Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander, the title character in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a heroine for the 21st century. A computer hacker with a near-impenetrable set of defenses, she’s also a survivor and an implacable avenger of sadistic abuse, as humorlessly single-minded as Christian Bales’ Batman and almost as freakishly gifted.

Salander’s gift is research, and she has a photographic memory and a knack for seeing patterns that most people miss. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, the novel’s main character, speculates that she may even have Asperger’s syndrome, that very 21st-century neurological condition.

Salander’s thirst for justice and constitutional inability to be the least bit ingratiating – not to mention her talent for kicking ass – make her a deeply satisfying modern heroine, especially for a novel whose subject is the vicious brutalization of women (its original Swedish title translates to Men Who Hate Women.) So it’s too bad the movie version sands down her edges, zooming in to reveal soft eyes behind her night-black curtain of hair. Noomi Rapace looks the part as Salander, but she leans too hard on the girl’s uncertainty, making her toughness seem like a brittle shield rather than a thick carapace.

Besides being an indictment of misogyny, Larsson’s enormously popular Millennium trilogy, which starts with Dragon Tattoo, also speaks to the times with its anti-corporate fervor, though its touching faith in investigative journalism feels a little retro. (Larsson, who died recently, was a journalist and political activist who did a lot to uncover racist and right-wing organizations in Sweden.) The series is named for the fictional magazine where Blomkvist is publisher, part owner, and principal investigative reporter, and one of two main subplots in the book version of Dragon Tattoo concerns a corrupt financier Blomkvist is trying to nail in print and the magazine’s struggle to survive after the financier sues Blomkvist for libel and wins.

Larsson has a healthy respect for technology (his books single out so many computers and programs for praise you’d think he was on Apple’s payroll) coupled with an old-school, near-religious appreciation of research. Dragon Tattoo contains countless scenes of people pecking away at computers or conducting interviews to search for clues – and holds our interest in the process. Some of the most dramatic sequences in the film involve poring through files in an archive or piecing together still photos from a newspaper morgue to recreate events from years past.

Director Niels Arden Oplev and screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg cut out almost all of the magazine’s internal politics and most of the details about the financier, bringing the other main story center stage. Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger, the aged head of a once-powerful company and the family that runs it, to find out what happened to his favorite niece, who disappeared decades ago. He thinks she was murdered by someone in the family, but who? The Vanger family is a viper’s nest of ruthless industrialists. Between them, they exhibit nearly every odious trait imaginable -- some are even Nazis. For a while, it looks as if Dragon Tattoo is going to turn into one of those Agatha Christie mysteries where the detective goes through a group of people in an isolated place until he finds the killer, as Blomkvist moves into a family-owned house in a small town in northern Sweden and starts digging for clues, hiring Salander to help. But Larsson goes places Dame Christie would never have dreamed of.

The filmmakers always let us know where we are without tipping us off to what’s coming next, and they hug close to the curves of the original story as they condense nearly 600 pages of often complicated storytelling into one smooth-flowing, two-and-a-half-hour movie.. But some of their elisions make the characters less complex and well-rounded. The Swedish sexual politics of the original become more Puritanical in the movie, which erases Blomkvist’s affairs with both the married editor of Millennium and Henrik Vanger’s niece Cecilia. The movie whites out the daughter to whom he is a laissez-faire absentee father, and it makes Lisbeth a more conventional heroine, less emotionally inaccessible and more omniscient.

The movie also sentimentalizes a key scene that the book underplays nicely – making a soap opera of what happens after Mikael learns what happened to Harriet. Still, it faces up to violence against women unflinchingly – enough so that it’s often hard to watch.

So if you want this story straight, get the book – but that doesn’t mean the movie’s not worth watching.


  1. Judith NakhnikianApril 18, 2010 at 8:04 PM

    I loved the beginning of this book, then it wore me down. Maybe the movie is actually a better way to tell this story. I'll watch it.

  2. Just saw this yesterday. I enjoyed it for about an hour and 45 minutes, then not so much. For all it's visual stylishness, I thought it was a pretty standard whodoneit---I figured it out pretty early on. And why drag it out so much? To tie up all the strings? I don't need all the strings tied up, plus I thought the ending was excessively sentimentalized. Mind you, I haven't read the book. Most of the reviews I've read seem to find Rapace's performance the one to watch, but I was more impressed with Nykvist. And I liked that the main characters in the movie looked like people. Great faces.---DMJ