Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson reveals his approach to book adaptations and explains why thriller Moscow Noir presents a new side of Russia.
While recent television dramas such as McMafia and The Americans have shone the spotlight on Russia on both sides of the Cold War, with stories full of international mystery and intrigue, one series aims to present a fresh perspective of the country.
Set at the turn of the 21st century, Moscow Noir sees ambitious young Swedish investment banker Tom Blixen take a bet on a risky deal that goes horribly wrong, locking him into a battle with millionaires, politicians, oligarchs and their private armies. The fallout sees his life put on the line while ghosts from his past – secrets he has been trying to ignore – return to haunt him.
The eight-part series is based on The Conductor from Saint Petersburg, the first of a trilogy of thrillers by Swedish writers Camilla Grebe and Paul Leander-Engström.
The fact the story is based in part on Leander-Engström’s own experiences working in finance in Russia was what particularly intrigued Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson about the source material. His company, Black Spark Film & TV, has a reputation for book-to-screen adaptations, having also been behind Sthlm Rekviem (Sthlm Requiem) and All jag inte minns (Everything I Don’t Remember).
“I read a lot. Producers don’t usually create our own ideas; we could, but sometimes it’s much easier to get people interested if it’s not the producer’s idea. If I want to work with a really good writer, it’s easier if there is something that already exists than if I come with my own 20 pages and say, ‘Look, I have a great idea. Can you make it fantastic?’” Gustafsson tells DQ.
“It’s a bigger hurdle than having a book that’s sold and is really popular. It’s the same thing with financiers [of TV drama] – it’s easier to pitch to them. So I read all the time and I have several books I really want to make [into TV shows]. Sometimes the rights are already taken; sometimes they are free. In the case of Moscow Noir, I read the book after a recommendation from Caroline Palmstierna [the founder of Swedish prodco Shoot for the Moon].
“She arranged a meeting one of the authors, Paul, and he said had already optioned it to a company in England. But they had a very short option period. So Paul promised to call them and see if they were prepared to let them go – and they were, so then I got the rights.”
Gustafsson gleaned more information from about the story from Leander-Engström, while his own circumstances also fuelled his interest in the thriller. “I have a summer house on Gotland, a big island in the middle of the Baltic Sea and as close to the old USSR as you get from Sweden, which is now Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. You realise how close it is and yet we know nothing about real Russians,” he says.
“So by reading the book, it was the first time I read about Russians who were bad guys but still had a good side. It felt like [the authors] really understood these characters. Of course, Paul lived there for 10 years and speaks fluent Russian. I also have a law degree and I worked in a bank, so I understand that side of society as well. It intrigued me.”
Created and written by Aleksi Bardy, Mia Ylonen and Max Barron, the show stars Adam Pålsson (Before We Die) as Tom, with Carolina Gruszka (Kod genetyczny) and Linda Zilliacus (Thicker Than Water) also among the cast. Filming took place in Russia and Lithuania, while the series plays out in the Russian, Swedish and English languages.
Sweden’s C More and TV4 came on board as broadcasters alongside Poland’s NC+, though efforts to find a Russian partner were unsuccessful. “We filmed a little bit in Russia. We tried to get a coproduction with Russia and it was put to their biggest channels, but they were hesitant about whether it would be a good thing for them to be involved and, in the end, they decided against it,” Gustafsson recalls.
“The book is set in 2003, which is after Vladimir Putin came into power [as president], while we placed it in 1999 because that was when the shift between [predecessor] Boris Yeltsin and Putin happened.
“We filmed the rest in Lithuania. A lot of Lithuanian actors are fluent in Russian and they work a lot in Russia, so we could quite easily cast all the characters we wanted and cast them locally. We had some other nationalities, but most were Lithuanians and they were really great actors.”
Gustafsson believes the 2018 series, which StudioCanal has sold to broadcasters including Canal+ in France, stands out because its central character is not a typical action hero. “Adam is a great actor but he looks very young and is not your normal action character. That makes it challenging when you introduce him, because he’s not a typical hero, but it’s also a strength further on because the weakness he presents is what we all feel and it’s easy to identify with him,” he explains. “A lot of people could actually connect with him even though they’re not interested in banking.
