dir: Niels Arden Oplev
I don’t know how many people are going to make this point, since I assume that people, like sheep, like doing stuff in concert with each other, that this is the rare instance where the movie resulting from an adaptation is better than the book it’s based on. There, I said it. In reality this is the best adaptation of a Dan Brown novel Dan Brown never wrote. But Sweden’s Dan Brown, called Stieg Larsson, sadly died before he could profit from his success, collect his royalty cheques, and watch this version of his book on the big screen. It’s a shame, because he could have gotten to see what his story looked like with most of the boring bits cut out.
When I read the three books in the Millennium trilogy, as you could say with most crime or detective mystery kind of novels, I remember thinking they seemed like they were always intended for the big screen. They all read like that, usually. I’m sure it wasn’t a fact lost on the shmuck’s publishers, or on the people who made this Swedish film version, or the American shysters who snapped up the rights and who are going to allow Fight Club director David Fincher to remake it.
The fact that it’s a bestselling set of books helps too, I’m sure. The women I see on the train not reading any of those damned Twilight books are often reading one of the three books in the trilogy (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl Who Played with Fire, Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest).
They’re not great literature. Actually, I’ll restate that. Perhaps in Swedish those novels are brilliantly written and plotted, but in English, which is the version I read, they’re so hacky and flat that their tremendous success would be mysterious if it weren’t for a few salient factors.
The thing with crime fiction is that no-one expects it to be well written or even well-plotted. I’m not trying to malign the entire genre or the fans of that style of writing. It’s a perfectly valid genre, and I’m a big, big fan. But the shit writes itself. The general audience just wants a plot that moves, location changes, surprise twists and red herrings, and closure at the end where everything fits together nicely, with a hint of future adventures. And of course, sexy results.
These books have all that, along with the flattest exposition and most unlikely conversations as dialogue I’ve ever read. But they get the job done.
I was making this point to a dear friend of mine last week who loathed the book, but who hasn’t seen the flick yet, that the novels are a product of their nation similar most of all to IKEA furniture. No-one buys IKEA furniture because it’s beautiful or valuable. They buy it because it’s cheap and functional.
These books, and by extension this film and the other ones that will doubtless eventuate, are purely functional. They’re drab, blocky and aesthetically unappealing, but they get the job done.
Speaking of drab, blocky and unappealing, our main character here is a journalist called Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist), who is currently in a lot of trouble because he, being a horrible leftie journalist, libelled and defamed a titan of Swedish industry. He faces a jail sentence after losing the court case, and is a bit sad about it.
At least I assume he’s sad about it. It’s hard to tell with these people. Some other titan of industry hires him to investigate the murder of his niece forty years ago, and a highly emotional and expressive Blomkvist leaps at the chance to keep himself occupied before he has to spend time in a Swedish prison that looks more like a four star hotel. That’s what passes for incarceration in a socialist utopia.
Before the industrialist Henrik Venger (Sven-Bertil Taube) hires the journalist, he has his underling investigate Blomkvist thoroughly by hiring a security firm to sift through his life. That firm employs the girl who becomes the central figure in all of the novels, and who has some role to play in proceedings here.
Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace, in a piece of perfect casting) always seemed like a character unbelievable due to the sheer number of traits given to her by the author, but it’s pretty much impossible to deny that she’s a compelling character. Larsson’s clumsy prefabricated prose and plotting doesn’t obscure the fact that she’s the rare female character in crime fiction, who is both the victim of horrific abuses and agent of her own demented form of justice.
For reasons never explained in the flick, but that are more transparent in the book, she becomes somewhat fixated on Blomvkist, and ends up helping him with his work of trying to solve a murder dating back to the 1960s. Her primary skill set is that of being a highly pierced, accomplished and surly hacker, who is thus able to gain access to whatever information the plot requires (allowing for really, really lazy writing), but she also has, as a side benefit of suffering from some form of Asperger’s, an eidetic memory (photographic to the rest of you) and high level mathematical ability. Just think of all the convenient ways to work that into the plot, okay?
But the story goes to great lengths to indicate that she is profoundly antisocial not just by dint of neurochemistry, but because of some very particular and very awful things that have happened to her, and keep happening to her because of both the complex bureaucracy associated with the mentally ill in Sweden, and the sadism of evil men.
The title of the books are what they are in the rest of the world, but the title of the first book and film in Sweden is Men Who Hate Women. And good goddamn do some of these men hate women. One in particular uses his power over Salander in horrible ways, and we get to see all of that horror, with nothing glossed over.
It is fucking horrible viewing. Any reader of the books knows that some awful stuff happens to women in general and Salander in particular in this and the other books, and thus the films, but goddamn is it horrible. The fact that she exacts revenge on her tormentor goes some way towards obviating some of the ugliness, but it doesn’t help that much. It also makes it pretty clear that our main character is bordering on being a sociopath.
Still, she’s an interesting sociopath, and she is certainly more interesting than Blomkvist. It’s far more interesting to watch her do her thing than watching him sorting through boxes, examining photo negatives from people’s holiday snaps or asking people questions about shit they couldn’t possibly remember.
The people making the flick know this, which is why the music rises to almost ear-splitting volume whenever he’s doing something particularly boring. This happens with depressing frequency.
The idyllic location of Hedestadt where most of the flick transpires looks icy and foreboding, but looks a treat visually. This isn’t a flick you watch for the visuals, but for me at least I get a kick out of seeing footage from this strange, icy land. If people are a product of their environment, then there is much to wonder about for me at least in seeing the story come to life on the big screen.
There’s no attempt to make the pic look anything other than serviceable and appropriate, which probably helps the story. I can’t see how an American version could really capture any of the essence of the place, though I daresay all they’ll carry over is Lisbeth Salander’s character and the title.
In an already complicated plot they throw in everything including a kitchen sink engraved with certain swastikas, meaning that even in a film set fairly contemporarily, we still can’t get away from anti-Semitism or the fucking Nazis. Still, it culminates in an ending that I found very, very satisfying, tying up as it does various elements whilst giving Salander time to shine yet again. The reversal of the usual dynamic at the film’s climax, as in, who’s saving whom from the kill crazy murderer, is very much appreciated.
Blomkvist and Salander are an interesting pairing as a detective team, but she’s a force of fucking nature all on her own. Larsson was and, considering the fact that he’s dead, will always remain a hack of the highest order, but his last gift to the world wasn’t those books that will be collecting dust for decades to come on train commuter’s bookshelves wedged between copies of Eat, Pray, Love and The Lost Symbol, but this character. Sure, she’s a fat nerd’s wet dream, an adolescent wish fulfilment fantasy, but she is damned compelling.
The books are a slog to get through, and this is a long flick, at over two and a half hours, but mostly it flew by. I was grateful for much of the clumsy crap that they cut out of it, and plenty of superfluous crap, like the fact that Blomkvist fucks any woman, be she aged in her 20s or 60s given the opportunity, is happily absent. They could probably have cut a bit more as well, but there you go.
In some ways the film is mostly a setup for the next two movies, and I can say that I’m pretty interested to see the next one at least. I remember the second book, being The Girl Who Played With Fire, being the ‘best’ out of the three, and since they’ve already been made I’m keen to see the next instalment. Bring it on.
Those Swedes, hey? They’re a curious people.
7 times revenge is sometimes a dish best served not only cold but with the aid of a stun gun and at the tip of a tattooist’s needle out of 10
“That look, on all their faces, of disappointment, that’s what I live for. That expression when they realise they’re going to die, that nothing will stop me. And soon you’re going to have that look, too” – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.