Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: The film of the book - THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

On Monday evening I was fortunate enough to be invited by publisher Allen & Unwin to a preview screening of “Män som hatar kvinnor” (aka the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The movie has of course been shown in several places in Europe already, but it opens in wide-ish release in New Zealand, and some other countries, later this month. I was pretty excited about getting a chance to see the Swedish film version (with English-language subtitles), especially after viewing the trailer, which you can see here.

“Män som hatar kvinnor” (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is of course based on Stieg Larsson’s groundbreaking first book in his ‘Millennium trilogy’, which years after his death continues to rapidly build an ever-increasing audience around the globe. As I noted in my large feature on Swedish crime writing in the August 2009 issue of Good Reading magazine, Larsson topped the 2008/2009 Wischenbart survey, which analysed bestselling authors across seven major European markets (despite the rampant success and soaring sales of the Twilight teen vampire series, Larsson still beat out Stephanie Meyer). And with the US market only in the past year or so beginning to be exposed to (and embrace) Larsson, I can’t imagine his popularity slowing anytime soon - especially with all the movies coming out (the 2nd and 3rd books have already been turned into films by the same Swedish filmmakers as well).

As many readers will know, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is about a disgraced financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who is asked by aging business tycoon Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of Henrik’s beloved niece Harriet forty years ago. Blomkvist eventually teams up with Lisbeth Salander, an antisocial punk-styled expert computer hacker with a very troubled and secretive past – and the ‘odd couple’ discover unexpected and unimaginable brutality while digging through the Vanger family history. The book has won a slew of awards worldwide, over several years (as it has been released in different languages and countries). Recently it picked up the 2009 Anthony Award for Best First Novel at the 40th Bouchercon in Indianapolis.

So what is the film of this famous book like? We all know that there can be great filmic adaptations of famous or beloved books, but that there are perhaps many more book adaptations that disappoint, falling far short of reader and audience expectations. So it was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I trotted along to the Rialto Theatre in Newmarket, Auckland, to view Larsson’s masterpiece on the big screen.

In short, I loved the movie. I thought it was an excellent, well-made film that beautifully evoked the atmosphere, themes, and storyline of Larsson’s tale. It was not always ‘pleasant’ to watch, with some fairly brutal scenes – but nothing ever felt contrived or gratuitous. In my opinion, the filmmakers did a fantastic job in handling those moments, giving the audience great insight into character, and striking the right tone etc. I did wonder how similar moments might have been (mis)handled if it was an English-language film made by, for example, Hollywood filmmakers.

I must confess that I was a little concerned that my date for the evening (an old and dear high school friend who’s recently returned to NZ after a decade in Europe, and had told me she loved reading crime fiction) might have been wondering what the hell I’d dragged her along to, at some points (I caught a few stern visages in my peripheral vision) – but she told me afterwards that she too absolutely loved the film, and thought it was the best thing she’d seen in ages (she hadn’t read the book yet, so was watching it purely from a filmgoers’ perspective).

I thought the screenwriters (Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) did a great job translating Larsson’s novel to film form. You can never get everything from a novel into a film; they are different storytelling mediums, for a start. But the film was a cohesive story that definitely contained and touched on many of the most important themes, events, and ‘moments’ from Larsson’s work. I hope that when the film hits wider release that reviewers don’t concentrate on any specific details left out or minor changes that the filmmakers made – as can often happen with reviews when popular books are adapted for film – because I think the filmmakers did a fantastic job overall. I particularly liked the fact they captured some of the layers, and depth, of Larsson’s work (there was a lot of subtext to what was on screen, and many issues and themes were touched on or delicately, and sometimes not so delicately, hinted at) – the story behind or beneath the surface story, so to speak.

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Philippa Boyens (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Lovely Bones) said in our interview for a feature in the current issue of Good Reading, filmmakers must search for the spine and spirit of a book, and seek to tell that story best in a visual way, rather than focusing on all the various details in a novel. I think the filmmakers of “Män som hatar kvinnor” (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) did that wonderfully.

In terms of acting, I thought Noomi Rapace was brilliant as Lisbeth Salander. She conveyed the computer hacker’s conflict, confusion, anger, and uniqueness (amongst other things) exceptionally well through glances, gestures, and other non-speaking moments – not just scripted dialogue. Like the best performances, I never saw it as someone acting as Lisbeth Salander, rather Rapace was Lisbeth Salander. Mikael Nyqvist was also great as Mikael Blomkvist – in fact I thought the cast was very solid across the board. The actor who played Lisbeth’s new guardian (Peter Andersson I think), for instance, had a particularly tough role to play, but was completely believable as the lecherous lawyer – while still giving the role some (creepy) reality and layers, rather than being simply a cardboard caricature of evil.

Overall, for me this is/was without a doubt one of the best films, if not the very best, I have seen in 2009. In fact; in the past few years. Highly, highly, recommended. Simply superb.

Have you seen the film? If so, what did you think? If not, are you looking forward to seeing it? What book-to-film adaptations have you loved, and which have left you wanting? Thoughts and comments welcome…


  1. I'm jealous. Sounds great. I will definitely be seeing it. I'm often disappointed by the film adaptations of books I've loved but I never stop looking forward to seeing them because, occasionally, they are as good or better even if different. Hopefully I'll find this film one of those special ones.

  2. One of the more recent book-to-film adaptations that I've been watching is the "Jesse Stone" series written by Robert Parker, with Tom Selleck in the role of Jesse Stone. Frankly, I'm not a fan of Robert Parker as I find his characterizations to be flat and uninteresting.

    A friend recommended the films very highly, so I watched and was very surprised at the quality of the film.

    My bias is to assume that if the film is good, the book must be better. So, I read the novel on which the film was based. Parker still can't do characters, so I guess it must be Selleck who is turning Jesse Stone into a real person.

    I haven't read any of the other "Jesse Stone" novels, but I've seen three of the movies so far and will see them all when and if they come out.

  3. Hi Fred - I've seen the first Jesse Stone flick on DVD down here in NZ. I'd like to see the others (they're a bit hard to find down here). I too enjoyed the first one - thought it had a nice brooding atmosphere, good lead performance by Selleck, and a nice 'quiet, building' storyline.

  4. Hi Kiwicraig,

    Yes, that's a very good description of the series. I think Selleck is the executive producer?, and he seems determined to maintain that atmosphere.

    Also, it has very good locale shots that provide a contrast between the setting--Paradise--and the quiet hell that goes on behind the scenes at times.