The producer adds: “One of our aims was to create characters that felt true to Russia in 1999 and to move away from stereotypes. Russians we’ve shown it to feel the characters are very close to how people really were. Paul, who created these characters inspired by real people, really felt we came very close.
“We screened the first two episodes of the series in a cinema and Paul brought some of his old banking colleagues from that time. Funnily enough, they could pinpoint some of the characters that were Paul’s inspiration. Michael Håfström, the director, collaborated closely with the Russian-speaking actors to find a tone that was true.
Black Spark is now in post-production on two feature films. One is called Tigers, written and directed by Ronnie Sandahl, and the other is Icelandic film Lamb, from Valdimar Jóhannsson, which is coproduced with Go to Sheep from Iceland and Madant from Poland.
Continuing his passion for adapting novels, Gustafsson is also developing a TV series with Belgium’s Lunanimé and Nordisk Film in Denmark, based on The Swimmer by Joachim Zander, and is working on Mons Kallentoft’s Se Mig Falla (See Me Falling).
A lot of noise has been made about how longform serialised dramas are the ‘new novels,’ with numerous episodes that keep audiences hooked until the very end. But what books are now coming to screen and how are they being adapted?
In the era of ‘Peak TV,’ it’s commonly overheard that serialised television dramas are becoming the new novels – one story told over multiple episodes. Indeed, some series, like Netflix’s House of Cards, even name their episodes ‘chapters’ while, like books, there are surely now too many shows made for anyone to claim to have watched them all.
Yet while this is a more recent phenomenon, books have long been the inspiration for, and basis of, many television series. And with the need of every new television drama to create some buzz at its launch and pull viewers away from whatever else they’re watching, plus the added bonus of a ready-made fanbase, it’s no wonder books continue to be snapped up for small screen adaptations.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Poldark, Castle Rock, Ordeal by Innocence, La Cathedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), Vanity Fair, The City & The City, Sharp Objects, Women on the Verge and My Brilliant Friend are just some of the series based on books that have been on television this year, with the eagerly anticipated final season of Game of Thrones due in April.
Also on screen in 2019 are Les Misérables, The War of the Worlds, Good Omens, The Rook, The Spanish Princess and The Name of the Rose, while His Dark Materials, The Luminaries, Alex Rider, The Butchers of Berlin, Lord of the Rings and Dracula are all in the works.
Following the worldwide success of 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, UK production company The Ink Factory returned to John le Carré’s extensive catalogue of spy novels for follow-up The Little Drummer Girl, again for the BBC and AMC. Endeavor Content distributes. But those expecting a similar story would be wise to forget Tom Hiddleston’s rookie spy and Hugh Laurie’s ruthless arms dealer. In this adaptation of le Carré’s 1983 novel, Florence Pugh plays Charlie, a young actress who strikes up a relationship with Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), an Israeli officer who entangles her in a complex plot orchestrated by spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon).
After The Night Manager, Ink Factory co-founders – and le Carré’s sons – Stephen and Simon Cornwell sought another of the author’s works that played out on a cinematic level with a compelling story at its heart, but that was also quite distinct and different. The Little Drummer Girl fitted the bill.
“It’s a compelling narrative, it’s very anchored on the core characters and their progression through the story and it travels and evolves and has a complexity and richness to it that really speaks to longer-form storytelling,” says Stephen Cornwell. He believes the proliferation of book adaptations on TV is down to the fact that “great books tend to tell great stories,” and in turn, great stories attract great talent – from writers and directors to actors and everything in between.
“Obviously authorship and the awareness of titles also helps drive audience interest,” Cornwell continues. “It just feels like there are a lot of things converging right now that make adaptation, and particularly the literary form as the basis for longform storytelling, very natural and organic.”
Le Carré himself takes a keen interest in adaptations of his work, as his cameo as a waiter in The Little Drummer Girl will testify. He is happy for writers to reinterpret the story for the screen, rather than slavishly follow the fine details of the novel, Simon Cornwell says, noting that it’s more important to be true to the essence of the book than the detail of the plot. “A lot of that really starts with the importance of character. If you’re coming at this from the point of view of focusing on character, you begin to capture the core of the book and then you start to think about how you put that on screen.”
