This week marks the DVD and Blu-ray release of the Swedish film version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and so it seems like the perfect time for me to jump in and finally write about this international phenomenon, the first part in what is called “The Millennium Trilogy,” well aware that I am about to engage a fanbase just as vocal and opinionated as that of the “Twilight” books or the “Harry Potter” series.
As societal standards change, art has to respond by updating the archetypes it uses in storytelling, and so we find ourselves now at the dawn of the age of the Autistic Superhero. I’d argue that this particular idea was introduced to the mainstream in “Rain Man,” in which Dustin Hoffman played a sort of exaggerated and ultra-capable version of what was then understood to be the “typical” autistic. Now, just over 20 years later, we’ve got TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” where an obviously autistic character is carefully never referred to as autistic, and in pop culture the notion of the socially-awkward-but-brilliant specialist in this or that continues to get used and re-used. Now, with Lisbeth Salander, we get one of the most aggressive interpretations of the archetype so far, and the public appears to have fallen head over heels with this teeny-tiny bundle of fury.
I came to the series late, curious about what it was that might have created such a huge international audience, and so far, I’ve read the first two novels and I’ve seen the first film. As a result, I’m not going to comment on the entire series, since I can guess where it’s going, but I’m not sure. This is simply a review of the first book and the first film, and a comparison of the two in terms of how well the source material has been adapted. As with anything that becomes a giant hit like this, there are plenty of people who have weighed in on the series and dismissed it entirely, aghast that these represent the zeitgeist at the moment. “Can I give you a list of about 1000 better books to be excited about?” one of my friends wrote on Twitter after reading these, and while I would agree that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is hardly the greatest thriller of all time, I think it’s also an overreaction to dismiss it completely.
Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are the two central figures in the series, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo serves to introduce the two of them, establish the world in which they live, and set up a central mystery that unites them in their efforts to solve it. Stieg Larsson, the author of the book, is obviously familiar with the world he’s writing about, and his time in the publishing world as an investigative reporter serves him well in the way he builds the actual mystery and then sets about showing how even the most carefully hidden secrets can be uncovered with the right legwork. It would be easy to read Mikael Blomkvist as a stand-in for the author, a wish-fulfillment version of who he was, especially with the way Blomkvist’s sex life is portrayed in the book, but I don’t know much about Larsson, and that strikes me as a lazy assumption to make. I think Blomkvist is just an idealized lead in general, and he happens to share an occupation with his author. He’s got his flaws, but even his flaws are part of his appeal. He’s a pretty standard-issue thriller protagonist, and he is well-drawn in terms of likability.
Lisbeth is, no doubt, the single greatest reason for the rabid following of the books, and the filmmakers tapped a nerve with their casting of Noomi Rapace. The character as written is a brilliant hacker with almost magical abilities to get things done online, a social misfit who has some dark secrets that led to her needing a legal guardian. For years, she’s had an arrangement with a guardian who trusted her and managed to get her to trust him, but when he has a stroke, she’s assigned a new protector named Nils Bjurman who turns out to be a grade-a sadist and creep, and her interaction with him is the strongest material in both the book and the film. It’s also the hardest stuff to watch, and it would be inconsistent of me to not point out that a lot of the gender politics at play in this film are difficult and uncomfortable. What disturbs me in “Twilight,” though, is handled with an entirely different degree of sophistication here, and it’s telling that the original Swedish title for this is “Män son hatar kvinner,” or “Men Who Hate Women.” The world of this particular story is shaped by men who hate women and the pathological ways in which those men display and exercise that hatred. The central mystery of the film doesn’t tie directly in to either Blomkvist or Salander, but is more a way to bring them together and force them to learn to trust one another. Salander ends up playing a much bigger game than anyone else in the film, and her storyline in this film is all set-up for the next film, and it makes sense that if you’re intrigued by her, you’re going to be hooked by the end of this first story, curious to see where she’s going to go.
Here’s the thing: I think the book plods a bit. It’s a pretty solid locked-room mystery, but the payoff goes so incredibly dark that it’s almost overkill. Even so, those complaints aside, I can see why the character and the archetype in general are so popular, so appealing. Larsson has a good voice, and he’s got an eye for detail. It’s a quick, slick read. I honestly think if you’re even a little bit curious, the book is worth reading.
I cannot endorse the film with equal enthusiasm. I think the film is, frankly, a stiff. There’s not much about it that I like. Pacing, screenplay, performance in general… it doesn’t work for me. The look of the film is standard serial killer bleach bypass process uber-murk, and a lot about the aesthetic strikes me as easy. I don’t think there’s any particular atmosphere to it, and one of the book’s best reveals just falls down flat onscreen, a real testament to how static and lifeless the work of director Niels Arden Oplev is. I think the guy’s got a tin ear for thriller in general. It looks like he watched a short stack of films that he was told would be appropriate and mimicked them without any real feel for why he’s doing what he’s doing. And Rapace, although physically appropriate for the part of Lisbeth, doesn’t begin to suggest the inner life of the character as written. She plays the one top note of sullen well enough, and she can certainly take a beating, a major requirement for the role. But there’s not much else to the work she does, or the character she’s given to play. The screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg just plain misses the point. It’s all plot without any room to breathe. It dumps so much of what made the characters or the story interesting in the book that it all feels cursory. And it dumps the primary motivation for Blomkvist’s character to take the case in the first place, a baffling decision on an adaptation level. Because the film spends so little time on character, the exploitative material feels doubly so onscreen. There’s a rape in the movie, and I am always uncomfortable with that being used to cheap effect. It’s the cheapest, simplest way to punish a female character or threaten her, and it’s rarely treated with the proper weight. The way Salander’s rape and the aftermath is handled is effective and strong, but it’s surrounded by such perfunctory exposition that it almost feels like a different movie.
Also, having read The Girl Who Played With Fire, I think they made a huge mistake including material from that book in this movie, in essence tipping the hand too soon. There are major revelations made in the second book, and not at the start of it, either, and Larsson paid them off in the exact right place for the story he’s telling. Including so much of that material in this film, in a matter-of-fact-here-it-is way seems like they made these movies only for the fans of the books so they could see some people walk through this sort of half-hearted version of a greatest-hits montage of things they like, and it doesn’t matter if it works as a film by itself. I’ll see “The Girl Who Played With Fire” very soon, and I’ll see “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” later this year. I like that they’re both directed by someone else, so I’m willing to cross my fingers and hope I like those adaptations better. I’ll just say that before seeing this, I was concerned that David Fincher had signed on to a pointless remake of what I figured would be a perfectly good adaptation of the novel.
I don’t think Fincher’s got anything to worry about.
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is on Blu-ray and DVD this week. “The Girl Who Played With Fire” is in theaters on Friday in limited release. All three novels in the series are in bookstores everywhere.
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