The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), directed by Niels Arden Oplev, is, as most of the world knows, an adaptation of the first volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy which has so dominated bestseller lists over the past couple of years. The second (The Girl Who Played with Fire) and third (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) movies were shot back to back with the first albeit with a different director (Daniel Alfredson). The second movie is just about to be released in the UK.
OK I have to hold my hands up. For all that I constantly write about the vital importance of considering movie adaptations in their own right, there are occasions when, especially on a first viewing, I am unable to do this properly. TGWTDT is one such occasion. I find that I am unable to make a proper judgement as to how good a film it is independent of the source text. It is certainly handsomely mounted and competently directed, though I do not think there is anything special there cinematically; no really original or interesting camera-work or editing, though it does convey the bleakness of the Swedish rural landscape reasonably well. But how effective it would be as a thriller, how surprising or shocking the solution, I do not know because I did know the solution!
It is therefore only really possible for me to consider it as an adaptation. So I ask the questions: did it deepen my understanding of, and insight into, the book? did I feel it did justice to the book’s themes? did the characterisations live up to my expectations? Let me start with the last because the plural is really redundant. For me, as for most people I am sure, the key question is did the film get Lisbeth Salander right? The books stand or fall (and mostly stand) with Lisbeth Salander, and it is she who has played a large part in making them the publishing sensation they have proved to be. So how did Noomi Rapace, who played her, do? The answer I think is pretty well. In a way she was dealt a marked hand because with an iconic and much-loved character like Lisbeth you are under the critical microscope to a probably absurd degree. Certainly the Lisbeth in the movie was a coherent, charismatic character. In my view the film somewhat underplayed the degree of social awkwardness, the extent to which the character is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But really I have little to quarrel with.
What about deepening my understanding and dealing with the book’s ‘themes’ : did the film succeed there? Yes and no. A big yes as far as feminism is concerned. Perhaps the makers felt that having one major coherent theme would be all the film could bear. They alighted, quite correctly, on issues around the abuse and mistreatment of women. This is very strongly conveyed in the film and works extremely well. Whether or not it passes the Bechdel Test (see fascinating debate at http://bechdeltest.com/view/485/the_girl_with_the_dragon_tattoo/ and note (1)) TGWTDT is in many senses a feminist movie, certainly centrally concerned with a feminist issue. However there are other themes in the book which are somewhat elided in the film. It may be that these are going to be brought out in the later films, which would be a perfectly fair method of proceeding. I will however enumerate them –
- Swedish Nazism – yes, this is covered in the film but no real explanation is given. Now I admit it is much harder to give a history lesson in a film than in a book, but for many people – including myself when I read the book – the revelation that Nazism had such a large history in Sweden was completely new and I needed the explanations which Larsson (whose roots were in anti-fascism and whose own magazine was deeply influenced by the British Searchlight) provided.
- the searching criticism of the psychiatric profession and its corruption – this was a part of the trilogy which was of particular interest to me – I suspect though that it is probably right to defer this to the second and third films
- the anti-big-business element – this was the major omission from the film. The secondary ‘case’ – of Blomkvist and Wennerstrom – plays a much larger part in the book than the film and no real explanations are given as to how and why Blomkvist was set up or the web of corruption behind Wennerstrom. I did feel that this significantly weakened the film, and was a theme which was, at best, given insufficient attention to.
How to sum up? TGWTDT appeared to me a good competent thriller. How much better it might be for someone who has not read the book I am unable to say. The strength of the movie thematically is in bringing out the book’s feminism though there are weaknesses in other areas.
I have said that it is almost impossible for me to divorce my feelings about the film from those about the books. I have written about all 3 books and about the Larsson trilogy in general (see note 2). I am something of an ‘in-betweener’ when it comes to Larsson. I thought the first book was very, very good indeed (if not a masterpiece – see http://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/mysteries-of-the-year-2009/) but the other two not as good: the reason I especially valued the first was for its marrying of a traditional mystery story (which is what forms the vast bulk of the film) with a thriller (which is mostly excluded from the film). However, I have to admit that when writing my reviews I was tending to react to those who I thought over-praised Larsson: now that a backlash seems to have started I feel more positive about him (such is my natural tendency to dissent from received wisdom!). And certainly I think the key question as to why the books have found such resonance remains unanswered.
1) The Bechdel test “is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.” (to quote the key website at http://bechdeltest.com/). Now there is an obvious and simple objection to the Bechdel test which is that what it can measure is the extent of female participation in a film and not whether or not a film can be described or considered or deals with feminist issues. Ellen has recently reviewed a movie called Agora ( see http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/agora-the-story-of-a-heroine-as-tragically-silenced-teacher/) which is clearly a feminist movie but fails the test. Similarly if you look at the contested movies on the site itself you will find people arguing that they find it absurd that such and such movie fails where Sex and the City passes. But having noted these objections and the fact that one has to be careful about its application, I still think it provides a useful way of thinking about movies and I would like to try to remember to factor the Bechdel test into my reviews.
2) My writings on Larsson’s books can be found at…
(it is the last which deals with my first encounter with the ‘backlash’).