The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Niels Arden Oplev
viewed: 03/23/10 at the Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

Adapted from the novel by Stieg Larsson, the late author of what is known as the “Millenium” trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first cinematic adaptation of the popular Swedish thriller series.  The book seems quite popular here in the US, but apparently is even bigger back in Europe.  It’s an interesting, though semi-tragic story how Larsson, a journalist, had written these three books and submitted them to his publisher but died before they were published.  This whole thing has become big after his death.

The book, which I read earlier this year, is a complex mystery involving ritualistic serial murders, Naziism, corporate intrigue, and a sort of “locked room” mystery at its core.  Really, though, I think perhaps the most compelling thing in the book is the character of Lisbeth Salander, a gothy punk misanthropist who specializes as a computer hacker and detective.  She’s a tough little gal whose been through hell and she teams up with Mikael Blomkvist, a dedicated journalist who had been set up in a libel suit that nearly ruined him.  She’s 25.  He’s 40 something.

She’s the “girl with the dragon tattoo.”

Actually, the title in Swedish translates as “Men who Hate Women”, which has bearing on the story because the book is focused on heinous crimes against women.  The anglocised title actually rings a lot better and goes along with the latter books, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which I believe are already in production.

What’s interesting in this film is the role of adaptation from popular texts featuring characters who have become iconic from the written page yet never portrayed visually.  There was a massive casting effort to find someone to play Lisbeth and they wound up finding a pretty spot-on actress in Noomi Rapace.  She looks exactly as I’d imagined her and she plays the character with just the right tone.  But like a lot of other cinematic adaptation series, like Harry Potter or even The X-Men, there is so much effort to not spoil the character and to try to be true to the story for the fans that the actual work of making a good movie is almost secondary.

Personally, I thought that the book was somewhat bloated.  It took me well over 100 pages to get involved (though I did get involved) and the film, at 2 1/2 hours, has a bloated quality to it as well, even though they trimmed a lot of side plots down to try to capture it all.  Typically, thrillers or mysteries, being genre creations, work best when tight, perhaps even concise.  And yet, with all the trimming that they did with this film, there is a lot still to pack in, and oddly enough, the loss of some of the storylines oversimplifies Salander’s character and her relationship with Blomkvist.

What I did like particularly, was seeing the settings portrayed in the film.  Set in both Stockholm and on a northern island of Sweden, the landscape plays a key role in the story.  A girl has gone missing in the 1960’s, from an island with only one bridge connecting it to the mainland, which was blocked at the time of her disappearance.  Blomkvist is hired to help to solve the mystery of who killed her and why, by her uncle the reigning patriarch of a once powerful business empire.  So seeing the northern landscapes really was enlightening.

But I did ask myself, ultimately, why I went to see this film.  Well, obviously I like movies and mysteries, etc., but why is it compelling to see a story you’ve read visualized onscreen, portrayed  by actors, constructed by other storytellers, interpreting everything for you and simplifying and paring it down?  Isn’t the book the better place to be?  And obviously the reason that they made this film was because they knew people would want to see it and that it also would potentially expand the readership of the books, too.  It’s money.

Adaptation is an interesting problem at any time, but particularly constrained by expectation when adapting a beloved story or character, playing to a fan club if you will.  And frankly, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while it certainly “got some things right”, it also sort of flopped for me.  I kind of wished that I’d seen it with someone who hadn’t read the book to know how much sense the story made to them.  I also understand that there will likely be an American adaptation of the novel which will obviously be given some significant creative license.

But as well, the second book, The Girl who Played with Fire, was released yesterday in paperback (the final book of the series is to be published in the US in May, I believe), and I went out and bought it and started reading it.  I had planned to read it once it was in paperback.  But perhaps I am just feeding the fire that I just criticized by doing so.

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