The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

14 May 2010

Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first instalment of a best-selling trilogy, published posthumously, that deals with several interweaving threads of an apparently ambitious story set in contemporary Sweden. Part-whodunnit, part-revenge thriller, the book has received much critical acclaim, and now Niels Arden Oplev has directed a film version.

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is “the last journalist with ideals” who is found guilty of libel after following up on misinformation given to him on a corrupt, wealthy tycoon. Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the ailing head of a powerful corporate group whose great niece Harriet disappeared four decades ago. Vanger has strong reason to believe the girl was killed and nobody in the family business is above suspicion. Blomkvist agrees to take up the job but is less than optimistic about what new information he can discover.

Harriet was the daughter of a nasty mother and a Nazi father, Gottfried Vanger. Blomkvist is given Harriet's diary and, with the help of the estranged, tattooed, motorbike-riding computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), discovers references to violent passages from the Bible. Before her disappearance, Harriet apparently found links between several unsolved and mostly gruesome murder cases from the 1940s onward, the victims of which were all Jewish females. By delving further and seemingly closer to the killer, both Blomkvist and Salander's situation becomes increasingly dangerous.

If the film is fundamentally silly, we must look to the original material for limitations. The hype surrounding Larsson's novel seems largely due to its author's death before publication. With such cases as this, in which the writer's untimely end becomes synonymous with the title itself, a great number of flaws are often overlooked, with focus instead placed on how unfortunate it is that we won't be reading any more from this talent.

Simply put, the book – and its English translation – is quite badly written. Its unfolding narrative is awkward, its character development is lacking, its dialogue is flat and overall its fictional world, from general setting to specific character detail, is prone to hysterical stereotyping.

Not only does it present a bleak view of humanity – that gets a pass, I suspect, because it's in that good old tradition of Scandinavian melancholy – but it is peppered with several questionable and lengthy scenes of sexual violence. These scenes – as well as the curious statistical facts on male-on-female violence that open each part of the novel – might have retained some significance had the original Swedish title survived intact. As it is, Män som hatar kvinnor (“men who hate women”) comes across as a cynical and superficial portrait of the contemporary world.

This said, the book does have a certain page-turning appeal to it. With its fierce cross-cutting and a reliance on a detective narrative that's often highly visual – the clue to the central mystery lies in a series of old, captured stills taken on the day of Harriet's disappearance – the book at times feels deliberately cinematic. Perhaps an adaptation at some point was inevitable; commercial success and potential no doubt fuelled the project.

On the whole, the film probably improves upon the original but omits some of its key aspects. While comparisons between book and film are often redundant, here they reveal the weaknesses and strengths of the adaptation. Scripted by Nicolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg – who wrote the solid if derivative King's Game – the film bypasses the familial intricacies of the Vanger clan to create a tighter mystery and to make Blomkvist's plight less unassailable.

From the outset, the novel presents Harriet's mystery as an impossibly perfect crime; any conclusion will be banal, empty or infuriating without a more sinisterly supernatural element, like the one introduced to Laura Palmer's death in Twin Peaks. In this respect, the film does well to trim and reassemble the major points of Blomkvist and Salander's investigation while retaining audience interest.

Also omitted is the sub-plot in which the Vangers become board members on Blomkvist's magazine, Millenium, which is failing badly following the editor's libel verdict. While Larsson's books are collectively known as “The Millenium Trilogy”, with a great deal of their focus on the magazine itself and its running, Oplev's film simplifies it considerably – which allows for less need for character continuity across the entire film trilogy (no Vangers appear in the film sequels).

This makes the film's plotting problematic, though. Because the book's central mystery is bookended by Blomkvist's journalistic pursuit of the tycoon villain Wennerström, it has both a lengthy prologue and necessary coda. In the film, the wrap-up becomes rambling and unnecessary; as a result, the film seems too long.

More problematic, though, is the decision to retain the scenes in which, seemingly as a way of expositing her character, Salander is subjected to horrific male brutality. Raped by her guardian when she approaches him for access to her own money, Salander takes the law into her own hands and, after secretly filming her sadistic abuse, she tasers him, ties him up, shoves a dildo up him and tattoos “I am a sadistic pig and rapist” onto his torso.

These scenes in themselves might seem curious – in both book and film – but it is the way in which they are approached and presented that betrays the film's contradictions. There are two instances of male nudity in the book, which are obviously meant to parallel one another: the first is when Salander ties her guardian up to carry out her sadistic retribution, the second is when Blomkvist finds himself stripped and tied up much later in the story. As portrayed in the film, in the first instance the nudity is unavoidable but tame; in the second instance Blomkvist isn't even unclothed.

In contrast to this deliberate lack of male nudity, though, are several instances of Noomi Rapace's naked body. Her rape scenes are at most unsettling – they're far from unwatchable; after this, we see her naked aside a female lover; later, a sex scene between her and Blomkvist is staged so that we see none of him and almost all of her. Even if this isn't titillating – and it possibly is – then it's problematic at least, especially given the apparent attempt by Larsson – and, we may assume, his adaptors – to offer something in the way of social comment on how women are victims and men are their predators.

The film gains much from its cast. All of the actors add dimension to otherwise stilted caricatures. Michael Nykvist lends a naïvety to Blomkvist that is absent in the book; Rapace, playing the film's most difficult role, brings an intensity and charm to Salander that offers many humorous moments in the second half of the film. Around them, a strong supporting cast make the most of what they've been given; the stand-out might be an agitated Ingvar Hirdwall as Vanger's lawyer Dirch Frode.

There's a feeling of by-the-numbers faithfulness at work here, a feeling more of commercial cash-in than careful method. As reported last week, David Fincher is currently progressing with his own English-language adaptation of Larsson's novel. Given that much of this film's strongest moments are those in which the male journalist and female hacker are collaborating to investigate a gruesome series of murders – with several familiar moments of characters lingering in dingy, ill-lit archives and basements – it'll be highly interesting to see what the director of Zodiac makes of this promising but bloated material.

Dir: Niels Arden Oplev | Year: 2009
Country: Sweden/Denmark/Germany/Norway
Running Time:
152 mins approx. | With: Michael Nykvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber