Northern Lights: The Best of the Scandinavian Crime Fiction Invasion

Leig GW Persson © Ulla Montan; Rooney Mara Baldur Bragason © Columbia TriStar; Kenneth Branagh courtesy of BBS for Masterpiece
Leig GW Persson © Ulla Montan; Rooney Mara Baldur Bragason © Columbia TriStar; Kenneth Branagh courtesy of BBS for Masterpiece

Evert Backstrom is a police detective with a heart of coal. He's the kind of jaundiced, selfish, terminally politically incorrect crank for whom the term hard-boiled would be a euphemism. Add to that an unappealing array of hygiene and weight issues and you have a character who would appear to be the last person to spark a bidding war among major networks clamoring to place him at the heart of his own TV show. But that's exactly what happened earlier this week when Fox beat out the competition to develop an hour-long drama series based on Leif GW Persson's bestselling crime novels, which center around the dyspeptic homicide detective, who loves nothing more than to have his bleak world view confirmed by an especially depraved murder case.

The good news is that Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind such hard-hitting political thrillers as"Traffic" and "Syriana," will write and produce the series, guaranteeing that the edges in Perssons' storytelling will not be buffed smooth to appease American audiences. In fact, Gaghan seemed so unfazed by accusations that the critique of U.S. energy policy practices by "Syriana" was "Un-American," we wouldn't be surprised if his version of Persson's bestsellers isn't darker than the source material.

This is just the latest conquest in Hollywood's hot and heavy love affair with Scandinavian crime fiction. As studios and networks fill their slates with adaptations based on Nordic bestsellers, they're banking that audiences are primed for screens big and small to be blanketed with crime dramas that probe complex existential, political, and social dilemmas. What follows is a short primer on the most interesting of Scandinavian crime fiction headed for screens of any size.

The first and most hotly anticipated of these projects is David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, due to open in theaters nationwide on December 21. All eyes will be on relative newcomer Rooney Mara, reprising the role Noomi Rapace owned with pixieish ferocity in the Swedish-language trilogy of adaptations. Fincher proved long ago with "Fight Club" that he's not one to pull any punches, so we're confident that there will be no pandering in his Sony-funded version of Larsson's study of Swedish misogyny and multifaceted corruption. We fully expect this one to hit hard enough to knock the wind out of us. In a good way, of course.

Jo Nesbo's The Snowman ranks high on our must-see list, partly because of the seeming incongruity of the dark material and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, the co-heads of Working Title Films, best known for turning out life-affirming British rom-coms including the Bridget Jones franchise. Then again, we have Bevan and Fellner to thank for edgier Coen Bros classics like "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski," political dramas like "Frost/Nixon" and "The Green Zone," as well as the upcoming John LeCarre adaptation, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." So we're relatively confident Harry Hole, Nesbo's hard-drinking protagonist, will arrive on screen with all his flaws and foibles intact.

Kurt Wallander will make what may be the most long-overdue big-studio big-screen debut of a classic detective, in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Henning Mankell's Italian Shoes. It's still uncertain whether Branagh will play Wallander himself and reprise the role introduced to English-speaking audiences in the eponymous popular series on PBS about the besieged and disillusioned detective who suffers from a kind of pathological empathy with the victims of crimes he investigates.

Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason churns out bestsellers as if he were Iceland's answer to Carl Hiaasen. The former journalist is known for his heightened sense of the macabre and Erlendur Sveinsson, the depressive broken-down detective he deploys to solve his gruesome crimes. His novel Jar City is getting an American remake by the wildly versatile director David Gordon Green, best known for emotionally astute dramas like "George Washington" and comedies like "Pineapple Express." Indriðason also wrote the script for "Contraband," an American remake of an Icelandic hit film about a security guard drawn reluctantly back into a life of crime. Kate Beckinsale and Mark Wahlberg head up the high-wattage cast of the project, also produced by Bevan and Fellner, which is due to hit U.S. theaters in January 2012.

Finally, Danish cinematic provocateur  Lars von Trier will turn his lens on Danish crime writer Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series, which begins with the haunting and creepy Woman in a Cage, about a progressive politician who disappears without a trace. Von Trier has drawn fire for artfully torturing his female characters. Adler-Olssn's hard-knuckled narrative should provide plenty of fertile material for the founding member of the Dogme 95 filmmaking collective.