Update Feb. 13: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo just won BAFTA’s Best Film Not In The English Language.
Summertime… and the viewing is chilling.
By now, we North Americans have caught the blazing heat that had swept other parts of the world a few years back, as we get the English translation of the Millennium Trilogy: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and last of the series, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest. All three books dominate the New York Times Best Seller Lists: When I last checked, the first two novels occupied the first and second places on the Paperback Trade and Mass-Market Lists, the newly published third title quickly claimed its second place on the Hardcover List. The Trilogy has sold more than 27 million copies in 41 countries world wide.
It’s just too sad that the Swedish author did not get a taste of his own success. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 of a heart attack at 50. All three books were published posthumously. Before his fame as a writer and journalist, Larsson had championed against racism and right-wing extremism for decades.
Those who frequent Ripple Effects might know, I’m interested in the transforming of books into films. There are many instances where I would read the book first before seeing the movie. But here’s an exception. I’m glad I went into the movie theatre knowing nothing about the story. Because of that, I was held on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, my mind fully engaged, all 152 minutes of it.
The story begins with a high profile journalist with Stockholm’s Millennium Publication, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), losing a libel suit brought on by a corrupt financial giant. Blomkvist is given half a year of freedom before serving a three-month jail term. Meanwhile, the reclusive industrial tycoon Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) approaches and hires the disgraced journalist to investigate the disappearance and likely murder of his beloved niece Harriet Vanger 40 years ago, a unique assignment that intrigues Blomkvist. Initially, Vanger has recruited Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a ‘researcher’ with a security firm, to do a background check on Blomkvist. Lisbeth is in fact an expert hacker. Believing Blomkvist to be set up in the libel suit, she continues to track him, and the two finally meet up and join hands in search of the truth behind the disappearance of Harriet Vanger… and a bit more.
This is one engrossing and highly suspenseful piece of filmmaking in the crime thriller genre. First off, the cinematography and the overall visual tonality is reminiscent of film noir, setting the mood effectively. As well, the many Vermeer moments wherein the playout of light and shadows reflect aptly the complexity of the characters. The revealing of hidden facts and personal secrets drive the riveting momentum. Pacing is suitably executed. While it’s not your bullet-speed Bourne flick, it unfolds the story smoothly, allowing some real acting to take place. There are effective action sequences and some poignant moments. And yes, there are also scenes where the audience could well be aware that their emotions are being led towards an intended end. As witness of a violent crime against the heroine, the audience is pulled to a cathartic revenge, and feels okay with it. Herein lies the effectiveness of the film. Less obscure is the original Swedish title: “Men Who Hate Women”. So the warning is: graphic violence. But it’s not gratuitous and I have to say, only reveals the reality of how low and depraved human can be.
Another measure of success is how quickly the film has elicited my empathy and even compassion for the female protagonist. It can make an ear and nose-pierced, misanthropic, rage-wrapped goth to become the heroine within minutes into the film. This idea is original, iconoclastic, and timely too. It draws us from the surface of looks and attire into understanding one’s psyche, to see how past experiences mould a life. There are layers of truths to be understood if one is willing to go past the facade.
Condensing 600 some pages (Paperback) into 152 minutes must be an arduous task. A lot of details are bound to be put aside. But with every adaptation, the movie ought to be viewed as a totally different medium, and not be judged by how literal the transformation is. Turning words into visuals has always been the demanding job of the screenwriter but also the realization of a vision from the director. As a movie viewer, I’ve appreciated the work as a congruent whole, very well edited and all loose ends tied, even opening a tiny portal for the sequels coming up.
Shot entirely on location in Sweden, the work is an artful piece of filmmaking. The wintry Swedish landscape is a quiet visual relief for our hot summer months. The movie has garnered several noms and awards, most notably The Swedish Guldbagge Awards in Best Film for director Niels Arden Oplev and Best Actress for Noomi Rapace. It was also honored with the Audience Award at the Palm Springs IFF.
But will the movie and its two sequels gather as much hype as the novels? Here in English only North America, I’m afraid not, at least not with the Swedish versions. Here are the stats if you’re interested. Watching a movie with subtitles is much more common in other parts of the globe than here. Thus prompts Hollywood to plan for an English version. Well, is it language or profit?
My recommendation is: go for the Swedish one. See a film in its most authentic adaptation, Swedish setting, original language dialogues, and superb performance. Don’t let Hollywood distract you from the real thing. There have been rumors of Carey Mulligan, Natalie Portman, and Kristen Stewart taking the role as Lisbeth Salander, and Daniel Craig, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney as Blomkvist. Well, if they must make an English version, my picks for the leads are Ellen Page and Jeremy Renner.
But no matter what, the Swedish original is a hard act to follow. It’s now on DVD and Blu-ray. And if it’s still being shown in theatres in your area, nothing beats seeing a thriller on a sweltering summer day, or night, inside a cool, dark theatre.