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A Novel Adaptation. David Hewson on crafting a new perspective.

September 16, 2012

David Hewson’s commission to write an adaptation of ‘The Killing’ created great interest and speculation as to how he would succeed in novelising such an iconic TV program. The result was declared to be a success.

What I wanted to know was how he went about taking on a project that was not for the faint-hearted.

Do you think writing a tie-in is easier or more difficult than writing an original novel?

I haven’t written a straight tie-in so I can’t answer that. The idea from the outset with The Killing was to produce a novel based on the series. Not a carbon copy. More like producing a novel from a rough outline I guess.

How much direction were you given as to what was required, considering that you already had dialogue and the visual images from the TV series?

The contract stipulated that the book would be true to the spirit of the original series. That was it. All the dialogue in the book is original. I only had the translations in the sub titles for the DVD to work on and they were pretty basic and gave no idea of voice. It was very much like adapting a novel to TV only in a reverse. I changed what I thought necessary and simply worked with my usual editor as I would have done with now of my own books.

How closely did you work with the original script writer Søren Sveistrup and was this helpful?

Søren was heavily into making the third series throughout so his time was limited. We met three times I think and talked through some things I found puzzling about the plot, some general ideas, and chatted about the differences between the book medium and TV. But Søren was generous from the outset and insisted he wanted it to be my own book. So I was left on my own and wrote the book as I normally would, delivering it to my UK editor at the end. It wasn’t a situation where it required approval from anyone in Denmark. We all know that couldn’t possibly work. You can’t have competing editors working on a book and the book wouldn’t have benefitted from that either.

How much research did you have to do before you wrote the novel, for example watching the series, learning about Danish life and police procedure?

I spent quite a bit of time in Copenhagen talking to people, visiting the locations, getting an insight into Danish life. Police procedure was less important as it always is in fiction. If we wrote how things really are we’d bore people rigid. Before writing a word I spent two months watching all 20 hours minute by minute and writing down a synopsis of every scene in it before deciding what I wanted to ditch and change.

Although it is a crime book, there is a very large psychological element, as the characters and their relationships given more scope to develop than the TV series. Was this a natural process because of the medium of the novel allows the reader into a protagonists head much more easily or something you deliberately wanted to explore?

Drama can’t tell you what a character is thinking. Books do this naturally. SO I had to decide how far to go into the head of Lund and others otherwise the thing would have been totally flat. Mostly I didn’t go that far – Lund is a mystery and needs to remain that way.

Given you had the luxury to explore more facets than the TV series, how did you inject this into the writing without slowing the pace?

I really tried to shy away from adding in things. Mostly I took stuff out. Where I changed – in the ending for example – I always tried to use existing threads from the narrative and rework them differently. I’d no intention of introducing an artificial back story to ‘explain’ Lund for instance. But I could happily insert a paragraph giving a little more info about the famous sweater because it told us a bit more about one side of Lund’s character: that a part of her dreamed of being this rural earth mother out in the forest.

The book is being translated into Danish. How much input do you have in this process?

The book was translated simultaneously into Danish and appeared the same day as the UK version. Authors rarely get involved in the translation process. It just happens and given it’s a foreign language you have to trust the translating publisher to do a good job. The feedback from Denmark’s been great so I guess they did.

The story has moved from a visual to a written medium and this seems to be reflected in the way you have written ‘The Killing’. Was this deliberate or a necessary part of the crime genre or just the way you normally write?

This book’s nothing like more usual style which is slower and more literary. I had to invent a new way of writing to approach the project. The obvious approach is to try to imagine the book that the series would have been made from. But I shy away from the obvious. I wanted the book to feel like TV on the page. TV has far more events than the average novel, very short scenes and constantly makes you feel you’ve blundered into something that’s already started. I wanted to try to reproduce that in the book.

Your other adaptation was Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. What brought about this project and why co-author it?

Macbeth preceded The Killing and was actually a very good lesson in how to adapt drama to fiction. It came about by accident really. A friend works for Audible, the audiobook company, and he was looking for new, interesting projects. AJ (Hartley) and I met up with him in New York at a convention and the idea just came out of nowhere. So it was originally written as an audiobook, only later going into print. I don’t know enough about Shakespeare to write this kind of thing on my own. I’d never collaborated before and we wanted to see what it would be like.

A J Hartley is a Professor and an expert on Shakespeare, you are a crime novelist, how well did this combination work?

AJ is English but based in North Carolina while I’m in Kent. So we worked across the Atlantic, mostly by email, occasionally by phone. We never met during the writing of it all. I think being in different locations and time zones really helped. We never worked on it simultaneously. It was always ‘here’s my bit and some thoughts on yours’ over and over again.

As this Macbeth is originally a stage play, there is enormous leeway in the amount of visual description and inner observations you can add. How did you decide what the characters would look like and how did you go about extracting characterisations from a script that has been interpreted in so many different ways?

We did what you’d do for a novel: try to nail down the characters as believable human beings, give them motivations, make them breathe. One of the challenges is that Macbeth is very short and underwritten. There’s no indication why Macbeth goes from hero to villain, what the real motivation of his wife is (or even her name). We looked in the text for clues. They are sometimes hidden there. For example Macbeth’s motivation is partly that Duncan is trying to seize the throne for his family, against the standard convention known as ‘tanistry’ which is open to all the lords. Once we had that we started to see him as a patriot. Our Macbeth turns out not to be a monster but a good man who goes wrong through one terrible act.

I also noticed you added dialogue not in the original play. Why did you do this?

We barely use more than a few quotations from the play and those are usually rewritten. We wanted the book to read easily, in modern English but with the odd flourish. One of the problems Shakespeare has for the average reader is comprehension; people simply don’t get what he’s saying.

What audience did you write the book for (I know the idea was for an audiobook, hence the vivid descriptions)?

I don¹t’ really think of pitching things for a particular audience. We just felt there was a fantastic and moving story inside Macbeth that had been hidden beneath the language and so many theatrical interpretations that made the man a monster. The idea was to remove those parts and let a very human tragedy shine through. The story is written in a very linear fashion which comes from its audiobook origins. I think it’s hard to do flashbacks and linear jumps in audio storytelling. People find that difficult to follow.

From → Crime/Mystery

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