Monday, January 2, 2012

Film Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I am one of the approximately dozen Americans who has not read either this novel or its sequels. Thanks to my in-laws babysitting for us, I have see the film, and Lauren and I both quite enjoyed it. (Wrote this review back in 2011).

I haven't read the novel, but something about this film gave me the distinct impression that it's awfully hard to transpose a mystery novel to the big screen. I read a writer once who claimed that a film is about a 120-page novel--meaning that anything longer than that had to be edited down. Certainly, we're all familiar with that tendency to pare a novel down to the bone to get it to a reasonable film length. The problem in the context of a mystery is that mysteries thrive when we have a slew of characters all with plausible motives for the murder in question and at the same time we have more than enough information to find the killer (which is to say, we have evidence of the actual killer and red herrings that lead us to suspect others). In a novel, a writer has a lot of space to do that; in a film, not so much. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, although we had a large enough cast of potential killers, it didn't seem like we ever saw enough of any of them--or their possible motivations--to have any idea which of them did it, much less why or how. And that takes away some of the pleasure of a good mystery. I have a suspicion that the best film mysteries are the ones that were written for the screen in the first place, because they are written to fit the form. In adapting a novel, there are so many other things to do, as the writers decide what to keep and what to lose, how to balance the needs of the fans of the book with the needs of the film-only audience.

From the standpoint of writing a film mystery, it doesn't help to develop the characters as much as they were here, but of course, that's also one of the compensations we get--the fact that our characters have a real sense of depth to them, which takes time to develop (and I suspect that this, too, may have been short-changed from the book to the movie, because such things almost always are, but it was here).

Another thing really helped: the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The did a fantastic job of building tension through the notes they played--and the ones they didn't. As Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) are putting together the pieces of the mystery, the score is ratcheting up the tension, and then in the following scenes, as the stakes are getting higher and higher, there's no music. It isn't needed. They've already done their job, putting us on edge, and now the action can speak for itself. Masterfully done, and that's just a representative example.

Okay, from here on out, be prepared for all sorts of spoilers.

My initial reaction to both the fact of and the speed of the sexual relationship between Mikael and Salander was disbelief. After being violated by lawyer Nils Bjurman (spot-on creepiness by Yorick van Wageningen), I was surprised that she would want to have a sexual relationship with any man... but then, we have seen her jump quickly into a casual hookup with another woman, and in both cases a key component of the encounter seems to be the fact that she is the initiator, she is the one who sets the terms. Similarly, it seemed to me a signal of how troubled she is, that she jumps into what Mikael acknowledges to be "probably a bad idea." And, at the same time, it's telling that she so clearly misreads the situation. When it ends badly for her by the end, it shouldn't have been a surprise: although he's a decent man in so many of the essentials, several facts are incontrovertible: he cheated on his wife to start this relationship with his co-editor, and has still had an on-going relationship with her when he went north to investigate. It's not surprising that he would be willing to have sex with another woman, nor is it surprising that he might do so casually. Recall that we're told his wife left him as a result of the affair--not the other way around. He's a cheater, but not necessarily a leaver.

In a number of ways, the story explores the theme of vengeance. We have Lisbeth taking vengeance on Bjurman; Blomkvist seeks vengeance on Wennerström (and, in a sense, so does Henrik, though his primary interest is in vengeance against whoever killed Harriet. We the audience are tacitly pulled into this, too, because while Lisbeth may make us squirm as she tortures and forces Bjurman to act for her, I suspect that most of us also continue to feel a measure of sympathy for her; we like her even though she's the kind of person who could, rather coldly, extract the full measure of vengeance. And isn't this because we can't help but feel like that bastard Bjurman is, in some essential respect, merely getting what he deserves? He is a horror, particularly as he combines the indifferent cruelty of the bureaucrat with the personal cruelty of the rapist and abuser. But doesn't our culture generally tell us that the right thing to do with such people is to let the proper authorities deal with justice rather than "stooping" to vigilante vengeance? Yet when Lisbeth does it, we the audience tend to want to cheer her on--or at least forgive her entirely. When she later approaches the trapped Martin, we know that she has asked--and received--permission from Mikael to kill him, and we have little doubt that she will do it, probably with no qualms. Fate intervenes and the car blows up, saving her from legal culpability and a moral dilemma which we have to doubt would have been any dilemma for her at all. None of this, though, has caused us to turn against her though, has it? For all that, we're meant to feel sympathy for her at the end when Mikael implicitly rejects her by returning to Berger, and I suspect we do. What does that say about us?

Anyway, I'm rambling. Ultimately, this was a film that we enjoyed watching and that stuck with us after we left the theater. It was also enough to convince me that I should read these novels.

1 comment:

  1. I admit I had to skim quickly past most of this entry because I've neither read the books nor seen the film. :)