(In theaters, December 2011) Trying to review this film on its own is impossible given how recently I have read the Stieg Larsson book and seen the Swedish film adaptation. It also doesn’t help that the American version seems so intent on faithfully adapting the book and taking its cues from the previous film: There’s no denying that the American version is good, but it’s so similar that the tendency is to focus on the areas of difference. (Amazingly enough, through, the American version is 100% as Swedish as it’s ever been, taking place in Sweden with Swedish characters to the point of having the actors play with slight Swedish accents.) Budget certainly makes a difference: Where the Swedish version had a scene at Millennium magazine with half a dozen staffers, the American version has the feel of a working magazine office. Where the Swedish version held its outdoors scenes to a minimum, the American version indulges in scene-setting. But don’t assume that all the edges have been filed away in an attempt to be audience-friendly: There is a least as much crude violence here, and perhaps a bit more nudity. The bleak coda of the book has been kept over the Swedish film’s more hopeful finale, even as an expensive side-trip during the Swedish conclusion has been pared back for the American one. Director David Fincher is a smart filmmaker, but even his talent and experience doesn’t seem to add all that much to this adaptation when compared to the Swedish one. At least, there’s no arguing about the main casting is correct: Daniel Craig makes for a good Mikael Blomvkist, whereas Mara Rooney is almost as good as Noomi Rapace as Lizbeth Salander. While the end result has a few flaws in pacing, most of them can be attributed to the book itself rather than any special flaw in the adaptation (which does dispense with some extraneous material, such as the carnal relationship between Blomvkist and one of the Vengers) The main question about the film isn’t as much “Is it good?” as “Why does it exist?” The Swedish version was good, but the American version isn’t that much better to justify having a director like David Fincher work-for-hire on it. At some point; why bother? Still, it may be best to focus on the idea that, for once, the American version is just as respectable as its foreign counterpart. Small comfort, but we might as well take what we get.
Viking Canada, 2009 translation of 2007 original, 563 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06903-3
The story surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is often as interesting as the trilogy itself: Larsson, a left-wing Swedish journalist known for his anti-fascism investigations, turned to fiction writing late in life and delivered the first three books of a series before dying of a heart attack. The books became a sensation throughout the world, finally landing in North America in 2009-2010 alongside their own movie adaptations. While rumours abound that a fourth semi-finished manuscript exists, it does so on a computer belonging to Larsson’s long-time partner, who is now locked in a legal battle with the rest of Larsson’s family for a piece of the author’s estate.
This has little relation to what a review of the third volume of the trilogy should be talking about, except for the open-ended question of whether this is truly the final volume of Mikael Blomvkist and Lizbeth Salander’s adventures. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up moments after the events of the second volume, as a badly wounded Salander is airlifted to one of Sweden’s best hospitals. Drama follows when her equally-wounded father/enemy ends up in a room not too far away. If the previous volume The Girl Who Played with Fire was about revenge, this one is about the consequences of going after one’s enemy with an axe, as the question of whether the Swedish state considers Salander capable of acting on her own comes back to the forefront. It doesn’t help that she has earned the attention of a powerful faction within Sweden’s own secret services, and that they won’t stop at anything to eliminate the threat…
Readers who have made it this far in Larsson’s series will be pleased to note that this third volume delivers everything they’ve come to expect from him: A lavishly detailed procedural novel written from an activist point of view, criticizing the underbelly of the Swedish Social-Democratic model –particularly the way it treats women. Blomvkist once again feels like a Gary-Sue idealized representation of the author (he manages to seduce another female character without doing much more than showing up), and even gets an action scene of his own. Salander is up to her usual tricks, except for having forgotten her Fermat Theorem Proof in the aftermath of surviving a bullet in the head. (It’s amusing how insane this sounds once summarized from Larsson’s multi-page explanations.) It all leads to courtroom drama, and a conclusion that not only provides a happy ending for Salander, but obliterates all of her enemies. Given the black-and-while nature of the series so far, few will be surprised when it’s revealed that people who oppose her are all violent, stupid, and/or guilty of horrible other offenses.
The conclusion is curiously satisfying when it shows the Swedish state activating its own self-policing mechanism: the conspiracy is taken down by the proper authorities, and not through some American-style idealized personal vendetta. It’s one of the challenges of left-leaning writers to portray an effective and compassionate state when the unspoken rule of thrillers is that official corruption always runs deep: Larsson manages quite a deft success in portraying how even the heroes can benefit from some official help.
Fans of the films will note once again note how much more material is in the book, from a top-level meeting for Blomvkist to an entire subplot taking place at another newspaper. But that amount of new material also betrays Larsson’s biggest problem: An inability to tell a story efficiently. There is no need, for instance, to begin the book by spending two pages describing how an American neurosurgeon is asked to assist in Salander’s brain surgery. At times, the book feels like a lengthy third act to a story that could have been published as a single volume. It’s exasperating, and the amount of stuff never shown and never missed in the leisurely-paced films adaptations suggests how much fluff there is in the series.
