Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Girl re-booted

Does the world need a second The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film? Yes, says John Rees.

By John Rees
28 December 2011
Also see How Stieg Larsson trained Marxist guerrillas in Eritrea

You might think the world is already saturated with Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Sales of the original novel stand at over 30 million copies. It’s the first novel to sell over a million Kindle copies alone. When the first Swedish screen adaption, released in cinemas less than 2 years ago, came out as a DVD it became the fastest selling disc in UK history.

And there is another reason for scepticism: the plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not exactly new. For those who have been on a long-term mining expedition on one of Saturn’s less accessible moons it involves the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a young member of an industrialist’s family, on an island in northern Sweden in the summer of 1966. There is only one way off the island over a road bridge and that was blocked by an accident when Harriet disappeared. Was Harriet killed? And if so which member of the Vanger family is responsible? In short this is a country house mystery of the kind made famous by, variously, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Cluedo. Larsson himself makes the point in the book ‘It's actually a fascinating case. What I believe is known as locked room mystery’.

But what Larsson did with this formally conventional plot was not so predictable and it is this that underlies the phenomenal success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Firstly, Larsson politicised the form and he politicised it from the left. One of Agatha Christie’s novels where successive murders on an island take place was originally called Ten Little Niggers, only to be altered in subsequent editions to And Then There Were None. Larsson’s politics are almost a riposte.

Larsson’s targets are big business, Nazis and, above all, sexists and rapists. The original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. Larsson himself had witnessed a gang rape at the age of 15 and in the book the investigation of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger soon leads to a connection with a series of murders of women each of whom had been brutally assaulted and raped before they were killed.

Almost the best news about the new Hollywood film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that Larsson’s political intentions are honoured. The Vanger family and other corporate figures are represented as uniquely corrupt and morally repulsive. Two of them were wartime Nazis, unrepentant about their past.

But the nature of the crimes and of those suspected of the crimes are not the only one way in which Larsson made his political points. The two central characters investigating the crimes do this as well. And it is this characterisation which also sets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo apart from more conventional fare.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in the new film) is a journalist co-managing an independent investigative magazine called Millennium, just as Larsson himself was running a similar magazine called Expo. When the film opens his expose of industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom has just come unstuck in a libel suit and it is the offer of help from the Vanger family in this case that gets Blomkvist to agree to look into the 36-year-old disappearance of Harriet Vanger.

Blomkvist’s eventual partner in this investigation, and Larsson’s creation of real genius, is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in this film). Salander is 23 years old, a computer hacker with extraordinary powers including a photographic memory, an orphan and ward of court. Her physical appearance is a kind of distillation of every anti-authority youth cult from Punk to Hoodie via Goth. She had been abused as a child. Part of her own story before she meets Blomkvist, rather rushed in the film, is that her first legal guardian, one of the few people to whom Salander relates in any normal way, suffers a stroke.

His replacement is a manipulative lawyer who uses his power over Salander to abuse and brutally rape her. This, to the film’s credit, is not glossed over, minimised or avoided. It is necessarily and rightly reproduced with all the force that Larsson gave it in the book. So is the revenge attack which Salander makes on her tormentor. The second reason why this film deserves to be seen is that Rooney Mara is a brilliant Salander, catching everything from her physical slightness and awkwardness to her furious intelligence.

The sexual politics of the film are not a series of negatives. Salander is bisexual and her fleeting night with a woman partner is included in the film. When she and Blomkvist become lovers late in the film it is on her initiative and against his initial instincts. The film does, however, dodge one issue of the sexual politics of the book. In the novel Blomkvist has an ongoing relationship with his co-editor at Millennium, Erika Berger. Berger is married to someone else. In the novel this is an open relationship to which Blomkvist, Berger and her husband consent, more or less happily. In the film we are led to believe that Berger is unhappy in her marriage and this is why she continues to see Blomkvist. It’s an unnecessary concession to a conventional stereotype in an otherwise braver depiction of sexuality.

It’s clear that director David Fincher made very serious efforts to recreate the atmosphere of the book. The cold, snowy landscapes of northern Sweden do a lot of the work in establishing the emotional tone. The supporting performances are excellent by Joely Richardson, Geraldine James and Christopher Plummer. Fincher even manages the unenviable task of getting a masterly and restrained performance out of Steven Berkoff as the Vanger family lawyer.

The eye for detail is impressive as well. In the 2010 Swedish adaption Salander’s trademark motorcycle seems to have undergone a serious upgrade to the superbike league. In the book she drove an old 125cc Kawasaki. They haven’t quite been able to avoid this temptation in the new film, giving her a 350cc Honda, in part because the (slight) alterations in the final chase scene would make it unbelievable if Salander were on a 125. But nonetheless attempts to prettify are by and large avoided.

And Fincher has rightly taken his time. At near 3 hours a lot of the novels detail is retained, although there are some casualties. The anti-corporate politics of Millennium are given less space; so too are Salander’s relationship with her first guardian; her job at Milton Security and her relationship with its head, Dragan Armansky. The same is true of Erika Berger’s character and her relationship with Blomkvist.

These are, however, minor criticisms. The things that lifted the novel out of the ordinary, the politics and the characterisation, particularly the Zeitgeist fulfilling creation of Lisbeth Salander, make it onto the screen undiminished. It is far from damning with faint praise to say that fans of the book will not be disappointed. Go see.

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