New James Norton drama McMafia approaches the world of international organised crime with remarkable verisimilitude, and a great deal of that is thanks to the research of journalist Misha Glenny, who wrote his original book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime in 2008 before the material was adapted for TV by screenwriters Hoss Amini and James Watkins.
“The biggest challenge is the book is a factual book,” Amini explained on set. “So there’s no storyline.”
This means that the plot of McMafia – banker Alex Godman (Norton) gets swept into the world of organised crime while trying to protect his family – is fictional. However, the real world workings of this modern criminal empire is all taken from Glenny’s non-fiction book.
“Alex doesn’t exist in the book. Literally none of the characters are real,” Amini said.
“But I thought it was just such an exciting canvas. Some books give you great characters, and it’s easy to invent scenes. This gave you a great world, so it was very easy to invent a story around it.
“Because the tone of it was so authentic. It was that whole thing of, truth is more interesting than fiction.”
Still, according to star James Norton, adapting a work of non-fiction made the fictional story far more pertinent than your typical crime drama.
“Misha is obsessed by the subject, knows every single fact and figure by name, so you do have to wade through a lot of that, but it is fascinating,” Norton told us.
“When we talk about the Mafia it’s so tied up with those portrayals we’re used to in The Godfather. What’s so relevant about the book and the story is until this project, I didn’t fully appreciate how the Mafia is a totally new phenomenon, totally globalised, corporate: it straddles all these different countries and financial systems.
“It no longer sits in a city with a protection racket. It’s Panama Papers, it’s corrupt presidents, the liquidity between the Kremlin and the White House and how that’s facilitated.
Norton added that the fiction brings the facts to life: “We have a storyline that looks into human trafficking and the sex trade. You read endless articles in this book, but to see a specific example is so much more powerful and heartbreaking.”
There are a number of true details that did manage to make it into the finished drama, largely because the screenwriters couldn’t think of anything quite as bizarre or fascinating in their own imaginations.
“You know, there was a detail that Misha told us of a gangster whose hobby was dog shows,” Amini recalled. “I could never have invented that!”
Accordingly, in McMafia’s second episode we meet a gangster menaced by lead baddie Vadim (Merab Ninidze) when the latter takes one of his prize show dogs for his own.
Sometimes, hard fact really is stranger than fiction.
McMafia begins on BBC1 on New Year’s Day at 9.00pm, continuing the next day (Tuesday 2nd January) at the same time