The literary world always loves it when an author’s story is as interesting as their books, and there have been few more compelling cases in recent years than that of Stieg Larsson. An influential activist and journalist in Sweden known for his leftist views, Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50, and since his death he has inspired a “journalistic subindustry” debating a range of topics from whether or not his death was part of a fascist conspiracy to the brutal divisions that have formed between his romantic partner and his father and brother.
The center of that debate falls on three novels that have come to be known as the Millennium Trilogy, which he wrote in his spare hours and which were published posthumously. Following a journalist and hacker as they dig into government corruption and individual depravity, the titles shot to the top of the charts in Sweden and gradually spread to the rest of the world, making Larsson the first author to sell more than one million books on Amazon – he’s been more successful dead than 99 percent of writers are while alive.
All three of these books have made it over to Western shores in recent years (the third installment released in May of this year) and have been followed by a series of film adaptations filmed in the author’s home of Sweden. The first of those films, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor” or “Men who Hate Women” in Larsson’s native tongue) premiered in March to acclaim that matched its source material – which is fitting, since it does a very respectable job converting that source material to film. It’s a film that loses a few too many of the of the intricacies Larsson put into the book, but when it comes to atmosphere and characters it’s every bit as compelling and unnerving.
The film’s narrative is essentially unchanged from the book’s setup. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist disgraced by an investigation gone wrong, is enticed by an offer from former captain of industry Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the “cold case” of his niece Harriet, missing 40 years and presumed dead. Digging through boxes of evidence and skeletons in the Vanger family closet, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an antisocial yet frighteningly brilliant hacker whose previous job was digging into his life for Vanger.
As a mystery story, the two biggest strengths of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” were its sprawling yet closed-off setting and its meticulous attention to detail. When it comes to the first, the film has done an excellent job of depicting the cold expanses of the island of Hedeby, which was sealed off on the day of the alleged murder and which still houses many of the suspects. Wealthier members have sprawling older estates, while Blomkvist spends his time in cabins heated by stoves and with pipes freezing on a regular basis, and Salander mostly moves through enclosed streets and filthy hackers’ dens. The locations and camerawork keep the story feeling both vast and yet claustrophobic, like a place concealing a secret and with a lot of places to hide said secret.
While the setting neatly approximates ones mental picture from the book, the plot is not translated as well. The fact-finding that leads Blomkvist and Salander to the truth is intact, and presented in a series of compelling research montages that help reinforce the Vangers’ depravity, but the storytelling feels in some places like it’s been simplified rather than neatly distilled. The Vanger family tree – decades of infighting, fascism and abuse – has been pruned down considerably, and only Henrik and his nephew Martin get measurable screen time. Some annoying stylistic changes are also made to simplify the story and undercut the efficacy of the montages, including repeated cuts to Harriet’s picture and Blomkvist’s flashbacks of her babysitting him as a child (whereas in the book he didn’t remember it).
The flashbacks are an annoying addition to Blomkvist, but more annoying are the subtractions. He is simply not as compelling of a character in the film as he is in the book – not the fault of Michael Nyqvist’s performance, but rather that the adaptation has shaved his character traits to nothing. His involvement with the magazine Millennium consists only of scenes in the beginning and end of the film, he’s not researching a Vanger biography as his cover for digging into the past, and most of his personal relationships are unspoken or excised. In the narrowed cast there’s no ex-wife and daughter, no friends-with-benefits relationship with his editor Erika and no affair with Vanger’s niece Cecilia. The only points where the character genuinely clicks come when he is at work, as he pours over documents and negatives and simply stares at them as if willing the pieces to come together.
Nyqvist is an enjoyable actor to watch think, but his partner is even more so. Per my Capturing the Voice piece, I consider it the highest form of praise to say that an actor/actress “is” the character they’re portraying – superseding whatever mental image you have while reading – and in that regard, Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander. Aesthetically she’s a match with an anorexic frame and constant punk/goth outfit, but the selling point is in her face. Her features are narrow, closed off and completely neutral, but her eyes betray the eidetic brilliance she is ashamed of (a detail the film portrays well in her working relationship and subsequent coupling with Blomkvist). When she scans over innumerable screens on her Macbook through cigarette smoke and dyed bangs, her appearance seems almost like a blind – someone who has found it easier to let the world think what it wants so it lets her work. She comes across as a bit more callous than the book’s version, but since the film borrows elements of the sequel “The Girl Who Played with Fire” these additions might be appropriate.
The only cracks in Salander’s armor come out in times of real distress – and the film doesn’t shy away from bringing those times to life. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” book has some incredibly hard to read scenes depicting torture, rape and revenge – which I won’t describe as it would dilute their intensity – and to the film’s considerable credit all are kept in hauntingly graphic detail. They aren’t presented as shock value or for their own sake, but with a stark clarity that reflects Larsson’s straightforward prose. When characters talk about the horrible things they are going to do, they don’t scream or make elaborate analogies – they simply state the facts and let the conviction in their words and eyes cow their victims into submission. It’s a drama as cold and stark as the island’s winter, treated with a respect that earned particular praise from Roger Ebert:
This is not a deep psychological study. But it’s a sober, grown-up film. It has action, but not the hyperkinetic activity that passes for action in too many American movies. It has sex, but not eroticism. Its male lead is brave and capable, but not macho. Its female lead is sexy in the abstract, perhaps, but not seductive or alluring. This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.
And it’s this maturity that makes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” work as a translation of its source material, despite its stripping away the journalistic/romantic sideplots and details that made the original so compelling. This film understands its titular character and its atmosphere, and by playing these two angles it’s able to overcome a lot of its weaknesses – even an ending that does come straight from the book but is edited in a way that feels like the ending to a caper movie. It’s a dark, compelling film that will interest even casual readers of the Millennium Trilogy, and with two other films on the horizon it appears that the series is worth following to the end in both formats.