Now, where were we …
Let’s Talk About Sex:
In the book, Blomkvist is an absent parent with one teenage daughter. His ex-wife is barely dealt with, and while he’s a ladies man his ongoing (20 year +) relationship with close friend and business partner Berger (who is herself married, but enjoys an open relationship) is mostly to blame for his divorce. His relationship with Berger does not stop; in fact the two collude together to help save the magazine by pretending to push Blomkvist out while he gets his house in order. While he stays and investigates the Vagner family, Berger arrives on the estate, having been actively negotiating with Vagner about entering into a partnership without Blomkvist’s knowledge because she knows it is necessary. Berger, from the very beginning, is portrayed as the brains behind Millennium, while Blomkvist is the magazine’s journalistic heart. They are equal partners, but their roles are very different.
While on the island investigating, Blomkvist early on is seduced by Cecelia, one of the Vagner clan. They carry on an affair for a good third of book before Cecelia retreats for reasons of her own. Readers, of course, will wonder about whether Cecelia is doing this to distract Blomkvist, one of the many considerations that even Blomkvist himself considers.
When Lisbeth arrives, she finds Blomkvist to be the one adult in her life that doesn’t push her for more than she is willing to give and, because of her in-depth investigations into Blomkvist for Vagner beforehand, Lisbeth knows that he is a good man that was set up. As they work together, she lets down a few of her walls and enters into a sexual relationship with Blomkvist on her own terms, as she has with others both before and after her guardian’s attack. Blomkvist, fascinated with her, does not stop her.
In the movies, Blomkvist’s sexual experiences is minimized or outright negated while Lisbeth’s is played straight, even given a boost.
Blomkvist’s wife and teenage daughter are removed in the Swedish adaptation, even though the daughter makes a key discovery for her father by accident later in the book. (Lisbeth does this ham-fistedly in the Swedish movie instead.) There is no explicit relationship between Blomkvist and Berger, either, and the movie also implies that he is the sole custodian of the magazine. Berger follows him around the office looking heartbroken but useless as Blomkvist tells her what he’s decided to and about the press release he has written. Berger plays no significant role for the rest of the film. Cecelia appears only a few times, primarily to wear a striking pendant that Blomkvist remembers Harriet wearing when he was a boy on the island, a contrivance that does not appear in the book. They have no sexual relationship at all. He is sexually available; his inevitable relationship with Lisbeth is without prior commitments.
The American version is once again closer to the books, though not exact. The ex-wife is present, the teenage daughter is there to help with the clues. His relationship with Berger is present and her role mirrors her role in the books — intelligent, shrewd, loyal to Blomkvist, still focused on making sure the magazine survives. She still has a husband; their complicated relationship remains intact. However, Cecelia’s seduction and relationship with Blomkvist is once again cut. In the case, I’m willing to think that the reason is to condense the story, but in truth, this cut makes Blomkvist ‘available’, since Berger is technically married. Were they worried that women in the audience would think Blomkvist more opportunistic and less desirable if all three relationships existed? I don’t know.
Nothing is held back in Lisbeth’s story. In the Swedish version they accelerate the storyline with the abusive guardian. The rape scenes in both movies are explicit, as they were in the books, but then so are the scenes where she exacts her revenge. In the book and Swedish version, the guardian is not only a rapist but a sadist; in the US version they drop the sadism angle. Again, curious.
One interesting choice that both movies made was regarding Lisbeth’s sleeping partner the night before Blomkvist comes to pay her a visit and ask for her help. In the book, it’s clear that the woman Lisbeth spends the night with is a fuck-buddy and friend, part of her social circle, someone she trusts. The woman is gone the morning when Lisbeth wakes up with Blomkvist at her door, asking for help. In the movies, however, they make it look like she is picking up a random person at a bar, and the woman is still there in the morning when Blomkvist arrives. We get a kiss goodbye, which of course makes it into the US trailer. For a pair of movies that have removed the relationships of the male protagonist, ones that take up a lot more room in the books and are more important to the character’s journey, the filmmakers apparently really wanted to get some girl-on-girl action for Lisbeth, even though her having had sex the night before Blomkvist arrives could be removed entirely without it affecting the movie one iota of either movie’s plot.
The sex between our heroes takes place in about the same manner. In the books it is mostly off stage; in both movies the sequences last a minute or two. The timing of the sex is jumbled in the US version; she seduces him the evening right after he was shot and she sews up his injuries. The next morning, she is awake early and has made his breakfast, a strangely nurturing turn for the aloof Lisbeth. In the book, the only thing she says is that they are out of milk, which she offers to get.
I can’t speak for other viewers, but I found the sexual relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth in the Swedish version more skeevy than the one in the American version, mostly because we as viewers haven’t seen the same sort of build up, from both viewpoint characters, in the novel or in the American movie.
I definitely preferred the American version to the Swedish film, but above all I preferred the book. A book is usually going to be better, simply because it has the space to tell a more complicated, nuanced story from inside the characters point of view.
As an example of editing a story, choosing the best way to tell it? The Swedish one falls flat, but at least stands as an excellent example of what not to do. The center of the story is the mystery, a delicate thing, something you can’t shake too hard. Be thorough and consistent and logical. And when you cut stuff, make it a clean cut. One particular photo is a prominent clue in the novel, relating back to the blonde/brunette angle and Cecelia’s subplot, should have been therefore been removed completely from both films. Instead, it’s still there, tonally off and of no real significance — not even useful as a red herring.
And if you have to add stuff, do it like they did with Bobby Fisher biography! Don’t, if you can help it, invent something whole cloth. The Swedish film took a single line in the book, that Blomkvist had visited the island as a child one summer before Harriet’s disappearance, a visit he does not remember and has no information vital to the case, and turned it into a series of clumsy flashbacks in the film to patch their broken plot.
Above all, be conscious, too, that the changes you make alter the themes of your story. This is also another unfair comparison, apples to ray guns, because it’s not Larsson that’s making these choices but a host of other people with competing interests who have a hand in both movies. I came away from both films feeling that they had missed Larsson’s point about sexual violence, the worth of women in their society, and how easily women could be erased. The characters, too, suffer. Berger’s role is so diminished they could have cut her completely in the Swedish film, but at least retains most of herself in the American movie. Lisbeth is unquestionably stronger in the book, too, never conferring with or expecting approval from Blomkvist on any matter. Blomkvist, meanwhile, is somewhat neutered in the films, both by removing or minimizing his sexual history and by gentling his capture and removing the threat of rape by the killer.
Maybe that’s the failing of this comparison – these are adaptations, not a single work handled by a single author or creative team. The one who takes the source material and adapts it brings their own taste and biases, both acknowledged or internalized, to the work. I think the changes that were made for both movies beg questioning, as they skew Larsson’s work to varying degrees.
But then, as storytellers, that’s what we’re supposed to do, too, right? Show the reader what we want them to see, to skew them one way or the other, to make them see the story we want them to see. This can be done skillfully, or clumsily, but at least we can learn to do it better.
Whew! After all that, I can say that I am so very much looking forward to The Girl Who Played With Fire (already added to the TBR shelf) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I will skip the movies. They mostly miss the point of Larsson’s work. But an education they were.