Reading the Screen: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

tattoo-posterThere’s really no way to talk about film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo without assuming you’ve read the book. If you haven’t, you might want to close your eyes while you read the rest of this.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the 2009 Swedish film, obviously, since David Fincher’s version is still in production — is  very good: dark, atmospheric, graphic, deeply unsettling. But the filmmakers made a couple of changes to the source material — deletions to it, actually — that bother me a little bit.

Stieg Larsson’s splendid novel features an extensive subplot revolving around Millennium magazine and its editor, Erika Berger, who has a very interesting romantic/sexual relationship with Mikael Blomkvist, the book’s journalist hero.

Larsson, himself a magazine editor, created a fascinating and compelling behind-the-scenes story of a major publication, one that was intricately tied to the main story (not to mention a nice commentary on the publishing industry at the beginning of the 21st century), but Berger and Millennium are almost completely missing from the film. That removes a lot of the story’s texture; it’s  like making a movie out of All the President’s Men and cutting all the scenes that take place at the Washington Post. Well, all right, not quite that bad. But still….

Here’s the other thing that bothers me. The novel’s Swedish title translates, as I’m sure you’ve heard as “Men Who Hate Women.” Now, that clearly refers to Nils Bjurman, Lisbeth Salander’s abusive guardian, and to Martin Vanger, the serial killer. (See? I told you I’d be assuming you’d read the book.)

But the title also refers, in a much diluted sense, to Blomkvist himself. In the novel he’s a philanderer — he’s sleeping with Erika Berger, a married woman, he carries on an affair with Cecilia Vanger, his client’s niece, and he, um, hooks up with Salander, a much younger (and extremely vulnerable) girl. Yes, she initiates the sexual relationship, but he could have said no. Maybe he should have.

In the book, in other words, Blomkvist is one of the title characters. Larsson is writing about him — about men who carry on affairs without any emotional commitment — as much as he’s writing about the rapists and serial killers of the world.

But the film version cuts Blomkvist’s affair with Berger (although it is hinted at, very slightly, in one scene). It cuts his affair with Cecilia. It keeps his whatever-it-is with Salander, because that’s crucial to their relationship, but Blomkvist’s character has been severely altered by excluding his other sexual liaisons.  It is, I think, a disservice to Larsson, who worked very hard to make Blomkvist a morally ambiguous character, a man who could be the story’s nominal central character without ever being its hero.  

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is a very good thriller, with some excellent performances. Mikael Nyqvist, as Blomkvist, is appropriately rumpled and run-down, and Noomi Rapace, as Salander, is downright can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her brilliant. But the story feels watered-down, streamlined. It’s not as layered or complex as Larrson’s. Blomkvist still isn’t a hero, but he isn’t the complex fellow from the book, either. He’s Blomkvist Lite.

I hope that David Fincher — an excellent directorial choice, by the way — is able to stick a bit closer to Larsson’s story. At the very least I hope he keeps the Millennium subplot. Remember: he did a fine job with the newspaper scenes in Zodiac.

What do you think about the Swedish film, and what do you hope the American version does differently?

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2 Comments on "Reading the Screen: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

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  1. Good points! I loved the books and loved the movies but had wondered why I would want to see the American version of the film. You’ve given me some good reasons.

  2. kathanselmann@yahoo.com' Kathleen Hanselmann says:

    Movies are always much shorter and less full of information than books. I really enjoyed the movie…have actually watched all three of the movies.

    Somehow I doubt that moral ambiguity will come through more clearly in the American version, but the story is so compelling I plan to watch it, too.

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