We’ve already looked at why there’s a boom in Scandinavian cinema, but looking at how this spread has occurred shows us both the fickleness of fashion as well as the power of cultural similarity. How, despite geographical separation, there are networks of taste that can transport a nation’s culture throughout Europe and the wider world.
Cultural popularity comes from an unavoidable audience hunger, a desire to consume more of what we like. Swedish readers got a taste for Henning Mankell’s Wallander stories, they hungered for more, so Mankell wrote them. They hungered for more so the producers commissioned films of them. The audience hungered for more, so a series was made. Still they hungered for more. They began looking for things like Mankell; anything that captured something of the taste of Wallander. They found Stieg Larsson; they found The Killing; and more recently, they’ve found Borgen. At some point along the way a commissioning editor from the BBC sampled Wallander and decided to serve it up to British audiences, and the whole cycle continued.
This is, of course, a gross simplification of history. It was not single-handedly the popularity of Wallander that drove the interest in Scandinavian stories, many of the series I have mentioned were being produced in the same years as Wallander, and the success of each fed the others, but to give a total and fair analysis would take up too many pages; more than I have available.
It is not necessarily inevitable that because something was successful it will transport to another culture. For example, the Bollywood film industry, whilst fantastically successful in India, hasn’t managed to spread through Europe. Many UK cinemas screen Bollywood films, but the audience for these films remains staunchly Indian, suggesting that some cultural differences are too large to overcome. The film that bridged this divide was Slumdog Millionaire, but to do it director Danny Boyle has to dilute the elements of Bollywood that were most alien to Western audiences. The film occupies a middle-ground. It’s based in the realism of Western storytelling, but retains tropes of Indian films (in particular the dance number at the film’s conclusion). The advantage Scandinavian culture had, was that it already had a strong similarity to a particular element of British culture.
It is no accident that the forerunners to this spate of Scandinavian series to cross to Britain were all in the crime genre. Both cultures’ crime stories share popular tropes, the introspective, melancholic detectives, bleak empty countryside rubbing up against modern cities, traditional conservative values conflicting with modern liberalism, it makes the stories comfortable neighbours on a bookcase or DVD rack.
The audience expanded globally because once they were imported the stories were adapted for domestic screens, which, while diluting the original taste, makes it palatable for a different audience. American producers only began to adapt The Killing, Let the Right One In, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after the BBC adapted Wallander for British screens.
Scandinavian crime stories are only one cultural strand that has worked its way through Europe and out over the Atlantic. It’s happened before the world over with notable examples such as French new wave, Korean horror and so many others. What we should take from the Scandinavian boom isn’t that there is something exceptional about it, but rather that it is a proof that there are cultural links between all the disparate nations of the globe, they just need to fostered a little.