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May 01st 2010 print

Neil McDonald

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

As the lights came up at the conclusion of the advance screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the Cremorne Orpheum, there was a burst of applause from the packed audience followed by the sort of delighted conversation that tells you the film had been a success—at least with these viewers. Almost certainly many had come because the original novel by the late Stieg Larsson was a best-seller. As well, they were probably well aware that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women) was the first of a trilogy of novels including The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. These make up what the writer called the Millennium series, after the name of the magazine published by Blomkvist, one of the main characters in the books. At the time of writing it seems the gamble to mass-market a subtitled Swedish film with an unknown cast in Australia had paid off. Inevitably there are reports of a Hollywood remake—certain to cost more than the $7 million it took to make the original.

Only mentioned in passing, if at all, is that film adaptations of the two further novels of the trilogy were released in Europe late last year and these too are proving a great success. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an independent work that succeeds on its own terms without the sequels, but the characters and themes of this first film become richer and more complex as the series unfolds, which is why I’ll discuss the other Millennium films here even though they are not at present available in Australia. Perhaps this plus the positive reviews already being posted on the internet just might encourage Australian distributors to screen the entire trilogy.

All three films are in the best sense thrillers, but never the one kind of thriller. Each of the books and movies employs devices from a number of different genres, which is not surprising as Larsson was a great fan of American and British detective stories. (He even has his main character read Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries in between tracking down the missing heiress in the first novel.) Dragon Tattoo begins as an investigative reporter movie with Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) convicted of criminal libel, then it segues into a Sayers-like village mystery—no one can get off the island, so who is responsible for the disappearance of the young girl?—then becomes a hunt for a serial killer before returning to the corporate trickery of the opening.

Will our fearless reporter catch the serial killer and expose the villainous industrialist? Of course he will, but he’s going to need the help of Larsson’s most spectacular creation, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Reportedly based on Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip heroine Modesty Blaise, and Larsson’s troubled niece who was anorexic but could fix any computer, she has a photographic memory, is a brilliant chess player, solves a famous mathematical puzzle in her head en route to confronting one of the more dastardly villains of the series, and can hack into any computer in the world. The books are littered with hugely enjoyable references to “hostile takeovers of computer systems” and “creations of mirrored hard drives” together with sentences like “It took her just four minutes to discover the password and break into the system”.

More seriously, Salander is a traumatised victim of the child care system in Sweden who has been abused and tortured in ways that are frighteningly all too plausible to anyone familiar with the current scandals here and in Europe. The first film cuts between Blomkvist’s investigation into the disappearance forty years earlier of Harriet Vanger, the niece of industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), and a series of chilling sequences where Salander is blackmailed and raped by Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), her court-appointed guardian. These scenes are brutally explicit but never gratuitous. They are invested by director Niels Arden Oplev with a moral horror that so impressed my regular companion that for her the dominant theme of the film was this abuse of trust. Inevitably Salander’s hideous revenge on her tormentor becomes one of the film’s guilty pleasures.

Notwithstanding these explosions of confronting violence, for much of the time The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a satisfying intellectual puzzle with Oplev fascinating us with scenes where Salander sits at her computer and Blomkvist peers at photographs. Writers Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg minimise the book’s descriptions of archival research and focus on the investigation of the photographic record. Indeed some of the best sequences are those showing Blomkvist and Salander tracking down the owners of missing snapshots. Here the close-ups of individual objects and tiny contact prints, a technique often abused by contemporary directors, become one of the film’s greatest assets. 

As the fans of the books know, they could have done with a good editor. Arcel and Heisterberg trim some of the sub-plots, simplifying the devices Larsson employed to introduce his characters so that the theme of men that hate women becomes, if anything, even more powerful in the film than in the novel. The focus on the visual clues enables them to emphasise an important additional theme of the original, the links so many of Sweden’s old families had to the Nazis.

For all the detailed characterisation and intricate plotting, Larsson includes few descriptive passages. (Although Salander’s Goth makeup and nose rings are mentioned when she first appears, the film-makers had to find the description they needed for Blomkvist in the third novel.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film, however, is superbly designed by Niels Sejer and photographed by Jens Fischer and Eric Kress. Fischer and Kress exploit the Swedish winter light of the exteriors—all whites and blues—creating a bleak ambience for this exploration of past and present violence and hatred. Interiors are shot with low light levels, the whites of the faces highlighted for the scenes on the island, with warmer colours for the Stockholm interiors.

Noomi Rapace plays Salander almost as written. The defensiveness, the fierce glare, the lip-biting and intensity are recreated exactly. Rapace cannot of course be as tiny as Salander is in the books, where she is supposed to be less than five feet tall and often mistaken for a child. The actress needs at least some height for the one scene when Salander is allowed to be pretty and the sequence where she hunts down the villain at the end of the first film. Michael Nyqvist, best known here for his work in As It Is in Heaven, gets Blomkvist’s determination and gentleness just about right, bringing an agreeably light touch to his scenes with Rapace’s brooding Salander.

These are not the first detective novels where the investigator is as damaged as some of the victims. Denis Lehane—an exact contemporary of Larsson—made his Boston private eye Angela Gennaro a battered wife while her partner and sometimes lover, Patrick Kenzie, is haunted by his abused childhood, but these experiences remained back stories. Larsson however in The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Swedish title, The Air Castle That Blew Up) virtually created one long novel about Salander’s past.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, the book, has almost as many plots and sub-plots as a Dickens novel. It begins with two young journalists approaching Blomkvist with an expose of the sex trafficking industry. Meanwhile Bjurman, the guardian Salander humiliated in Dragon Tattoo, plans his revenge. Then the journalists and Bjurman are murdered and all the evidence points to Salander. Blomkvist attempts to clear his friend as the press is fed a series of stories describing her as a sado-masochistic satanist. Then the book turns into a police procedural, following every detail of the investigation while Salander uses her computer hacking skills to track down her hidden enemy.

