The Killing – where the USA takes on Denmark and gets brutally murdered

What is the meaning of life? Where do we go to when we die? What is the point of getting up in the morning? Throughout time these have been the big questions mankind has posed itself over and over again. But, now, a new and important question joins their hallowed ranks to be echoed down through the millennia for generations to come and it is this: Just what on earth is the point in this American remake of The Killing? I fear we may never know the answer but I’ve done my best to, ultimately fruitlessly, shed some light on the matter.

Of course, I do know the economic answer to this question, which is simply that American audiences much prefer to watch English language dramas to subtitled foreign imports and if the locations can be transplanted across the Atlantic so much the better. Another Scandinavian thriller in the shape of Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about to get the Hollywood remake treatment, although with the excellent choice of David Fincher at the helm it looks like being a pretty good decision. Given the choice between simply showing the original Danish TV series of The Killing (or Forbrydelsen, as it is known in its native land) or remaking it, it was always going to be an easy choice for the AMC channel and its sponsors. However, on any artistic level the question still remains – why do it?

That’s not to make any sort of a jibe at all towards American drama which can surely be said to be the finest in the world bar none at this moment in time. A look down the recent list of HBO dramas shows that some the best writers and directors in the history of medium have been working their trade on a purple patch of drama that we may not see the like of again. The AMC channel, makers of the US The Killing, are no slouches either having offered up the glorious Mad Men as well other acclaimed hits in the shape of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. However, it should also be pointed out that production on Mad Men has recently been held up by AMC’s demands to reduce the running time by inserting an extra ad break, cut the budget by removing a main character and insisting on greater product placement – all resisted by the series’ showrunner until a compromise was reached. In other words, do they really know what they’re doing when they’ve been prepared to mess with a winning formula such as Mad Men?

Sadly, you have to ask if anyone really knew what they were doing when remaking The Killing. Almost immediately you question the point in the exercise due the sheer number of things which are identical to the original. While they may have moved the action from Copenhagen to Seattle you could be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of deja vu as you watch the opening scenes of the victim running frantically from the killer in a forest and then see moody aerial shots of the Seattle skyline shot and edited to closely resemble those of Copenhagen in the original with – wait for it – the exact same incidental music playing over the top. Time and time again it’s easy to believe you’ve slipped on a DVD of the Danish version by mistake with some locations looking identical to the originals, interiors looking like carbon copies of those broadcast in Denmark, and even actors in the new version closely resembling the Danes who made the roles so successful.

It’s hard to imagine the thinking behind this. Surely the makers would want this to stand or fall on its own merits. Surely pulling off the achievement of putting your own unique spin on something already acclaimed and making it acclaimed again in a different way should be the goal for AMC and all concerned? Not so, it seems. Instead, we’re treated to scenes played out during the first episode that are almost word for word recreations of what we’ve seen before, shot in an almost identical manner with the director not seeming to care about stamping his own mark on it and being quite prepared to lazily ape someone else’s work. This is never more the case than the wonderful montage endings to each episode of Forbrydelsen as we see what each of the main protagonists are up to and which has been copied lock, stock and barrel for the US version. The opening chase scene of the Danish version was gloriously cinematic and looked like something from the big screen and yet the US version looks just like what it is – a made for television copy of it.

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in the original version

It’s not just in copying the dialogue, music, scenes and direction where this remake falls down but it extends even to the casting. While some actors have been cast very much against the type from the original, others seem to have been chosen just for their physical resemblance to the Danish actors. This is most noticeable with the casting of the murdered girl’s father with Brent Sexton playing the part almost as a parody of Bjarne Henriksen who first played the character, copying his clothes and even adding facial hair in the spirit of the original character.

Of course, much must rest on the shoulders of the actress playing the lead investigator. In Forbrydelsen Sofie Gråbøl gave a simply stunning performance as Sarah Lund. In many ways her character almost didn’t have a character, being economically written and with no hints of “big character” traits normally pinned onto a lead in a crime drama. Gråbøl’s performance is all about subtlety and as much about what she doesn’t say as what she does. She is calm and yet driven, not very sociable and yet you instantly like her. Mireille Enos on the other hand is passable enough as Sarah Linden, as the character has been renamed, but she’s a lot more easy going and therefore much less interesting as a character. She’s just a dull everywoman who’s likeable enough and therefore less engaging than the truly enigmatic and inscrutable Gråbøl. An okay performance following in the footsteps of a truly wonderful one is very disappointing and symptomatic of the producers of the remake rather missing the point that the viewers were drawn towards the understated rather than the obvious. In another of those baffling decisions they’ve even elected to force Enos to wear the same Christmas jumpers that Gråbøl made famous in Denmark as if the jumper somehow defines the character and it can be replicated by just putting on an identical costume. You may as well say that the important thing about playing Henry V is to make sure you have a crown on your head. Deary me.

Enos is far from terrible in the role and her character as written in the remake is equally far from being poor, but she doesn’t have that indefinable magic that Gråbøl and the writers and the directors combined to bring to the screen. You can see this clearly in her opening scene on AMC. While we feel we’ve dropped in on the character in Denmark we are force-fed some exposition in the American version which is truly amateurish info-dump. A friend of mine said that he turned off at this point and could continue no further so I was prepared for it, but I was still slightly bowled over by the Beginner’s Guide to Writing style of the dialogue as Linden’s husband-to-be fills the viewer in on Linden’s past, and hopes for the present, in a clunky series of lines which would have almost been better set as scrolling subtitles across the screen saying, “This is Sarah Linden and she’s about to move house, get married, get a new job and move to a new city”. It’s the sort of thing which tells you almost instantly that the cryptic skills of the Danes haven’t been matched by the Americans. Given that it’s from the channel home of Mad Men, which takes subtlety and makes it into an art form, it’s even more perplexing.

While the multitude of things which they have copied from the original are disappointing the real disappointment comes when they change things. If that sounds like I’m trying to have my cake and eat it in attacking the production I’ll explain. I’d have been very happy for AMC to almost completely change every aspect of the series – completely new dialogue, a different tone, new music, characters recast in new and interesting ways – just go for something totally fresh while still keeping the same central plot. However, the producers slavishly copy so much of Forbrydelsen that when they do actually make a few minor tweaks and adjustments they stick out all the more and you sit up at home thinking, “Oh, they actually changed a bit there”. The one scene which actually manages to surpass the original is that of the Larssens telling their two young sons that their big sister has died. It was excellent in the original but is perhaps a notch better in the remake and is handled in a different way in a different location. However, this is very much the exception and each change introduced in every other aspect is very much for the worse.

Take three characters who have been changed. Most characters come across as photocopies of the originals but three have been substantially altered. One of these is Jamie Wright, played by Eric Laden (Mad Men, Generation Kill) the right hand man and spin doctor of the series’ main political character. In the original his character is called Morten Weber and you like him. He’s fiercely loyal to his political employer and he comes across as a man of integrity. In this version we hear him say in the first episode, “better still if the girl is dead” in relation to how they can turn the missing girl to their political advantage. He comes across as a hateful little creep, which exactly how he looks.

Another example is the politician – Troels Hartmann in the original and Darren Richmond as he is renamed here. This is a politician who wants to sweep a corrupt old mayor from office and is determined to present a new kind of politics to the people which is beyond reproach. You want to believe in him in the original through all the trials and tribulations of his campaign but in this version, as early as the second episode, he is shown offering lucrative local government contracts to the husband of a political rival whose endorsement he is after. In other words, he’s corruptible himself.

The final example is Linden/Lund’s police partner who was Jan Meyer in Denmark and Stephen Holder in the US. Meyer is a flawed but good cop who sometimes lets his emotions spill over but who is a very sympathetic character. Holder, on the other hand, is played as some sort of white homie boy full of “Yo brotha” attitude who is instantly aggressive to the point of idiocy in questioning any and all suspects or witnesses and who uses smoking joints as his method of hanging out wit da kids to get the lowdown on the murdered girl and her friends. Basically, he’s a rather difficult character to care about.

What’s important about these three characters is that on the long and emotional journey of the original series we felt for these people every step of the way, were shocked when they were shocked and felt their pain and anguish. In this version what reason is there given that we should worry about what happens to them? What series like The Wire have done is to make sure that even characters who are out and out bad ‘uns are filled with likeable attributes to make us empathise with them. All we have here though are people who aren’t very interesting and who aren’t someone we can engage with and to take three central characters from the plot and make us switch off from them is something of a special skill for the producers of this remake.

If you were coming to this series never having seen the Danish original you’d probably think it was competently made, paced and acted with the majority of the performances being good (Michelle Forbes – previously of Star Trek: The Next Generation – as the murdered girl’s mother and Kristin Lehman as the politician’s lover and aide suggest that they could shine almost as strongly as their Danish counterparts). However, for anyone who caught the original on BBC4 or upon its first outing in Denmark then the question of what is the point just won’t go away. The series appears as a curious mixture of elements which are copied, only not as well, and new elements which fall a long way short indeed of the standard set in Denmark back in 2007. When I heard that the American series was a mere thirteen episodes of forty-five minutes duration compared to the original’s twenty hour-long episodes I was prepared to forgive them the compression which was going on as whole sections of the plot in the second and third episodes were jettisoned and two characters would be crushed into one who would do the work in the plot of the two originals. However, I’ve now heard that this thirteen episode run on AMC is only the first half of the story and that it is returning for a further thirteen episodes to wrap the story up. Perhaps, given that they’ll have even more episodes than the Danish version, rather than the previously suspected less, they’ll actually start doing a lot of new things with the plot, otherwise why cut out whole chunks in the early stages?

Perhaps more baffling though than AMC’s remake is Channel 4’s decision to buy it. Surely the majority of people interested in it in the UK will have already sought out the far superior version shown recently on BBC4? However, if you’re not one of them and you’ve come late to the party let me advise you that you’ve wandered into the wrong house. There’s a much better party next door and you don’t need to stay in this one to follow it through to the bitter end. Just make your apologies and nip next door. It doesn’t matter that you’re four or five episodes into this disappointing retread – just stop watching. You’re not so far into it that you’ve had anything ruined in the original yet. Just hire or buy the DVD box set of Forbrydelsen or simply download it (from legal sources obviously…) and catch up with that version and then keep going. You won’t want to stop and you’ll not even once be pining for the American version. There’s no point in watching the Danish version at a later date as you’ll have ruined all the surprises for yourself, whereas watching the American version later, if you insist, will just demonstrate that you made the better choice.

Before I belatedly caught up with Forbrydelsen, just as the BBC4 run was finishing, I asked a friend how good it was. He replied that if there was a World Cup of modern drama then it would be in the final, it was that good. My eyes widened and I suggested that no matter how good it might be that perhaps Mad Men and The Wire would need to be drawn together in the semi-finals to give it a clear run into the final. A short time later, having watched it, I began to think that perhaps it did indeed have the beating of those two illustrious series, perhaps on a good day with the pitch conditions suited to Forbrydelsen and Mad Men‘s goalkeeper sent off early on for a rash challenge. But before I strangle the World Cup analogy to death I’ll add that while Denmark march on towards that final the USA have long ago exited the tournament grinding out three goal-less draws and failing to qualify from the group stages having failed to demonstrate any original tactics and being booed and bottled off the pitch by an angry group of Danish Television-supporting hooligans.

The only thing left to say is that while I’m urging anyone watching the American version to stop and stop now, I myself am probably going to persevere with it. It’s not so bad that it’s good, it’s merely okay sprinkled with moments that are copies of the good that has gone before and new decisions which are rather poor. However, I’m actually slightly fascinated by the way it reveals itself at every turn to be an inferior version like some sort of visual manual of how to make mediocre television. Perhaps that’s how they should have marketed it: “See how to take something brilliant and dilute every aspect of it”. And perhaps I’m still hopefully searching for the answer to the question at the top of this article: just what is the point of this?

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