Not since Abba won Eurovision has Scandinavian culture been so popular. If you’ve been anywhere near a book shop in the last few years, you would know of Stieg Larsson. But this goes further and other examples of media from Scandinavia have also had immense success worldwide.
Recent events in Norway mean Scandinavia is very much in people’s minds right now, but for the last few years across the world, people have been engaging with Scandinavian culture in a way not seen since Abba in the 70’s. Not that everyone will be wearing flares, but engaging with some very dark stuff which has come out of Scandinavia on TV, in theatres and in print. Why have these suddenly become so popular, and what does this tell us about attitudes to Scandinavia today?
Let’s start with the ‘Millennium trilogy’ by Steig Larsson. Larsson was a Swedish journalist and writer who died in 2004. He achieved incredible posthumous success, with worldwide sales of his three books topping 30 million. His work focused on disgraced publisher Mikael Blomkvist (partially based on him) and awkward investigator Lisbeth Salander. The novels weave through conspiracies, murder, cold war spying and are thrilling reads, if not too well written and translated. Part of the appeal is certainly Larsson himself, but also the fact it’s Sweden. He appeals to people’s antiestablishment ideals and made many enemies in his journalistic career, and people loved the dark side to an otherwise peaceful seeming country. The books contrast the common perception of Sweden as a kind, fair and transparent society, with scenes of conspiracy, rape, murder, with casual pieces of neo Nazism and old spies thrown in. The books were turned into successful Swedish language films, grossing $200m worldwide. The forthcoming American remakes with Hollywood stars will certainly be box office hits when they hit cinemas in late2011.
Stieg Larsson could be explained as an anomaly, but he’s not. Other writers and dramas from Scandinavia have been successful recently. The Swedish vampire film ‘Let the Right One In’ did very well in cinemas and on DVD and spawned an English language remake under the re-launched ‘Hammer Horror’ brand. It was held up as one of the top horror films of the last ten years and acclaimed by film critics worldwide. Another example is the ridiculous ‘Dead Snow’, a Norwegian film about a battle between tourists in the Norwegian fjords and Nazi zombies (you need to see the trailer on youtube). As well as having an amazing tag line (Eis, Zwei, DIE), it is a well-made film which won several awards. It did okay in theatres, but made millions when released on DVD and is a cult classic. A big reason for cinematic successes in Scandinavia is governmental investment in film, possibly prompted by the interest in Stieg Larsson. Norway and especially Sweden have developed their creative industries, and their financial assistance and tax breaks allows film producers to have the kind of budgets enjoyed by the British and French film industries. This has also been supported by major foreign film companies in the UK and US buying up rights and investing massively in the region, not only supporting local film-making, but by setting their films there, providing Scandinavian film crews with experience and skills.
Europeans and those further away have also been enjoying some good Scandinavian TV. In Britain, the BBC took a gamble and bought ‘Wallander’, a series based on Swedish crime novels of the same name. As well as showing the original Swedish version, they remade it with Kenneth Brannagh, and had a huge ratings hit. Clearly enthused by the public’s appetite for Scandinavian crime, they later bought the rights to the Danish production ‘Forbrydelsen’ (The Crime). It was renamed ‘The Killing’ and got a big following, becoming one of BBC Four’s highest ever rated shows, with similar success across Europe. Not bad for an intricate 24 episode foreign language murder story set in another country. The realism, the stunning Copenhagen setting and great script kept viewers across Europe engaged, as did the contrast of a beautiful and clean Copenhagen, with the dark side of crime. The series has been remade successfully in Holland and in the US, where it has been nominated for several Emmys. The success of these crime shows has re-enforced this success and now more similar material is being produced, and British audience research claimed to love not only the novelty of the setting and seeing something new, but they mainly kept coming back for the plot and the characters. The show was so successful, tourism to Sweden from the UK massively increased as a result.
This has developed further and now other European media companies are having success with their productions, especially outside Europe. A great example is the French crime series ‘Spiral’, which people love around the world and is now a cult hit. But it seems that crime is what the people want, and what is happening is that writers and producers are creating great characters and stories, and this, more than anything else is the key to their success.