Henning Mankell's Wallander: I'm the screenwriter

Friday 6 July 2012, 12:25

Peter Harness Peter Harness Screen Writer

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By total coincidence, I live in Southern Sweden, about half an hour down the road from Ystad, the small coastal town where Wallander is filmed and set.

I'm one of those jammy sods who managed to entice a Swedish girl into marriage and then paid the price by being made to emigrate to a well-maintained, socially progressive, sensible-thinking paradise. With sunny summers.

I was already considering myself ridiculously lucky when I was rung up in 2009 and asked whether I'd consider taking over writing duties on the series.

I was overjoyed, in a very non-Wallander kind of way: and I can safely say that I've relished every moment of this job, working on my own doorstep with an unbeatable team, and adapting a series of books that I've loved since my Swedish father-in-law gave me Before The Frost (film number three in the new series) 10 years ago.

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Watch the trailer for series three

For those of you coming to it afresh, Wallander is about a middle-aged Swedish detective working the badlands of Skåne county - which lies just over the sea bridge from Denmark and the rest of Europe - and dealing with often horrific crimes that seem to belie the social democratic paradise that I mentioned above, belief in which is a key part of Swedish national identity.

I suppose the series is known for a certain melancholy of tone; for its striking - and I think, exquisitely beautiful - visuals; and, perhaps most of all, for a towering central performance from Kenneth Branagh (now, of course, Sir Ken) in the role of Kurt Wallander.

It's also the series that seemed to kick off the craze for what's now called Nordic noir in the UK: a genre which encompasses the novels of Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Camilla Läckberg (amongst many others); the Millennium films; and the gripping TV shows, The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge.

I don't think it's hard to see what appeals to British audiences about Scandinavian crime fiction.

It tends to be very well written, tightly plotted and characterised, and extremely exciting.

It also tends to be about something: some social issue, some questioning of why these terrible things happen, which, without overpowering the stories, gives them a depth and meaning often lacking in other crime genres.

But, perhaps most importantly, it has a very particular atmosphere: of wide open, beautiful but bleak landscapes; of deep snow and long winters; of contemplation and (that word again) melancholy.

An enjoyable kind of sadness that supposedly permeates the Scandinavian mentality.

When I sat down to write the new series, one of the things I wanted to do was to give Kurt a bit of an easier time, to move away a little from the sadness that seemed to be inherent in the tone of the series.

Previously, Wallander has invariably been hurt and disappointed by his personal life and disturbed and damaged by the things he saw in his professional life.

I thought it was about time to give him a break, to make him happy; and I'm pleased to report that this happens in the first of the new series, An Event In Autumn.

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An Event In Autumn: 'You know you're dreaming... you've got nothing'

It happens for about 10 minutes. Then Fate, despite all my best intentions, unleashes a proverbial bucketful on him.

In fact, although I tried hard to reinvent Wallander as Mr Cheerful, An Event in Autumn is probably the bleakest Wallander yet.

Happiness in Wallander is like Winter sun, greatly appreciated but essentially fleeting: Kenneth Branagh would write REMEMBER TO SMILE in large letters on the script of episode one on those few occasions when the story allowed him to do so.

Perhaps Henning Mankell is to blame.

After all, he's the wise and wonderful man who came up with the character of Wallander and wrote the short story upon which An Event in Autumn is based. He's the godfather of this genre.

However, he's such a kind and warm person and has been such a tremendous inspiration and joy to collaborate with that I can't find it in my heart to blame him for anything.

I guess I've come to realise that the melancholy, the disappointment and the difficulty are part of what make Kurt Wallander who he is, whoever is writing him: he can't help but be affected by the things he sees in his working life, and he can't help but take them home with him.

Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) stands alone in the bleak landscape

Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) stands alone in the bleak landscape

During that first episode, he protests that he's basically a cheerful person, but also realises that he can't do what he does, he can't see the things he sees, and not end up the way he is.

I think that's probably true of a lot of real-life detectives.

However, I don't want to give a misleading impression: it's not all rain.

An Event in Autumn is just one of three films, and as we've seen, there are smiles and even a couple of jokes in it.

Although my favourite joke, which involved the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, had to be cut for reasons of him being found.

Anyway, the new series takes place over a long time. We begin in winter, move to summer (and to Riga) for episode two, and pick Kurt up again in late autumn.

And although his new beginning goes wrong for him, Kurt's already on a journey out of depression and drink; he's much more resilient and emotionally open than once he was; essentially, he's grown up a bit.

So I'm pleased to report that he does end on an optimistic note, with the chance of happiness coming from a place he didn't expect.

Series Four, however, might well be a different matter...

Peter Harness is the screen writer on series three of Wallander. Peter worked closely with Henning Mankell, author of the original Wallander novels, on these three feature-length films.

The first is An Event In Autumn, which is on Sunday, 8 July at 9pm on BBC One. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Oh please try harder to make Wallander happy. I love the series in all its makeovers but at times Wallander' scripts almost turn me on to valium!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I'm happy (probably inappropriate, as it's Wallander we're talking about) that new things in Kurt's life, the house, the girlfriend, the labrador Jussi, give him some cause to smile. It's never really a 'full on' smile, never lasts long and a tantrum or broodingly staring out of the window isn't far away. But as I said, it is Wallander. That's what makes him so believable, so human and loved the world over. He's huge in South Korea!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Thank you for the accuracy with which you depict Mankell's stories and characters. It seems a bit made, but a regular dose of Swedish gloom is very therapeutic. Are there any plans to adapt any of his non-Wallender books? We are very fond of Italian shoes and this could make a wonderful film/programme.

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    Comment number 4.

