Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

The girl who kicked the finale

 The U.S. release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest last weekend marked the conclusion of the onscreen adventures of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist—at least, in terms of the Swedish film versions of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" novels. Or maybe not even that: I read somewhere that parts two and three were shorter cuts of a "long form" adaptation made for Swedish television, so maybe we can look forward to that on DVD. And you probably know that the brilliant American director David Fincher (Zodiac, The Social Network) is even now shooting a U.S. theatrical version of the triptych on location in Scandinavia.

The first two entries in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, were reviewed in Queen Anne & Magnolia News by me and Kathleen Murphy, respectively, and except for specific housekeeping with regard to part three, I think they say most of what needs saying here. Suffice it to note that the hornet's nest kicked in the final book and movie is an ultra-reactionary secret bureau of the Swedish government kept secret even from the semi-secret bureau of which it is, in theory, a part. All the nastiness visited on heroic superhacker Lisbeth Salander over the previous decade-and-a-half has to do with a three-decades-old secret that has been protected by an ever-aging, increasingly ruthless cabal. At the core of the conspiracy is a monster who is, we come to know late in part two, Salander's father. What happens to him in part three may surprise you. What's more surprising—though entirely characteristic of these films - is how brusquely it happens, and then the conspiracy, the saga, and the world roll on.

Readers of the books may want to know in advance that that whole sub- or parallel plot about Erika Berger (Lina Endre) leaving Millennium magazine to edit a prominent Stockholm newspaper is entirely omitted from the screen adaptation (though a couple of incidents related to it are worked in in another context). Also, Annika Hallin, playing Blomkvist's lawyer-sister Annika Giannini, is elevated to virtual costarring status with the redoubtable Michael Nyqvist (Blomkvist) and the mesmerizing Noomi Rapace (Salander). Now to reprise the original reviews ... though what you should be reading is the books. —RTJ


 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo':
fast-moving isn't always the best idea

By Richard T. Jameson

I recall a magazine cartoon of two people leaving a movie theater where one of Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical spectaculars was showing. The caption has one person blithely assuring the other, "The book was better."

Dropping that remark is a privilege I've mostly been denied; much more often, if I do read the book it's after having seen the movie. I did recently make my way through the nearly 600 pages of Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first entry in the informally designated Millennium Trilogy. The three novels, published following the activist journalist's untimely death in 2004 (age 50), swiftly became an international phenomenon. I found the book a good deal more satisfying read than the film is a, er, watch. Yet I have to report that my companion, who hadn't read the book, was engrossed by the movie and expressed pleasure that it "told a real story for a change."

Even at a length of 152 minutes, the story in the movie is a radically streamlined version of the one(s) in the book. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a "watchdog journalist" not unlike Larsson himself who has just been found guilty of libeling a powerful magnate, elects to lie low while awaiting the start of his token prison term. His withdrawal from the urban Stockholm scene coincides with an offer from an aged billionaire: Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) wants him to come to his remote island estate and investigate the disappearance of a beloved niece, Harriet—which happened 40 years ago and has obsessed Vanger ever since.

Although Blomkvist doesn't realize it, the expedition will be a trip into his own past: his father once worked for Vanger on the island, and when young Mikael visited him there, Harriet was his babysitter. The disappearance occurred some time afterward, on a day when the island was cut off from the mainland by a bridge accident. There seems little room for doubt that Harriet was done away with by a member of her family, as poisonous a collection of monsters as ever swarmed within one genealogy.

Initially resistant, Blomkvist is soon caught up in his employer's obsession. But he needs help to pore over a wealth of data, and finds it in a most unorthodox way: he cyber-ambushes the hacker who'd built a dossier on him at the request of Vanger's lawyer. This encyclopedically resourceful creature is our girl with the dragon tattoo—also nose and eyebrow rings, black goth glower and bone-deep antisocial ferocity—Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace).

Salander, as she is invariably referred to in the book, is Larsson's most distinctive creation, and worthy of becoming the title character. Both the international best-selling novel and the 2009 Swedish film originally were called Men Who Hate Women. That title makes sense, certainly, but it's didactic, clinically signposting an accumulation of statistics, psychological detail, plot points and grisly tableaux that are more powerful if allowed to emerge from the texture of a crackerjack detective story—something with a nifty paperback name like, say, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I'm glad my fellow filmgoer (OK, my wife) found the movie gripping, and I wouldn't want to discourage any adult from seeing it. Stress adult: there's a lot of tough material here, in terms of both sex and violence, and none of it is euphemized.

Still, I have to say I missed the wonderful experience of ... I think the word is steeping. The book is long in terms of time and distance as well as number of pages. Its myriad events cover nearly a year and take the reader to so many places—not only far-flung locations in the Nordic backcountry and several foreign lands, but specific settings on Hedeby Island and in the nearby town that accrete both atmosphere and psychological significance.

Understandably, many characters have been jettisoned or combined. But the most diminishing aspect of the film adaptation is that everything happens too fast, comes too easily. Blomkvist, and then Blomkvist-and-Salander, don't spend months immersed in the evidentiary minutiae of four decades before the key truths stare back at them; it's pretty much a matter of one or the other swooping down on each key discovery, almost as fast as clicking a mouse. The result, while coherent, doesn't feel lived-in, lived-through.