For Sarah Williams, the role of adapter is to be as invisible as possible, putting the author’s vision on screen with as little interference as possible. “When you’re dealing with a really good book, my note to myself is ‘invent as little as possible and try to present the story as authentically as possible,’” she says. “Keep as close to the book as you can.”
Williams first adapted a novel by Andrea Levy in 2009, turning in the script for BBC miniseries Small Island. She has now reunited with the author for The Long Song, a three-part BBC1 series produced by Heyday Television and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
“If you’re adapting Pride & Prejudice, you might favour your own take because it’s been done many times and everyone knows it. But I didn’t feel my take on this book was as important as this book,” Williams says of the story, set during the final days of slavery in 19th century Jamaica. “For me, that’s been the priority. That’s how I see it. Other people might read the script and think, ‘Oh Sarah, you’re all over this.’ But I don’t think so. People make a lot of fuss about adapting books, but all you want is all the best bits of the book in one place and put into a screenplay structure.”
The writer says working with Levy has been crucial to the adaptation process, most notably on condensing the life story of strong-willed slave July (Tamara Lawrance) – told over two timeframes – into a trio of hour-long episodes that also replicate Levy’s balance of drama and humour.
“Quite often it’s structurally complex to unpick, and replacing the structure for TV can be a challenge. But the emotional strength and that bittersweet tragi-comedic tone she has, it’s my favourite kind of thing,” Williams says. “For me, what she manages to do is to take you on a very emotional road that has pain but also laughter. There are some very funny moments but it’s never trivialising the subject matter.”
The producers behind Swedish spy thriller Hamilton have taken a different approach to adaptation, however. Jan Guillou published his first novel about the character, dubbed Sweden’s James Bond, in 1986, and more than a dozen have followed. But rather than creating a period drama setting intelligence officer Carl Hamilton in the midst of the Cold War, which was ongoing when the books were first released, DramaCorp-Pampas Studios is placing the character firmly in the present day during what might be considered a Cold War 2.0. Airing in 2020 first on Scandinavian streamer C More and then on Sweden’s TV4 and ZDF in Germany, Hamilton is distributed by Beta Film worldwide and ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) in German-speaking territories.
“This is the first time these novels have been adapted into a TV series. When pitching it, the idea was really to reboot the character, the universe, the novels and the stories for a serialised format,” says executive producer Patrick Nebout. “We had extensive meetings to find the essence and the core of these novels and, from there on, to develop an original story that is relevant to a contemporary audience. So it’s not an adaptation of the novel, it’s a new origin series based on the universe and the main character of Hamilton.”
The strategy echoes that employed by co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland when they reimagined Tom Clancy’s action hero Jack Ryan for Amazon Prime Video, creating a series based on Clancy’s characters. A second season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was ordered by the US streaming giant before the first debuted in August.
Similarly, Hamilton is designed as a long-running series, with future seasons likely to leave the novels behind entirely. “In the first season, we pick things from different novels that really are part of the audience’s expectation. But then we will take the next seasons somewhere else,” Nebout says. “We leave the novels and find our own way. These series are also designed to not only touch Nordic audiences but also to travel, so we’re looking for the universal elements in the story and the characters.”
New adaptations aren’t just playing with the source material, but the traditional television format too. Italian drama Donne, based on Andrea Camilleri’s collection of short stories, plays out over 10 10-minute episodes on Rai Uno. Produced by Anele Production and distributed by RaiCom, it recreates Camilleri’s meetings and personal experiences with 10 women, recounting discoveries of seduction and sex as he attempts to “solve the enigma that is the universe of women.”
“The literary material was so rich to start with that the skill was neither to add nor remove, but only to enhance what was already incredible,” creator Gloria Giorgianni says of the adaptation. “That was the only difficulty, really.
“Creating original content is great, but adapting is even more challenging. Recreating the visual sensations of a book is an incredible challenge. But starting with a great writer, a book helps to have a set narrative structure and to have a world of reference at hand.”
Michel Bussi is the author of bestselling novels including After the Crash and Black Water Lilies, with the former adapted into a four-part miniseries by CPB Films for French network M6. Global Screen holds distribution rights. The thriller is set after a plane crashes in the Alps, with just one survivor – a baby girl. When two families claim the child as their own, a detective is hired to find out the truth.
