A new series has arrived on Netflix that aims to explore the past of iconic fictional detective Kurt Wallander – the creation of Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, and the subject of numerous books and three previous TV shows. The character is the latest in an increasingly long line of pop culture favourites to be given an “origin story” – a treatment that was previously reserved primarily for comic book characters, but which has become an increasingly prominent form of storytelling in the film and TV landscape in recent years.
The thing is, popular though the character may well be, as soon as I heard about this prequel series I found myself asking if anyone really needed an origin story for Wallander – isn’t he an interesting enough character as he is? Well, Young Wallander does little to remove my doubts.
Apart from a few scattered references to habits Wallander fans know the detective will go on to develop in his later life and the fact that the show falls into the extremely broad crime drama genre, the programme bears practically no resemblance to any of the various versions of Wallander we’ve seen previously – least of all because it’s set in the present day, rather than at a time where the character would have been younger. As a straightforward crime drama, it’s decent enough – without being particularly outstanding – but as an origin story, it seems completely unnecessary.
Another example is the upcoming Netflix series, Ratched. The latest from prolific TV producer Ryan Murphy (whose past work has included Glee and The American Horror Story franchise) the series provides an origin story for, of all people, Nurse Ratched – the austere, tyrannical nurse who serves as the main antagonist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
What makes Ratched a notable example of such origin stories is that not only is it unnecessary, it also appears to entirely miss the point of the source material. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – both the Ken Kesey novel from 1962 and Milos Forman’s masterful Oscar-winning film adaptation 13 years later – remain such potent and relevant works precisely because they display the banality of evil.
Nurse Ratched’s character isn’t intended to be especially evil in a super-villain-esque way, rather she is emblematic of an entirely different and more subtle, but no less dangerous, form of wickedness – that wielded by the often faceless people holding power in oppressive bureaucratic systems. Providing an overly-dramatic origin story, and suggesting this was an extraordinary case of a woman always doomed to become some sort of comically wicked monster completely undoes the central thesis of the original.
But even when the source material isn’t being interpreted to that extent, I would still argue that most cases of the origin story do little to elevate the characters whose pasts they are attempting to explore. Often the very thing that makes the best fictional characters so fascinating is their enigmatic nature: a sense of ambiguity regarding a character’s motivation can be exactly what makes them so beguiling, and so by providing a straightforward backstory, much of this mystique is lost. Surely it’s enough to know that a character is tortured by their past, or driven by a secret grudge, without knowing every last detail of their personal history? Can’t we just leave some things to the imagination?
It’s also worth mentioning the related, but slightly separate, issue of why so many new series and films need to be related to an existing franchise. This is something which is especially clear on the big screen and which I fear has been showing increasing signs of spilling into the small screen in the same way. If you look at the box office figures for any given year in the last decade, it’s interesting to see how few spots are filled by non-franchise fare. It’s clear that franchise cinema has its merits, but it’s nonetheless dispiriting to see such a lack of fresh ideas and new characters.
Of course, the existence of these origin stories by no means detracts from the quality of the originals – and besides, with such a wealth of film and TV on offer in the modern age it’s never been easier to just not watch the things you’d rather avoid. But in my view the infatuation so many film studios, TV networks and streaming platforms have with the concept of the origin story is starving us of some brand new, exciting characters – ones whose backgrounds are slightly more cloudy.