Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

The Killing: from the small screen to the page

We talk to the crime author David Hewson about the task of adapting the cult Danish television show The Killing to novel form and the differences between the two.
The author David Hewson.
The author David Hewson.

It was, says the author David Hewson, "a massive undertaking". Last year, the best-selling crime writer was approached to turn one of the most talked-about television series of recent times into a coherent book. But this was no ordinary "novelisation", common in film and television and often sneered at by the literary establishment as nothing more than a money-grabbing tie-in. His commission was to adapt the Danish television crime drama The Killing – the first series of which is a staggering 20 hours long.

"If I'd done a straight adaptation," he laughs, "we would have been looking at a 700,000-word book." Or, put another way, three times the length of the back-breaking epic by George RR Martin, A Game Of Thrones.

The Killing is still a lengthy read. But Hewson, refreshingly, refused to play by the rules. Early chapters are strikingly similar to the opening episodes of the series, but as the book progresses, the motivations of some of the characters begin to shift in curious ways.

By the end, it's absolutely a Hewson novel rather than a straight adaptation of the Søren Sveistrup drama – to the point where even fans who watched the first series will be shocked at the denouement.

"I was really keen that this worked as a novel," says Hewson. "You have to adapt to the medium in which you're telling the story – after all, books are changed when they're made into movies.

"The main difference is that you can see a character on television but you can't always know exactly what they're thinking. In a book, it's important that you do flesh out your character's motivations, otherwise they're completely one-dimensional.

"All of which meant that when it came to the ending, it felt right to change it somewhat because, I think, the reader would want to know more than the viewer of a television series. It fitted with what I had written up to that point."

It's a refreshing, if surprising, move. For all the column inches written about the brilliantly constructed Danish drama chronicling detective Sarah Lund's investigation into the murder of a teenager, it remained a cult hit rather than a show watched by millions.

Hewson admits that the intention is for the book to capture those people who were nervous of watching a series in subtitles, but are still really keen to see what all the fuss is about. There's the sense that, if approached correctly, The Killing could be the next The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so there's a lot riding on Hewson's novelisation.

"I met with Søren Sveistrup in Copenhagen, and I admit I was worried about what he might think," he says. "But he wasn't in the least bit concerned. In fact, he said he was looking forward to it, he wanted it to be my book. Which was great of him."

And happily, Hewson is just as generous about Sveistrup's original screenplay, which he prefers to call a series of interlinked human tragedies rather than a straight crime drama.

"I think that's why the people who got into The Killing really took it to their hearts," he says. "Because, actually, it's not about the thrill of a detective chasing a murderer. It's about people, and what extreme circumstances do to their relationships. It would be great if the book underlined just how thoughtful this series is."

The Killing, published by Pan Macmillan, is out now, Dh74