    Just watched first of new series..great..but why why why the awful pronounciation..
    WOLLANDER..come on "Vallander" is not that difficult to say, we are not all thick

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Great start to the series - it's Wallender's personal and professional demons combined with the landscape that makes this franchise so depressingly captivating. Wow - where did that sledgehammer moment come from...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    What was the closing music please ... Singer and title?

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    Comment number 8.

    Having just watched the new episode of Wallander I must say I am very disappointed, I found the script to be lacking in depth and the storyline somewhat predictable. I think the original Swedish version of the TV programmes are far superior. The portrayal of Kurt is more plausible in the Swedish version as opposed to Kenneth Branagh's character that would not still be in the employ of the Swedish Police given his irrational behaviour. Still that's just my opinion!

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    Comment number 9.

    I became rather angry during the wallander program this evening. I realise Kurt is supposed to be a troubled character and I have followed him in previous episodes without having problems believing in the story. Tonight I found incidents like his inability to answer a sensible question during a phone call from a colleague and walking away from an important call without completing or closing the call down.
    I am sorry but that is completely unbelievable and I lost it, it is unreal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I looked forward to watching this evening's episode of Wallander but from the start, the music was overpowering and distracting. My enjoyment of the whole episode was spoiled by the loud 'background' sounds that totally drowned the dialog, I, like thousands of people in this country, wear hearing aids, and for me, a brilliant programme was ruined by this totally over the top din that bombarded the senses and did not, in any way enhance this first class drama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I should be really interested to know the title of the (stated) novel by Henning Mankell Event in Autumn was based on?

    All the way through the muffled sound I thought it had been hastily written to excuse the disgraceful way Wallender was treated at the end of The Troubled Man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I had been feeling depressed all day but after watching Wallander my spirits rose; I couldn't possibly compete on the depression stakes with this man!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I like K B very much but had to switch off when his colleague was hammered as I find visual instant violence too upsetting, although I can tolerate dead bodies. There is so much gratuitous violence these days, but I can't keep on watching repeats of Poirot, Morse and Lewis. Even Midsummers gives you flashbacks on the actual killing, which are not necessary. I've never been a soap viewer as I enjoy the mathematics of crime. It's all recorded thankfully and I fast forward over the nasties, but my index finger is showing signs of wear. There's always 'Gardener's world' I suppose!

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    Comment number 14.

    I'm a big Henning Mankell fan and have watched the two Swedish series versions of Wallander, but I find the portayal of Kurt by Kenneth Branagh almost unwatchable.
    Many times the script is left hanging in the air, as in one character stating ' he's a pervert' and 'Kurt' just leaves the room and doesn't ask any obvious follow up questions, quite bizarre actions for a detective.
    There were many examples of sentences trailing off into silence, often without resolution.
    Kurt is a complex character, sometimes dreary and drab, but this series is dreich beyond belief.
    Last night's offering encouraged me not to watch again.
    I'm sticking to the books.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Brief as I can. The two previous Wallander series were some of the best TV I have ever watched. However In the first episode of series 3. Wallander states that he doesn’t believe in coincidence. Yet we have to believe a father implicated in ten year old suspicious death decides to come clean by burying the body in Wallander’s garden, ok fair enough. But how does this in anyway relate to the son deciding to become a killer, just a coincidence? Furthermore why was his son hanging around Wallander’s house at night, oh maybe just another coincidence, or just a very cheap device to link him to his father, really not credible. Also you have striped Branagh of what were strong characters to play against. His new police team are anonymous. Take for instance Wallander’s illegal entry into a suspect’s home, which almost gets a colleague killed (female from original team). His previous female superior would have reprimanded him, probably suspended him for it, yet it wasn’t even mentioned, totally inexplicable and unrealistic. I am disappointed.

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    Comment number 16.

    Having seen an earlier episode and found it very implausible we were curious to see whether time had improved matters. However, we have to say, what a waste of money! I cannot comment on how sympathetically the character in the books has been portrayed, but frankly the whole storyline/action beggared belief. At the very least following the illegal break in the character would have been suspended and removed from the investigation. The total lack of professionalism on the part of the other police characters merely reinforced the jaw dropping disbelief. Trying to deal with this lack of reality made it difficult to connect with the personal storylines. I am quite sure the Swedish Police Service would be very embarassed to have been portrayed in this amateurish manner!

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    Comment number 17.

    Such a disappointment. Two women murdered and one knocked into a coma just so we can see the suffering of Wallander as he neglects his home life and still fails to ride to the rescue. No attempt at developing those characters or of exploring the reality of such crimes.
    I'm afraid Kenneth Branagh is a bit too theatrical .. please don't have any more close ups of his crying eyes. Bring back the Swedish version ... so much better all round.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I am totally dumbfounded as to why the BBC commissioned another series of this programme starring Sir Kenneth.
    Why the expense of filming in Sweden when such a thin plot, with nothing uniquely Swedish could have been set anywhere?
    Grim from start to finish and an experience I shall not choose to subject myself to again

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I'm a huge fan of the Swedish version but I gave this another go to see if it would change my mind. Sadly not. Some cringe making moments where police procedural was explained to us 'dimwitted' viewers. Yes, we do know that nicking DNA evidence without a warrant is frowned upon. No need to labour this point ad nauseam. And utterly unbelievable that Wallander would need this explaining to him! Advice - you should treat your viewers as if they were expert detectives, not utter nincompoops. By the way Branagh's Wallander cries far too much (at the drop of a hat) and I don't believe his emotional outbursts for one minute and there's too much distracting music all the way through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The whole problem with the three series is that they are shown out of sequence. 'An Event in Autumn' was adapted from a short story published only in the Netherlands! Where was Martinsson? I assume Tom Hiddlestone was too busy to answer a summons even from Sir Ken! Who was KW's new boss? The Swedish version is much better but the books are still the best place to be in Ystad!


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