Denied the breathing room and complex personal histories supplied their characters in the novel, Nyqvist and Rapace both acquit themselves admirably. Neither Blomkvist nor Nyqvist partakes of the swashbuckling aura customarily extended to journalist-detectives on screen, and that's refreshing. Rapace fixes the viewer's attention like a wasp in a closed room, though she only hints at the rage and embattled singularity of the character in the book. The direction by Niels Arden Opley is undistinguished but adequate, a "Mystery Theater" kind of competence that stays out of story's way but also brings little to the party.

In this case, story no longer includes the complicated business of the commentary magazine Blomkvist co-publishes, or his longtime erotic relationship with his married co-publisher Erika Berger. This means that Lena Endre, although prominently billed, only winks in and out of a couple scenes in the movie; a pity, since the actress was so memorable in the Liv Ullmann–directed, Ingmar Bergman–scripted Faithless about a decade ago. Another august figure from Bergman land, Gunnel Lindblom, can be seen briefly as the mother of the long-vanished Harriet.

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, March 24, 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Richard T. Jameson


Chapter Two in the Millennium Phenom:
'The Girl Who Played with Fire'

By Kathleen Murphy

First things first: Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore or punch up Amazon ASAP. Buy the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Join the 40 million-plus readers who've plunged into the first book, never to emerge until reluctantly turning the final page of the third. Once you've run out of novels—and there may be no more, Larsson having died before the trilogy was even published—you'll be hungry to watch the three Swedish movie adaptations. And after devouring those, get ready for withdrawal symptoms until next year, when the American film versions—all three to be directed by David (Se7en, Zodiac) Fincher—launch.

Why? Because the Millennium Trilogy is simply terrific, the kind of seductive fiction that makes the avid reader work, think, interact with people and information the way few slambang thrillers do. Larsson weaves great webs of interconnecting data, all in the service of exposing evil, but revelations never come with one casual flick of a computer key or a cursory read of an old file or newspaper. The mesmerizing process is incremental, the puzzle completed by you and your fictional surrogates. The sheer excitement of challenging research, of the kind of dogged detective work that leads to a brand new, often shattering, way of seeing a person, a family, an institution, the world—that's what reaches out and pulls you in.

But then up the ante: you get to keep company with Lisbeth Salander and Michael Blomkvist.

Investigative journalist and unapologetic lover of women, the highly intelligent Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) works for Millennium magazine, a muckraking publication not unlike the one where Larsson himself labored. In Dragon Tattoo, while tracking down a girl gone missing decades ago, the journalist's path serendipitously crosses that of Salander. In book and film this introverted child-woman is so authentically fierce, arresting and dangerous, she earns automatic membership in the pantheon of kick-ass fictional heroines.

Multifariously abused from childhood by a bureaucratic coven of monstrous men, for reasons that aren't revealed until Hornet's Nest, Salander has grown up smart as a whip, transforming her wounds into the art and science of survival and retribution. This hacker-extraordinaire pillages computers—emails, databases, servers—as if no firewall had ever been invented that could resist that relentlessly questing mind. A mere wisp of a girl, barely 5 feet tall, weighing 90 pounds, Lisbeth's nevertheless a formidable warrior, as lithe and deadly as a cat.

Salander's dark eyes can be as empty and flat as death ... or a bottomless well of pain, rage, memory. Implacably moral, this nose-pierced angel's an affront to "civilized" society, favoring black leather, goth makeup, and a face-shadowing shock of stiffened black hair. In the films, this prodigy—a lost child straight out of Dickens, by way of William Gibson—is perfectly incarnated by actress Noomi Rapace.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo played Seattle in March and is now out on DVD. Next week, The Girl Who Played with Fire opens. The best Larsson adaptation so far, directed with sharp intelligence by Daniel Alfredson, Fire takes it up a notch from Neils Arden Oplev's efficiently functional work in Tattoo. The complexities of the novel, the time it can afford to spend on literally digging into the past, are necessarily telescoped, simplified, pared down. Much Larsson is omitted (and this fan missed it all), but what works in a novel doesn't necessarily translate into the stuff of cinema.

Will folks who don't know the previous book/film find themselves a bit adrift? What's the nature of the bond between Blomkvist and Salander that makes him instantly sure of her innocence when she's framed for murder? But the power of that connection is so strong—in a film where the two meet face-to-face only once—the specifics of its origin aren't crucial to viewers swept along by deft pacing and editing that signposts where we're going and why.

Alfredson lights up Fire with cinematic texture and sensuality, composing and coloring each frame for maximum impact, authoritatively moving his camera within each scene, witnessing with a probing yet disinterested eye. And every member of the cast is treated as a person of interest, not simply as screensavers between star turns. Fire is so wonderfully served by ordinary-looking actors—even Nyqvist's far from a head-turner—that one dreads Fincher's forthcoming All Brad Pitt, All Kristen Stewart Show.*

In this second chapter of the Millennium saga, Salander, ever the quintessential orphan, stands up to family, the kind that kills and the kind that sustains—and this within a pulse-pounding thriller that features rapists, bad bikers, sex traffickers, an unstoppable golem who feels no pain, an utterly amoral phantom, et al. The overarching evolution in the trilogy is Salander's, from arrested development to hopeful signs of emerging life and human connection, all progress then succumbing to a reprise of pain and loss, and afterwards ... well, you'll have to check out The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest to find out what happens next to Team Blomkvist and Salander and their hot pursuit of truth in a pitch-black world.

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, July 7, 2010

* As it turns out, the Fincher Girlpix will star Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Murphy