I picked up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on a whim a while back and started reading it last week. I was quickly, thoroughly, hooked, and spent this past Saturday binge-reading it until I was finished.
The book is the first of a trilogy, published posthumously. Swedish journalist, Steig Larsson, had three unpublished manuscripts and further drafts at the time of his death in 2004. The books went on to be a sensation, both at home and globally. The books that comprise the series take elements of his life and loves — his history in journalism and photography, his work with other organizations against fair right extremists and his love of mystery novels — and fuse them into a forceful, compelling read. I’ll be reading the second and third books as soon as I can get my hands on them.
The books were adapted to film, first in his native Sweden, and then later by a US production company. And I thought, this will be educational. You can’t just film a book. There will invariably be changes that have to be made to account for the different medium and the restricted length. And while movies are not books and vice versa, we have essentially the same story at its core — three different takes demonstrating how a writer might choose to best tell the story. I watched both adaptations in the same weekend that I finished the novel, and took notes. So many notes.
It will be hard not to talk about spoilers as I do this. Forgive me. They will be limited to the first book and the first movie adaptations. (And I’ll try to keep the whodunit out altogether.)
Larsson puts his life experience to good use here as he tasks Blomkvist, a journalist who has recently been successfully tried for libel and who faces losing his magazine company as well as three months of his life behind bars, with trying to find out what happened to a 16-year-old girl that went missing in 1966. It is a locked-room puzzle, as the book notes, the disappearance taking place on an island populated by the girl’s well-to-do industrialist family, one with ties to Nazism back in the 40s. Blomkvist is lured by money and the promise of revenge on the financier who prosecuted him. He sees it as the only way of saving the magazine, and so takes up the post. He is ostensibly there to write the memorial of the head of the Vagner clan, but in truth he’s there to discover what happened to the girl before Vagner dies.
He is joined by Lisbeth, a 24-year-old hacker and marginalized girl under the thumb and threat of the Swedish guardianship system. She is troubled, intensely private and distrustful. In the books we have hints of her past, of why she is the way she is, likely to be further revealed in later books. Before she is officially involved with Blomkvist’s research, she must deal with a new state-appointed guardian who is intent on using his privileged position to coerce her into sex. She ends up videotaping the second assault, and secures her freedom (for now). With her photographic memory, her innate computer skills, and tireless fury, she is vital in helping Blomkvist crack the code not only of the missing girl but of a series of serial rapes and murders that have gone unsolved and unconnected for sixty years. And saves Blomkvist’s life, too. The two form a strong bond, but one that the reader is left unsure about by the time the novel ends.
Here are the trailers for the Swedish 2009 version and the US 2011 version of the first book. Also, because it amuses me, here’s the opening sequence of the 2011 movie. Trippy, eh? Very Bond-esque, and I wonder if that’s a result of casting Daniel Craig as Blomkvist. Both of these trailers are dark, gritty, the sort that tries to get your adrenaline pumping, your heart beating faster. And they mostly succeed.
Problem is, 75% of the action of the book is research — and I say that in the good way. Somewhere in the DVD commentary for the buddy-cop comedy Hot Fuzz, the creators mention how much positive feedback they got from actual police officers for including a paperwork montage in the movie. Paperwork, unglamorous as it is, takes up a good chuck of the day-to-day life of real police officers, but movies never show it. Solving a real mystery, like the one offered up in TGWTDT that takes place forty years earlier, will not be all about getting shot, chasing after people on a motorcycle, setting things on fire, getting strung up in a torture chamber — no matter what the movie trailers suggest. Yes, those things do happen, but only after lots of leg work. The bulk of the activity will be combing through archives, interviewing still-living witnesses, profiling the victim and the victim’s family, understanding the chain of events, and searching and following up on new leads.
And none of it is boring. In the best tradition of mystery novels, you go through the investigation process with Blomkvist and Lisbeth, solving the case alongside them. Except for Lisbeth having to deal with the abusive legal guardian, the threats of violence against our heroes as a result of their investigation don’t start until the last quarter of the book. By then you and Blomkvist and Lisbeth have nearly figured it out, and so has the villain.
Beyond that, the book is not just about the mystery of the missing girl. It speaks of Sweden’s simmering racism, of failing and corrupt journalistic standards that allow corporations to operate unchecked, and the near-invisible plight of women in a society that turns a blind eye to abuse, violence and death.
So, how do the movies stand up to the book? What changes were made in the adaptations? I’ll tackle those questions in my next post.