Book adaptations are more popular than ever because “they offer rich plots and are generally more original than that usually offered on television,” according to Bussi, who adds: “Writers do not limit themselves to their imagination.”
But the author never considers a future adaptation when writing his novels, admitting to building “the most complex and twisted stories possible to give the producers a sleepless night, often using literary processes difficult to reproduce on screen. This forces the directors to be very imaginative.”
Bussi will discuss his novel with the writers at the start of the development process, but then leaves them “completely free” to take the project in their own direction. “My stories are based on some fundamental pillars that must be preserved. It is quite easy to agree on them with a screenwriter or a producer because they are a bit like the DNA of the story,” he says. “Then the removal of certain chapters or certain characters for the needs of the adaptation is often a necessary crime.”
Keeping the DNA of the source material was also essential in making Swedish drama Kristina Ohlsson’s STHLM Requiem, based on Ohlsson’s detective novels. The 10-part series, with five stories told over two episodes each, follows an unconventional criminologist solving cases as part of a special investigations unit within the Stockholm police.
Black Spark Film & TV producer Piodor Gustafsson says Ohlsson’s background working with the police has ensured gripping, factually accurate plots. Even so, “there’s a lot of things you have to take out because they’re inner thoughts, or events move away from the main character, so we have to simplify and create characters that work all through the 10 episodes,” he says of the drama, produced for TV4, C-More and ZDF and distributed by ZDFE. “There were a lot of changes but I believe we kept the main feeling in the books. Kristina’s very happy about it, so I think we did something right.”
Gustafsson says adapting a novel means “you always have to be very brutal in the beginning and only use what you think is extremely useful to build your series.” But then the director, in this case Karin Fahlén, can use the book to inform the visual style on screen. “We’re not dependant on Kristina’s approval but we want her to be happy, so she’s involved in reading the scripts, and also the writers ask her questions.”
Fahlén continues: “With good books, you get a universe laid out in front of you when you read them. I think that happens to all of us. I could only follow my own vision, what I saw, and then I had a close collaboration with the set designer and the photographer and we found we almost didn’t have to talk. Things flowed really easily and we found our universe.”
Kate Brooke is used to stepping into different worlds, whether it’s the early 1900s with Mr Selfridge, Renaissance Italy with Medici: Masters of Florence or creating a dark thriller in crime drama Bancroft. For her latest project, however, she plunged into a world of witches, vampires and demons with the adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s fantasy novel A Discovery of Witches. Produced by Bad Wolf for Sky1 in the UK, it has been renewed for second and third seasons following its launch this autumn.
This was the first time Brooke had dipped her toes into the fantasy genre, with a story that introduces a variety of supernatural species all living together in plain sight and addresses political and evolutionary issues that she says feel incredibly contemporary. There’s also a love story between lead characters Diana Bishop (a witch played by Teresa Palmer) and Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode’s vampire).
A Discovery of Witches didn’t lend itself directly to adaptation, however, owing to its first-person perspective and huge amounts of backstory that comes with each character. Brooke sought to introduce characters earlier on screen so they are already familiar by the time they become more central to the story. She also decided to give Matthew 50% of the narrative, which involved building the character beyond what was in the book. “But that’s fun for an adapter because you can begin to bring your own imagination and meld it in Debs’ world. Obviously I was always in contact with Debs about that,” Brooke says.
What’s notable about many adaptations today, including A Discovery of Witches, is that they might have been considered too niche or even impractical to make several years ago. But the explosion of content on screen means networks are now more open to genre drama, particularly fantasy and sci-fi, than they were previously, while technological and financial advances also mean exciting new worlds can be realised with the cinematic quality audiences demand.
The rise of serialised television means books that come with deep mythologies can also be retold, with writers not forced to cram everything into a feature-length running time.
Brooke believes there’s a safety net to adaptations because people know the story has an end. “It’s much easier to commission an adaptation but I do think we need to continue to engage in new writing,” she says. “There’s so much content, there’s a fear that sometimes original pieces don’t push through.”
But Stephen Cornwell says original series and adaptations can inform each other. “A great adaptation can inspire someone to do a great piece of original storytelling,” he adds. “I don’t think they are in any sense in competition with each other.”