Faced with enough material for at least three movies, screenwriter Jonas Frykberg follows David O. Selznick’s dictum of selecting the best passages from the original work, recreates them exactly and cuts the rest. Wisely he omits most of the police investigation, which becomes rather repetitive in the novel, and stays with the main plot. Daniel Alfredson directs in a fast-paced style that makes the most of the book’s superbly described action scenes. One of these features real-life boxer Paolo Roberto. He had been written into the novel by Larsson even though Roberto had never met the writer and didn’t find out he was in the book until a few days before it was published. Naturally he was asked to play himself in the movie. An accomplished sports commentator on Swedish television, Roberto gives a fine performance and seems to have staged his character’s brutal fight with Micke Spreitz’s gigantic villain himself.

Equally impressive is the sequence where Salander beats up two repulsive bikies and rides off delightedly on one of their motorcycles. However, the director rushes the scene where Salander visits her former guardian Palmgren in hospital, where he is recovering from a stroke. It is one of the most moving passages in the novel and needed to be explored further. Nevertheless Per Oscarsson is splendid as Palmgren, and Rapace clearly relished playing a major scene with one of Sweden’s greatest actors. Alfredson handles the gothic horror of the final confrontation between Salander and her enemies with commendable restraint. It remains powerful but is never excessive. 

Not quite as complex as Dragon Tattoo, or as visually distinguished, this second film expands on the violence-against-women theme while further exploring Salander’s character. A brutal scene with a girl virtually raped while tied to a bed tells us all we need to know about the degradation of the trafficking the reporters are trying to expose, while a well-played encounter between Blomkvist and a corrupt policeman deftly portrays something of the official corruption. In Dragon Tattoo Salander played a vital but subsidiary role, but The Girl Who Played with Fire becomes her story and Rapace rises to the challenge, effortlessly dominating the film, embodying rather than playing the character.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the book, is even more convoluted than its predecessor. Not only is it a spy story but also a courtroom drama, with Salander on trial for attempted murder. Then there is a major sub-plot in which Blomkvist’s business partner, Erika Berger, becomes managing editor of a male-dominated newspaper where she is repeatedly thwarted and stalked. And then there are the assassination attempts—horribly familiar to Swedish readers after the murders of Prime Minister Olaf Palme, gunned down in the street in 1986, and foreign minister Anna Lindh, stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store in 2003, as well as the neo-Nazi plot to murder Stieg Larsson himself. (There is speculation that the novelist’s death at fifty, two months before the first book appeared, was also murder, even though friends and associates point to Larsson’s punishing work schedule and liking for junk food as the cause of his demise.)

Faced with this sprawling novel—the longest in the series at 650-plus pages—screenwriters Jonas Frykberg and Ulf Ryberg clearly decided on drastic surgery. Banished was the newspaper story. Instead they transform the stalking into a plot by a secret intelligence section to pressure Berger and Blomkvist not to publish their expose of the official conspiracy against Salander, then build up the eavesdropping and counter-eavesdropping. Finally they raise the tension in the trial by having key evidence ruled inadmissible with of course the material from the chief villain’s computer that clears Salander arriving at the last minute—old devices but they nearly always work. Daniel Alfredson and cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski respond to this by shooting the film as a full-blooded film noir with shadowed corridors, light spilling from standing lamps, rain-washed streets—all the visual motifs familiar to us from 1940s thrillers. Particularly fine is the menacing atmosphere of the climactic court scenes, the characters surrounded by shadows, the quietly spoken arguments between Annika Hallin’s efficient defence counsel, Niklas Hjulstrom’s arrogant prosecutor and Anders Ahlbom’s slimy psychiatrist becoming increasingly deadly and ultimately dramatically satisfying.

There is a stillness about Noomi Rapace’s performance as Salander here that we haven’t seen before. Alfredson seems to have decided to give her the camera and let her identification with the character and considerable screen presence do the rest. She is certainly helped by the spectacular punk outfit the designers gave her for the trial scenes. (This is based on the book, where Salander defiantly wears a mini-skirt and a T-shirt inscribed with “I am annoyed”.) The action sequences are splendidly staged, and if Salander’s confrontation in an abandoned factory with the final villain is a little conventional, Rapace does seem to be doing most of her own stunts and the scene has a delightfully subversive payoff.

All these films are remarkably true to the themes and characters of Larsson’s books. In the best sense the powerful visuals of the movie versions complement the originals. Like the books, they portray a world where corrupt officials tolerate monstrous abuses supposedly in the national interest, and misogynistic men prey on vulnerable women. Sadly, it is a world we can all recognise, but unlike the despairing British noir of the 1980s these books and films embody a belief that determined men and women can find their own justice. This is why Blomkvist and Salander are already so popular. Like his creator he is a crusading journalist who will stop at nothing to get at the truth. She is a victim who fights back and wins. Not a bad pair of pop heroes for the twenty-first century.

After Stieg Larsson died, the immense fortune he later was to earn went to his father and brother, leaving his partner of thirty years, Eva Gabrielsson, with no legal claim. However, she does have a hard drive with half the next Salander novel and perhaps the outlines for another two. She is reported to be an excellent writer and was Larsson’s sounding board for the entire Millennium trilogy. If there are to be any new Salander novels and films it seems it is going to be up to her.