Friday, July 9, 2010

The ‘Millennium’ Movies: 'Stieg Larsson' Adaptations Fall Short of Brilliant Books

The Girl Who Played With Fire, which opens in North America today, is a significant improvement on its predecessor, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, released last spring. (Both films are adapted from the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular novels and make up the first two thirds of his ‘Millennium’ trilogy.) Whereas the first film in the series, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, was a clunky affair, lurching from scene to scene before slowing down to breathe, the second movie, with Daniel Alfredson at the helm, is a smoother, more consistent and pleasing experience.

Much of the reason for that is Alfredson’s superior skills as a director – both he and Oplev have TV backgrounds and credits I am not familiar with – which is good news for those awaiting the final film in the series, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, also directed by Alfredson. But to be fair to Oplev, there was quite a bit of exposition to cram into The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which at over 2 & 1/ 2 hours is about half an hour longer than The Girl Who Played With Fire. (The Swedish cut of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo clocks in at three hours, which may mean it flows better than the shorter version that reached North America.)

The ‘girl’ in the two movies is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a computer hacker par excellence, a young woman with a horribly abusive past, a socially backward person who doesn’t trust a soul, an outcast in most senses of the word. Yet she also touches those she meets, most notably a somewhat jaded journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who ends up working with her to solve a disappearance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That movie with its myriad twists and turns, in an admittedly convoluted tale, failed to make its characters stand out, with Lisbeth, in particular, coming across as a rather bland creation. Certainly, on screen she was a far cry from the brilliantly indelible and compelling literary creation that did so much to propel Larsson’s novels.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander still falls short of her predecessor in print but, at least, the movie deepens its story and brings out some dimensions to her and Blomkvist, too. That’s because the two grow emotionally closer when Lisbeth is suspected of a triple murder and only Blomkvist believes in her innocence. Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg allow a little humour to creep into the film and make the most of the book’s villain, a blonde German giant (Micke Spreitz) named Ronald Niedermann, who has a genetic inability to feel pain. They also take a page from Stieg Larsson and allow Swedish boxer Paolo Roberto, the book’s only real life character, to play himself in the movie, in a pivotal scene. As Salander and Blomkvist become more immersed in the murder mystery, SPOILER ALERT follows - a complex portrait of Swedish society emerges, as the killings are linked to the sex trade and those higher ups involved in it, as pimps, enablers or johns. It’s compelling stuff and Alfredson’s moody, atmospheric direction brings a strong element of dread and suspense to the film, which ends on a powerful note fully adhering to the book’s dramatic climax.

Yet, The Girl Who Played With Fire still fails to match the brilliance of Larsson’s tale. And it brings up, anew, the difficulties of successfully adapting out of the ordinary, idiosyncratic works of literature to the screen, as was the case with Cormac McCarthy's terribly bleak apocalyptic science fiction novel The Road, whose 2009 movie version was softened considerably, and Alan Moore's inspired and complex graphic novel Watchmen, which lost its subversive take on the 'superhero' genre in its 2009 film adaptation.

As in those films, the cinematic changes wrought on the source material don't do justice to the Larsson books. The significant omissions in the film versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, though often understandable, minimize or unduly change the import of the novels and the layered characterization of Lisbeth Salander. Spoiler Alerts follow – For example, when Salander abruptly cuts off all ties with Blomkvist at the end of Dragon Tattoo, for a specific reason, that’s not included in the movie. There, she simply ends the relationship, leaving Blomkvist, at the outset of The Girl Who Played With Fire (in the film and book) deeply perplexed and disturbed about her decision. Her actions are believable in the film, considering Salander’s quirky behavior patterns, but something important has been lost in the adaptation.

Similarly, the decision of the filmmakers to eliminate the whole lengthy first chapter of The Girl Who Played With Fire, which concerns Salander and is set in the Caribbean, makes sense since it has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot that follows. But a key, revealing glimpse into the inner workings of Salander’s mind is now missing from the movie. It may reveal why this film is so much shorter than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but couldn’t it have been left in? Well, no, not if you’d rather make a movie while casting one eye to the American box office, which is exactly what has been done here. From its portentous musical score to its fast pace to its straight ahead plotting, this is a Swedish commercial entertainment that has nothing in common with the Ingmar Bergman art house fare that the country was previously best known for exporting to the world. Fair enough, I suppose, but Larsson’s novels have a serious intent and depth that relate in many ways to the humanistic concerns that Bergman espoused so well in his movies, concerns that have mostly been sublimated in the first two celluloid versions of Larsson’s books.

