Stieg Larssen's novel "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (first published in Sweden in 2005, with the American edition following in 2008) is a fantastic read, well worth the attention spent on the multiple hundreds of pages of business espionage, intricate family history, computer intrigue and cold case mysteries that make up its story. Director Niels Arden Oplev's two-and-a-half-hour film adaptation manages to be simultaneously faithful to the content of the book and deeply, deeply problematic.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has been convicted of libel charges against a prominent-but-shady titan of industry (the most scoundrelicious kind!) only to be hired by a prominent-but-upstanding titan of industry Henrik Vanger to investigate the forty-year-old murder of his niece. Initially hired to investigate Blomkvist prior to his engagement with Vanger, hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander becomes fascinated with the research she uncovers in Blomkvist's computer and the two team up to unravel what begins to look like a decades-long series of ritualized killings.
I am by no means the "ZOMG MOVIES CAN NEVER MATCH BOOKS" dude when it comes to translating page to screen. I was the first of my group of pals to brave Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" and deemed it to be "awesome" when everyone else was predicting elf-flavored fantasy disaster. However, when the key source of tension in a story is derived from internal monologues and people looking up information on computers or in libraries, there are a lot of ways for a cinema adaptation to fall flat. Add in the fact that every storyline in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" involves the hideous abuse of women and a filmmaker has a very thorny path to navigate.
As is my habit, I'll address The Good Stuff first. For a movie that involves long stretches of characters researching stuff on computers and in libraries, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" isn't nearly as boring as it could be. There's a genuine sense of tension as Blomkvist pieces together grainy photos and unearths dusty documents. Any sacrifices of intricacy from the book aren't glaringly apparent, and are entirely excusable given the nature of the movie's run-time.
Noomi Rapace's portrayal of Lisbeth Salander is so pitch-perfect that I could swoon (I may, in fact, have swooned watching her on the big screen). Her character is deeply troubled and introverted, and could have come across as needlessly bitchy in the hands of a less skilled actress. Rapace conveys the sense of strength and pride that made Salander's character crackle in the novel. There are long stretches of text devoted to what's going on inside Salander's head in the book that make it a little easier to understand why she takes certain courses of action that seem a little--dare I say it--stupid on screen.
Which brings me to the bad. The original Swedish title of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is "Men Who Hate Women," a title that really reflects the spirit and content of the movie. While the abuse suffered by Salander exists in both the novel and on-screen, there's a savagery to what she endures that's stomach-turning when put into visual form. Her voice is present in the book, as the reader begins to understand why she reacts to situations the way she does, but on-screen, she's made into a victim--a victim who gets suitably brutal revenge, but that doesn't erase her victimhood. In the novel, Salander's suffering sets up a chain of escalating suffering on the part of other women in the story, but the personalization of this violence on film makes what happens to her feel worse than the comfortably-distanced-by-time murders that are later revealed. Perhaps Salander's character, with her emotional volatility and extreme appearance, is Other enough for audiences not to resonate with her. I'm honestly a little surprised that more people don't react more strongly to this thread of storyline.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" allows its audience to be horrified by violence against women at the same time as it revels in the sexualized depiction of violence against women. The scenes of personalized violence against Salander sat sour with me and, while they do exist in the book, ultimately made the film adaptation uncomfortable to watch.
All this makes me wonder how "Fight Club"/"Se7en"'s David Fincher (a director not known for putting women front-and-center in his films) will handle the material.
Ah well--we'll always have the book, won't we?