside the UK will see this. But it’s a lot more than that, as I discovered visiting Copenhagen to research the book and talk to its creator, the ever-helpful Søren Sveistrup. This takes place in a memorial garden called Mindelunden.To the Danes it’s a place of awkward, sacred memories. In the first series the opening sequence said much about the story to come. The second series is no different. On one level this is a mystery, a dark thriller. But on another it’s a story about war. What ceaseless conflict does to soldiers, to their families and to the politicians who send them into battles for reasons they may no longer fully understand.

So there was my first challenge: introduce a Danish context to a foreign readership — something I never had to do in series one.

The second had to do with the married couple at the heart of the story, Jens Peter Raben, a troubled soldier locked in a mental institution for reasons he can’t understand and his difficult wife Louise. One of several triumphs in the first series was the superb relationship between Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen, the murdered Nanna’s parents. This was depicted in the most moving of ways, without maudlin emotion yet with a vivid sense of tragic loss.

When I talked to Søren — a very frank, honest and thoughtful man — he said that the team had taken a deliberate decision to step back from the raw grief of the Birk Larsens when portraying Raben and his wife. And with his customary candour he wondered if they’d gone too far — and perhaps I could bring some emotion back into the relationship.

So some of the extrapolations of character you’ll find in the book came from  Søren’s ideas that never made it to the screen. The execution, though, is mine, as are most of the changes. So if you hate it don’t blame anyone but me.

I hope I’ve done this fine series justice. For those of you who’ve never seen the TV let me give you a little taste. The start, a murder at Mindelunden, you’ve seen in the trailer above. Afterwards Lund is dragged back from self-imposed exile to give a brief opinion on the case and, naturally, becomes more involved. This is at the insistence of her boss Brix, below left, who teams her with a new partner, Ulrik Strange on the right.

Brix, Lund and the newcomer Ulrik Strange

At the same time an eccentric politician, Thomas Buch, is, to his surprise, made the Minister of Justice. Buch is quite a character — a kind of Danish Boris Johnson but without the dark side. He soon takes it on himself to get to the bottom of the puzzling murders Lund is looking at, even though this gets him into hot water.

Buch… think Boris Johnson with a heart

I love Buch. He’s a bit of a slob but desperate to do the right thing. As in the first series, murder is the primary storyline, while politics provides another. The third is to do with the army, the Raben family and the desperate efforts of Louise to escape from military life. Below she’s being romanced by a slimy, suspicious officer Christian Søgaard who’s keen to take advantage of the fact her husband’s in jail. She’s torn between loyalty and doing what’s best for herself and her young son. And as I said earlier, I have tried to bring up this emotional side rather more than it appeared on screen.

Louise Raben faced with choices, one of them being Christian Søgaard

What else have I changed? Well, you’ll need to read the book for that. I hope I’ve fleshed out Brix a bit more, thrown in a couple of new surprises, and tied the ending up slightly differently as I did with book one, though strictly from threads that appear in the original.

It was a challenging, enthralling project to undertake and I’m grateful to everyone in Copenhagen and elsewhere who helped me bring it to the page.