Sunday, March 28, 2010

the girl with the dragon tattoo

In early 2008 I was handed a copy of the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by a sales rep at work and told it was going to be the next big thing. I have heard this spouted before—about thirty-seven times a week for ten or so years—but this was the one time it was absolutely and utterly true. And unlike Harry Potter, I was there at the start, telling people about this new book and selling it without the power of 21 million books sold and three movies behind it like it has now. Sure, it’s a pathetic claim to fame, but in the bookselling world, you take what you get. (I had a ghastly-covered advance copy of Twilight once too, but alas had to give it back to the rep once I’d finished reading it. Now they’re selling on eBay for nearly two thousand dollars and I wish I had pretended to lose it.)

Stieg Larsson would have been a tremendously rich man had he been alive to reap the benefits of the Girl empire. Alas, he died before publication of his trilogy, and caused not only the adoration of an entire planet, but a scandalous controversy involving his defacto widow unable to get any of the profits because under Swedish law their length union counts for nothing. I should point out here that this has no bearing on the movie or the books; I’m just a gossip. Like an overprotective member of Stieg’s legacy, I was hesitant of the movie to begin with, angry at Noomi Rapace’s version of Lisbeth Salander being too pretty and Michael Nyqvist’s Mikael Blomkvist being not pretty enough. I was sure it would all go horribly wrong and that the only person to do it justice would be director Quentin Tarantino, who at one point was rumoured to have his paws on the American version. But after seeing this, I rescind that statement and go back to my initial stance that the original movies are always better than remakes and America should just keep their greasy mitts off.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—or Män som hatar kvinnor, translated as Men who Hate Women—is an excellent thriller. Of course it’s hard for me to be entirely impartial as I know the story of the book’s characters so well after three books and eight million billion pages (which is what it looks like when you see them next to each other) and feel quite attached to them. But I was anticipating a crap B-grade movie and did not get one. While we saw it on a Sunday afternoon in a fairly posh suburb, I was still surprised to see we were the youngest audience members by a good twenty years. Having read the books and flushed red from the violence of some of the scenes, I was mildly worried that half of the crowd might be unconscious from copious fainting in their seats when the lights went on. They all bore it remarkably well, even the woman in the back row WHO APPARENTLY NEVER LEARNED THE RIGHT NOISE LEVEL FOR WHISPERING. And there are some truly horrific scenes.

Stripped down to the bare bones of the story and neglecting some key characters, the film is the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, convicted of libel against corporate bastard Wennerstrom, and given the opportunity to lie low for a while by a desperate Henrik Vanger. Vanger’s niece Harriet went missing forty years ago and he is attempting one last time to find out what happened, employing Blomkvist—a determined and thorough journalist—to investigate. Investigating Blomkvist himself is young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a young woman shown no benevolence by authority figures and who reacts to life accordingly. She is a fabulous heroine, merciless and unforgiving, but only towards those who deserve it. Her scenes are by far the most upsetting in the movie, as she is abused by the man appointed as her guardian by the state—and then strikes back. I had to put my popcorn down and hold onto Chris’s hand for those parts.

And with that, I was completely sold. Rapace wasn’t too pretty at all—she is attractive, but plays Salander as gritty and boyish as she is in the book. Nyqvist endears with his adorable smile and plays Blomkvist’s earnest honesty and quests for truth well. Peter Andersson as Salander’s guardian Bjurman plays for chills and succeeds; Sven-Bertil Taube is pitch-perfect as hangdog capitalist Henrik Vanger. A lot was missed or glossed over in the making of a film, but that happens in any adaption, especially one where the source book runs at over six hundred pages. While the dense plot of the book was enthralling as I love it when everyone gets a backstory so their motivations are clear, the movie was whittled down to what made for interesting viewing and story clarity. I hope, however, this won’t affect the next two movies.

I imagine the actress who played Blomkvist’s editor Erika Berger was thrilled when she got the part, only to find she appeared in two scenes and spent most of them looking like a sad puppy in the direction of Blomkvist. In the books she is a huge part of the story, knockout gorgeous, feisty and tough, parading around looking attractive and keeping Blomkvist’s outside world afloat. Along with Salander’s original guardian, the lovable but physically incapable Holmer Palmgren who gets absolutely no screentime in the film, she caused me to feel a sad loss. I also missed the nudity that I was expecting in a Nordic tale of a man who tenderly bonks just about every girl who says hello to him; in the movie, Blomkvist is much more restrained and “gentlemanly” according to social norms. The books delight in uncommon relationship dynamics; Erika is a polygamist and no one minds, Salander loves men and women equally in her bed, as long as they are there on her terms.

The setting, winter in Sweden, is absolutely beautiful; all picturesque mansions covered in snow and roads that defy gravity. While the actors and script shine, I’d be lying if I said it was flawless. The music felt heavy-handed at times, making some scenes slightly laughable. If a breakthrough was made by Blomkvist or Salander, it was accompanied by superimposed photographs and a pointed explanation. Movies that don’t give their audience any credit can be very frustrating, but I forgive this one. Not holding back on the attack on Salander—an important part of the book, if not almost unbearable—gets those points back.

One more thing: I was notified halfway through the film by the attractive young gentleman beside me that I was misinterpreting Salander’s reactions. Chris once studied linguistics and learned that what we consider a short, shocked intake of breath was just the everyday pronunciation of “yes” and “no”. So don’t think Salander’s shocked by what she’s discovering, despite the fact that you might be.

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