Boundless, Ole Christian Madsen
Boundless [The Hanging Girl]

Nordic Noir in Transition: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q’ Books on Film

Jussi Adler-Olsen, author of the Nordic noir Department Q series, isn’t thrilled with the transition of his work to film. Five directors of six films argue that’s a crime.

The February 2024 release of the feature film Boundless (original title: Den grænseløse), directed by Ole Christian Madsen, signifies the sixth adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novel series onto the silver screen. The celebrated Danish author has been labelled by many as “The king of Danish crime fiction”. Even though he renounced this title, it’s difficult to imagine the sweeping Nordic Noir wave becoming so dominant during the last 15 years without his contribution.

The internationally bestselling Department Q (Afdeling Q) saga comprises ten books. The last installment (English title: Locked in) will be published in December 2024 by Quercus. The commencing novel in the series The Keeper of Lost Causes, published in 2007, signalled Ader-Olsen’s first attempt to write a crime story as a part of a much bigger narrative that would be completed in a time span of 17 years. Until then, Adler-Olsen had written some idiosyncratic standalones (The Alphabet House, The Washington Decree) to no avail as the millions of readers worldwide would acknowledge his style and worth only after he started crafting the Department Q novels.

In that series, the author’s skills shine brighter. Even after the critics’ lukewarm reception of the first book, Adler-Olsen made his breakthrough with the second book, 2008’s The Absent One. He gradually achieved a reputation comparable to legendary Nordic Noir thriller writers such as Jo Nesbo, Lars Kepler, Arne Dahl, and Hakan Nesser.

Even though the close-knit group of the protagonists-investigators (Carl, Assad, and Rose) work on a different cold case in each book, the series remains a unifying whole bound by the steel ribbon of theme selection and tone. Abuse of power and injustice constitute the core motifs extensively explored in Adler-Olsen’s body of work. The protagonist and head of the unit that re-examines forsaken cases that were never solved, Carl Mørck, is a middle-aged, disillusioned detective whose personal struggles are slowly divulged to the readers. Adler-Olsen describes Carl’s character as “a mixture between I [myself] and an insane patient I met when I was six years old.” 

The author’s father worked as a psychiatrist at a mental health institution, allowing Jussi to encounter those rejected by society from an early age. These experiences shaped a large part of Adler-Olsen’s adult and author personality. The “insane patient” is Carl Mørck, who is accused of killing his wife. Adler-Olsen perceives insanity as a situation that is closely connected to the notion of creativity and nonchalantly declares that “being sane is very boring”. Furthermore, the author pinpoints another crucial similarity between him and his fictional creation: they both are unapologetically lazy. 

Carl has the charisma of a damp rug when communicating with colleagues or the people close to him. Getting to know him is as exciting as watching paint dry on the wall. Nevertheless, his herculean confidence and determination to solve impossible cases in which the investigation has long gone cold renders him a protagonist with whom the reader can engage. We are rooting for Carl and his sidekicks, Assad and Rose, in every story, and we want him to be out of harm’s way and see justice restored in the end. 

The Department Q series is as much about the plot as it is about the characters, and that’s the author’s intention. Each new novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen becomes a point of reference for loyal fans of the genre, and the first proposals for a possible film adaptation will soon materialize both from Denmark and overseas. The Danish author has expressed reluctance about his work being adapted for film. In an interview with broadcaster and journalist Barry Forshaw in 2013, Adler-Olsen made this explicitly clear, stating that he would feel safer if the season-based formatting of television series was applied to the adaptation of his oeuvre. He believed a novel of 500 pages could not be adapted into a two-hour feature. 

The Keeper of Lost Causes – Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

Nevertheless, the first film based on his book, The Keeper of Lost Causes, featuring Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares in the respective roles of Carl and Assad, was released in Denmark in 2013. Directed by Mikkel Nørgaard, the film earned critics’ praise and commercial success. Three more would follow with the same cast until 2018, when Christoffer Boe’s Journal 64 (DK) was released. Despite the high-quality standards of the four productions, Adler-Olsen proclaimed that he wasn’t even willing to watch them, let alone offer any praise.

In 2021, Martin Zandvliet picked up the mantle and delivered the adaptation of the fifth novel (The Marco Effect) with a different cast. This time, the seasoned and exceptionally gifted Ulrich Thomsen would play Carl while Zaki Youseff stood beside him in the role of Assad. Zandvliet’s approach was different than the one adopted by the directors of the previous four films (Mikkel Nørgaard, Hans Petter Moland, and Christoffer Boe), opting for a more austere cinematography and eradicating some of the trademark traits of the saga: humor, forceful action sequences, playful dialogue, and the occasionally zestful tone.

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first film adaptation of a Department Q novel and there are many critics and seasoned filmgoers who consider it the best film in the series so far. Its main problem, however, is that it lacks proper pacing for a thriller, focusing on a dry narration of the investigative procedure followed by Carl and Assad to find out what happened to a prominent politician, Merete Lynggard (Sonja Richter), who had vanished without a trace five years earlier. Nikolaj Lie Kaas nails the role of Carl despite the physical mismatch between them, offering another testament to his unparalleled talent and versatility in acting. Fares is convincing in the role of Assad while the screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel remains true to the spirit of the original source, redacting only what is unnecessary and highlighting the text’s strength as far as dialogue is concerned. 

The Absent One – Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

In The Absent One (2014, DK), director Mikkel Nørgaard summoned an all-star Danish cast that included David Dencik, Pilou Asbæk, Danica Curcic, and Sarah-Sofie Boussnina. The performances are the film’s strongest suit, with Asbæk playing the psychopathic playboy Ditlev Pram with a cold menace and creating perhaps the most memorable villain of all five cinema adaptations.

The story revolves around a double murder that took place several decades before and involved a group of boarding school students led by young Ditlev and his paramour Kimmy (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina). Nørgaard divides The Absent One’s narrative into two separate timelines (past/present) and employs several intermittent flashbacks, making it easier for the audience to grasp the abysmal cruelty of the crew of young boys and the consequences of their atrocities that extend to the present day. The finalé offers some redemption for the tormented character of Kimmy in a way akin to Ancient Greek tragedy – more of a gesture of redemption than a confirmation.

A Conspiracy of Faith – Director: Hans Petter Moland

The third film in chronological order, Hans Petter Moland’s A Conspiracy of Faith (2016, DK), is definitely the most action-packed production of the franchise. Moland capitalizes on one of the rare times Department Q has to solve a case that unravels in the present. The story begins when two kids are abducted by a perverted priest (Pål Sverre Hagen), who keeps them captive in an abandoned boathouse. Carl and Assad lead the negotiations between the kids’ parents and the abductor, but things soon go pear-shaped, and the two protagonists find themselves facing a terrible predicament.

To describe the villain’s character as a sociopath is an understatement. He is the incarnation of pure evil. Sverre Hagen will make your skin prickle each time he appears on screen. In A Conspiracy of Faith, author Adler-Olsen and screenwriter – once again Nikolaj Arcel – are responsible for the smooth rendition of the primary source, going higher on the dramatic curve, picking up the tempo, and featuring exciting sequences such as speedy car chases and gory violence.

Journal 64 remains the weakest installment of the franchise, and perhaps the main reason is that the new director, Christoffer Boe, substantially deviated from the novel’s plot, editing critical scenes, characters, and dialogue that would add to the film’s overall quality and heighten the audience’s level of engagement. Even Lie Kaas and Fares look tired; they know this will be their last appearance in their respective roles. Meanwhile, the villain can’t convince the audience of his callousness, thus becoming the most underwhelming antagonist in all five films.

Journal 64 – Director: Christoffer Boe

The storyline of Journal 64 focuses on an interesting subject: the forced sterilization of young immigrant women by a group of wealthy racists. Institutional violence and abuse could have proven to be a more fertile ground for an intriguing story to unfold, but the creators avoid going deeper into the subject, opting for delivering a mediocre B-thriller.

The Marco Effect – Director: Martin Zandvliet

After the disappointment of Journal 64, the Carl Mørck character returned in 2021’s The Marco Effect, a renewed cast featuring Ulrich Thomsen and Zaki Youssef, who replaces Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares in the respective roles of Carl and Assad. The Marco Effect is the fifth installment in the formidable Department Q books and is beloved by an international readership. The saga is the fifth Adler-Olsen novel to be adapted into a feature film, this time by Martin Zandvliet.

The Marco Effect begins with a young Romani boy, Marco (Lubos Oláh), riding on a train toward Denmark to reunite with his father. As he reaches the Danish border, police enter the train car, asking for passports or ID. Marco tries to hide, but the authorities arrest him and send him to prison. The boy possesses a page from a passport belonging to a public servant who has been missing for over four years after being accused of pedophilia. 

The Marco Effect failed to satisfy Department Q aficionados, which could have happened for various reasons: muted cinematography, eradication of the novel’s humorous aspect, and incoherent plot are but a few examples. Zandvliet’s film failed to earn the praise of either the critics or the audiences and, along with Journal 64, The Marco Effect is bidding for the title of the worst film in the series thus far.    

In lieu of an epilogue, I would like to mention that a British television show based on Adler-Olsen‘s Department Q series is currently in the making, with Matthew Goode in the role of Carl. The production company is Left Bank Pictures, and Netflix will distribute the show. It will be interesting to see Adler-Olsen’s reaction to that project, as it seems that his wish for a television adaptation of his work will be finally granted.  

The Hanging Girl – Director: Ole Christian Madsen

Ole Christian Madsen is the last Danish auteur who saw the immense potential of the Department Q stories. His interpretation of the sixth novel, The Hanging Girl, was released in February in Denmark and features Ulrich Thomsen once again in the role of Carl. Afshin Firouzi succeeds Zaki Youssef as Assad, while Sofie Torp plays Rose. The English title is Boundless, and Nordic Noir fans are eagerly expecting one more adventure from Carl’s team.    

[English language subtitles for the trailer are not yet available.]

Works Cited

Olsen, Jussi Adler. “Welcome to My World- Jussi Adler-Olsen”. Ostjysk TV. YouTube. 20 December 2021. 

Penguin Books.  “An Interview With Jussi Adler-Olsen by Penguin”. YouTube. 9 October 2015.