It also likely explains why the cinematic Salander bears so little relation to the Salander who exists on the printed page. Gone is the gaunt, feral, disturbed Salander, to be replaced by a more attractive, tough, confident woman, who has more in common with the sexy Angelina Jolie, a la Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Wanted or, likely the forthcoming Salt. In one scene in The Girl Who Played With Fire, a cop refers to her as an “anorexic” girl who weighs “88 pounds.” Except she actually doesn’t. Rapace’s Salander is not nearly so thin. She’s a photogenic, not untalented, actress, who won Sweden’s Best Actress award for her work in all three movies, and one you could imagine getting the lead in the proposed American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, to be directed by David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). (Interestingly enough, there’s a lot more discussion of who will play Blomkvist in the U.S. film – Daniel Craig and Brad Pitt have been bruited for the role – than who will essay the part of Salander, a sexist point of view that the put upon protagonist herself would understand.)

Other aspects of The Girl Who Played With Fire owe more to sloppiness than considered decision-making. You never get a sense in the movie, unlike in the book, that the triple murder that Salander is suspected of perpetrating has galvanized the nation in a unique way. It’s a dramatic state of affairs that is only glancingly referenced in the film. Interestingly, the American trailer for the movie has Salander looking at a newspaper headline - in English – blaring that she is wanted for murder. I thought at first that the second ‘Millennium’ film was shot in English but it’s in Swedish with English subtitles. The newspaper translation in the trailer was just a further indication of how this series of movies was supposed to play well not just at home but abroad, too. Unlike most foreign language films, whose filmmakers don’t make their lives more difficult by trying to anticipate success beyond their own borders, these Larsson adaptations are made with two audiences in mind, the local and the international one.

In that comparative vein, as entertaining and solid as The Girl Who Played With Fire often is, it’s not nearly as gripping as some other great thrillers that have come our way from across the ocean in recent years, namely Guillaume Canet’s superb 2006 Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne), an adaptation of a Harlen Coben mystery novel, and also from France, Fred Cavayé's 2008 film Anything For Her (Pour elle). Both those films deal with men’s deep love for women and their determination to do what’s right for them at all costs, similar to Blomkvist’s efforts on Salander’s behalf, but executed with much more intelligence and panache.

The Lisbeth Salander films have, unfortunately, been dumbed down a little, simplified a lot and commercialized in a way that I’m not sure Stieg Larsson would have appreciated. Would he have liked knowing that his books were also made into a TV series, Millennium, with Rapace repeating her role as Salander (and Nyqvist as Blomkvist)? There is such a thing as overkill, after all.

Now, had I not read the books, would I be so hard on the films? Possibly not but since I have and since they’re among the best reads I’ve enjoyed in years, I can’t help but steer you in their direction. By all means, immerse yourself in the movie series, which hopefully will end on a high note when The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest opens at Christmas, but check out the novels, before or after you see the films. You won’t be sorry and you’ll get a look into a Lisbeth Salander the films don’t begin to reveal.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.


  1. Loved the books myself...not impressed with the frist movie at all! Just wrote a review on the series, check it out:

  2. I couldn't agree less with your artistic comparison of the first two parts of the film trilogy. Oplev's film has atmophere, suspense, emotion and wit in everything from script to camera: consider the powerful outdoor camera shots, the crisp dialogue (esp. between Mikael and Lisbeth), the gripping visual sequences from Mikael's investigative work. Almost incredibly - given the same story line and cast - Alfredson's movie has absolutely none of these qualities. The story buildup is flat, static and empty of effective emotion, the dialogue bland and uninspired; there is practically nothing in terms of story-telling or visual presentation that would squeeze more than the obligatory factual minimum from Larsson's novel.

    1. Yes, I agee, Oplev's first film was spectacular. I also loved Alfredson's next two installments, but if I was to grade them, my first pick is Tattoo, then Fire, then Hornet's Next.