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Nordic Noir: Unconditional Success

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America is famous for remaking famous TV-series from other countries, as they did to the British Being Human. In fact, the American version of Being Human became just as popular as the British original series. However, this is not the case with, for example, The Killing, the adaptation of Danish series Forbrydelsen. One can also remember such famous American remakes as Let Me In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Box office for both of them is twice more than for the Swedish originals; however, many people notice that Scandinavian original movies have a unique atmosphere, which was not entirely reproduced by the American films. Here we come to the main point: Scandinavian series have something that their American remakes do not have. In this article, I shall consider the Danish dramas’ main constituents and analyse what makes for its success abroad.

If one casts a look at literature, one can see that crime fiction has existed in numerous forms for centuries: from the Gothic mysteries of the pre-Victorian era, to hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1940s and 50s by American authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler that inspired the stereotypical image of the private eye seen in film noir, to the far more British genre of the “whodunnit” where the reader is challenged to identify the perpetrator of a crime before the author reveals the mystery. The crime novel (and, consequently, the crime series) was especially popular in Scandinavia, represented by, for example, Danish author Hans Scherfig in his Stolen Spring, a crime novel, which deals not only with the murder itself but also with the crime against youth personality, Swedish author Stig Larsson with his sensational Millennium trilogy, and Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt with her novel Det som aldri skjer, dark and inexorable, filled with unsaid tragedies.

However, when talking about television drama, one has to pay attention to that fact that all Danish television dramas that became successful belong to so-called Nordic noir, a genre of crime story with a social, psychological and narrative twist. The Bridge, recent world success, made jointly by Denmark and Sweden, is the best example of Nordic noir drama: the body of a female Swedish politician, which appeared one the bridge after the power was off and on again; cold northern sea; laconic, minimalistic style, which is so typical Scandinavian style. Therefore, we have three main constituents: crime, social issues and psychological aspect.

I shall not concentrate on crime constituent in particular; it is been already said that crime fiction has been popular in both literature and television since long ago. Scandinavian script writers are known for creating tangled plots giving more keys in every episode but still making it impossible to guess who is the murderer.

Social aspect is the point of special interest. Social issues have always remained the most popular theme in world literature and cinema, represented by Dostoevsky’s famous novel Crime and Punishment. In America, television series, for example, for teenagers are actually used for raising awareness on different issues such as bullying, loss, first love, etc. Nowadays, television is one of the main instruments of educating people. Scandinavian television crime series do carry the same function, highlighting such social issues as, for example, inequality of different social classes in front of the law, terrorism, human trafficking, and politics’ dirty sides. The Bridge, in fact, went much further getting people’s attention to the environmental problems in season two – something that television crime drama rarely do.

Finally, psychological aspect constitutes the crucial part of crime drama, especially when talking about Nordic noir. The main theme here is the people trying to cope with their loss, as it is an alienable part of a crime. The political aspect mentioned earlier also contributes to the psychological tension in such television drama as Danish

The Killing and The Bridge, and Swedish Wallander. An appealing example is the murdered Minister of Justice in The Killing who appeared to cover-up a massacre of Afghan civilians by Danish soldiers. Another striking case is the killing of several government ministers in Wallander who in fact were involved into human trafficking, importing young girls into Sweden. Besides politics, Scandinavian crime drama also plays on such psychological and interpersonal issues as relationship between parents and children, partners, and co-workers.

To sum up, one can say that combination of highlighted social issues, deep psychology and ‘realistic, simple and precise’ style is what makes Scandinavian television drama so popular outside Nordic countries. Scandinavian cinema is indeed exotic to a European eye, and that can explain its popularity abroad.

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Cinema Scandinavia is a bi-monthly Nordic film and television magazine with a focus on writing for international audiences. Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia.