‘The Killing’: How AMC’s Adaptation of ‘Forbrydelsen’ Went Wrong

While the uproar over the U.S. version of The Killing has quieted, the show is still a pale imitation of the Danish series on which it is based. Jace Lacob compares the two.


It’s not necessary to rehash the anger that followed in the wake of the conclusion last June of the first season of AMC’s mystery drama The Killing, based on Søren Sveistrup’s landmark Danish show Forbrydelsen, which follows the murder of a schoolgirl and its impact on the people whose lives the investigation touches upon. What followed were irate reviews, burnished with the “burning intensity of 10,000 white-hot suns” aimed squarely at writer and adapter Veena Sud; an overwhelming audience backlash; and bewilderment at comments that Sud herself made to the press. (A recent New York Times Magazine feature on the show’s challenges, for which reporter Adam Sternbergh flew to Vancouver to spend a Valentine’s Day dinner with Sud, used only two short quotations from her, perhaps demonstrating that she’s learned to choose her words more carefully.)

We’re only too familiar with the groundswell of scorn against the American version of The Killing, which meandered its way into an incomprehensible muddle after a pitch-perfect pilot episode. (The acting, however, was often brilliant, as Michelle Forbes, Mireille Enos, Brent Sexton, and others turned in searing performances.) Unlike the hate-watching that has accompanied, say, NBC’s Smash, there was a full-on revolt against The Killing that resulted in a loss of more than 30 percent of viewers when the show returned for a second season this spring.

Many wondered just how Sud would untangle the Gordian knot created by the controversial first season finale, miring the plot in yet another complication with a reveal that Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), the partner of mentally unstable police detective Sarah Linden (Enos), appeared to be a crooked cop, planting evidence and betraying Linden. It was one twist too many in an already baroque season overflowing with false leads, red herrings, and convoluted conspiracy theories.

Frustrated by both that cliffhanger and the general lugubrious disarray of the second season, I went back to the source material, devouring the icily calculated 20-episode first season of the Danish original in a few days, in an effort to see where things had gone wrong for The Killing. Forbrydelsen (or “The Crime”), after all, was a huge hit both in Denmark in 2007 and last year in the U.K. It spawned a second season unrelated to the mystery of who killed Nanna Birk Larsen (Rosie Larsen in the U.S. version) and is currently preparing a third go-around with detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl).

Adaptation is always a tricky pursuit, but the failures of The Killing are keenly felt in comparison to the narrative strength and precision of Forbrydelsen. The Killing more than liberally borrows from its Danish forebear in its first season, lifting the musical score wholesale, along with plot points, dialogue, costumes (look, it’s Lund’s Faroese sweater!), and characters while shifting the action from rainy Copenhagen to rainy Seattle. In essence, the majority of the first season precisely echoes the first 10 episodes of Forbrydelsen, but when Sud does diverge from the original, her choices seem unnecessary and cause things go awry.

Within the Danish version, there is no Indian casino, no mob plot, no prostitution ring, no Ogi Jun anime tattoo, no one in the shadows snapping photos of the lead investigator. Unlike Michelle Forbes’s Mitch, Pernille (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), the grief-stricken mother of Nanna, does not go on a road trip and abandon her family so that she can have slumber parties with a teen prostitute runaway. The politician at the center of the murder investigation isn’t shot or paralyzed in Forbrydelsen. Unlike in The Killing, the parentage of Nanna is never in doubt (she is the daughter of Bjarne Henriksen’s brooding Theis) and she is not believed to be an underage prostitute, a convention that owes more to Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer than to Forbrydelsen.

However, much of the set-up is the same, at times maddeningly so, as the American version recreates entire sequences from the Danish show, albeit with gratuitous changes: a cut arm becomes a nose bleed, “Faust” becomes “Orpheus,” Billy Campbell’s Darren Richmond is given a choking fetish. In both cases, Nanna/Rosie is a smiling schoolgirl with a bright future whose life is cut short by a brutal murder. In the Danish version, Nanna is raped repeatedly and held for at least a day in a room with a concrete floor before she’s placed in the trunk of a car and drowned. While Rosie is found in similar circumstances, there is no sign that she was sexually assaulted before her murder; Nanna, however, has her hands washed and her nails cut while she was still alive, a sign that the killer knows how to evade police and perhaps has done it before. Nanna is found clutching onto a pendant necklace, while a political party’s flat plays a crucial backdrop to part of the crime.

In both shows, there’s an emphasis on the messiness that follows in the wake of a murder investigation, but the Danish version better captures the chaos that follows, a cancer that spreads outward and infects everyone it comes in contact with: the girl’s bereaved family and her friends, a mayoral candidate and his staff, and even the mismatched pair of detectives attempting to solve the crime. Careers are ruined, countless lives destroyed (and, in some cases, lost), and reputations left in tatters. The Killing’s central characters—Linden and Holder—are such messes when the series begins that their characters have nowhere to go. Instead, they plateau.

In Forbrydelsen, however, the Holder character—Søren Malling’s Jan Meyer—isn’t an ex-junkie but a family man with whom Lund has a hugely adversarial relationship at first, and—unlike Enos’ Linden—Gabrol’s Lund begins the series with a buoyant spirit; it’s by the end that she becomes paranoid and brittle. She is a divorcée, raising her teen son on her own, but she is neither an orphan nor a foster kid nor as emotional fragile as Linden. Both become increasingly neglectful with their families as they obsessively pursue the case, but Lund has a support system—a dressmaker mother (Anne Marie Helger), an intelligent and supportive fiancé (Johan Gry’s Bengt), and even a sympathetic ex-husband—even as she contemplates leaving behind her job and life in Copenhagen to start over in Sweden with Bengt. (Bengt, meanwhile, isn’t a stock angry fiancé character; he surprisingly becomes an integral part of the investigation, even as he fears losing Lund forever.)

Likewise, there are intriguing dynamics lost in adaptation: a clear parallel between Lund and Pernille, both of whom are unable to let go or move on, as their souls are overtaken by the seeds of doubt planting root, and an intriguing tension, almost bordering on the sexual, between Lund and the politico, Troels Hartmann (Lars Mikkelsen), who is one of the prime suspects in the case. These two share dinner and are in constant contact; in another world, they might have even been lovers.

Sud has been candid in saying that The Killing will have a different killer than Forbrydelsen, and that reconstruction can account for some of the narrative shifts that occur, though Sud’s handling of the plot includes several unnecessary timeline changes, borrowing elements from the end of the 20-episode run, and engaging in overt telegraphing of twists and red herrings. There’s a sense of tediousness within The Killing as the spotlight moves from one suspect to another to another. While Lund and Meyer also engage in narrowing down the pool and following leads, Forbrydelsen is consistently electrifying and momentous. Lund’s hunches may seem to draw them down blind alleys and dead ends, but her instincts are most often right.

As Lund prepares to sacrifice everything for the truth—her relationships, her career, her sanity—Forbrydelsen raises tough questions about personal consequences and absolute truth. Are we sometimes better not knowing? For Pernille and Theis, is it perhaps more important that they’re able to move on with their lives than find concrete answers about their daughter’s death? After all, the reasons why are just as important as determining who took Nanna’s life. But life doesn’t always give us absolute truth, especially in situations as decidedly complicated and serpentine as these. Each of the characters passes through this crucible before the story comes to an end, and everyone loses.

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The back half of the Danish series is far more compelling and engaging on both an intellectual and emotional level than that of The Killing’s second season, which has devolved into a series of disconnected vignettes about people “finding themselves” amid tragedy. While this is a part of Forbrydelsen as well, Sveistrup handles this with far more care and purpose: Hartmann is slowly transformed from an idealist crusader to a morally corrupt statesman. Lund loses her identity amid her doggedness to pursue the killer. The anger of Nanna’s father Theis is contrasted with her mother Pernille’s calm, but their emotional positions are swapped as the series goes on. The final act offers a binary choice: love or hate, forgiveness or vengeance, truth or consequences.

This moment is far more magnificent and accomplished than anything currently going on in The Killing, which is tied up in narrative Mobius strips that circle around tired tropes. As Sud tries to firm up her influence over the narrative, she dilutes precisely what made Forbrydelsen so enthralling and addictive. True suspense and deft plotting are subverted in the name of needlessly convoluted conspiracies.

Attempts to wed the two series even more tightly—Sud went so far as to draft Forbrydelsen’s Gråbøl in a cameo as a Seattle prosecutor in the second season opener—have only served to make it even more apparent just how wrong The Killing has gone: any sense of the mystery, brilliance, or drama of the original has been washed away in the torrential rain that envelops nearly every scene of the American version. Ultimately, Linden may wear the same sweater as Lund, but, as interpreted by the AMC show, she’s not fit to walk in her shoes.