Alas, we’ll never know for sure if Larsson would have written the other planned volumes in his series in a more economical fashion. It’s ludicrous to believe that this will remain the final Millennium volume: At a time where napkin premises from long-deceased Robert Ludlum are being expanded in entire trilogies written by other authors, there will be other adventures for Blomvkist and Salander. They may even be based on Larsson’s actual notes. But they won’t have the surprise kick that propelled them to such popular attention.
Considering that Larsson’s books were reportedly the first translated novels to hit the top of the English market’s best-selling list, it’s not as if he has anything left to prove, even posthumously.
(On DVD, August 2010) This third and (presumably) last entry in the Millennium trilogy is best appreciated by fans of the lead characters: Picking up moments after the events of the second film, the narrative depends almost entirely on character quirks, plot follow-ups and existing tensions established during the second movie. It’s not quite as slow to begin this time around, but it’s just as “carefully paced” (which quickly becomes “long and repetitive” if you’re not a fan) as the two previous films in the series, something which, in turn, can be traced back to Stieg Larsson’s procedural novels serving as source material. For fans of the series, though, this marks an effective entry in the series as prickly protagonist Lisbeth Salander goes up against powerful renegade groups within the Swedish state’s security establishment while undergoing a trial that will determine her independence. No fear, though: Sweet justice is measured onto those who deserve it, and Mikael Blomkvist even gets a chance to fight back in an action scene of his own. The film itself in directed unspectacularly, which isn’t as disappointing as you may think given how it allows the actors, particularly Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist, to underplay their roles in typical Scandinavian fashion. There’s even an interesting moral point made at the end, as a competent democratic government takes care of its renegade elements without any typical American-style cynicism or overblown violence. For a series cut down abruptly by the author’s untimely death, this third volume ends on a satisfying note that allow viewers to let go and imagine Blomkvist and Salander’s next adventures without anxiety. Reflecting upon the entire trilogy, there’s no doubt that the first volume is quite a bit better, more unusual and more rewarding than the last two. Still, it’s not a bad series, and the sheer magnetic power of Rapace as Salander makes it a recommendation. Who knows what the Americans will do with their remake? DVD-wise, the R1-Quebec release regrettably has no extra features whatsoever.
(In theaters, July 2010) Fans of Stieg Larsson’s massively successful trilogy will be reassured to find that the second film adaption from his novels is almost as good as the first one. “Almost” because a bit of the originality of seeing two unusual characters fighting crime in modern Sweden has faded a bit. But what The Girl Who Played with Fire has over its prequel is character familiarity, and much of the pleasure of this second entry is in seeing past plot threads being weaved into a complex thriller. Millennium 2 is slightly more traditional in form than the first film (one character is framed for murder and must fight to find the true murderer, helped along by the other protagonist), but don’t presume that it’s all back to formula: The structure of the film is cleverly manipulated (even modified from the original novel) so that the two lead character only meet at the very end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, while the mid-film car chase and fight sequence are amusingly delegated to secondary characters. Screenwriters should study the choices made in bringing the novel to screen, because an amazing amount of careful streamlining took place to fit the novel’s procedural excess into barely more than two hours’ worth of film: It’s no accident if much of the novel’s first half is abstracted. Many of the pacing issues of the first film also carry over, although the lengthy coda of Millennium 1 is here truncated into an abrupt ending that leads viewers straight to the third film. But plot aside, this is still Noomi Rapace’s show as the longer-haired but no less mesmerizing Lisbeth Salander; Michael Nyqvist is reassuring as the boy-scout journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but it’s Salander who’s the compelling core of the story and its protagonist. It’s a solid film, maybe a bit too slow although surprisingly nimble compared to the original book. Fortunately, viewers won’t have to wait a long time before the third film comes out.
Viking Canada, 2009 translation of 2006 original, 503 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06902-6
Second instalment in the massively popular Millennium trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers, The Girl Who Played with Fire continues the adventures of Larsson’s duo of righteous avengers by following up threads left open in the first volume in the context of a new mystery. It’s a different type of story, and it leads straight to the final book in the trilogy.
It picks up nearly a year after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as Lisbeth Salander comes back to Stockholm after some time spent travelling around the world. This set up a chain of events that eventually send Salander on the run, suspected of three murders –including that of her sadistic guardian so memorably neutralized in the first volume of the trilogy. Meanwhile, boy-scout journalist Mikael Blomkvist isn’t too far away from the story, as one of the victims was working for his Millennium magazine in exposing a prostitution network. The strange collaboration between Salander and Blomkvist resumes anew as the stakes are raised ever higher for Salander.
Much of the same strengths that made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an enjoyable introduction to the series are in full display here: The intricate procedural detail; the left-leaning look at modern Sweden society in all its flaws; the indignation at violence against women; the intensely genre-aware character-motivated plotting and (certainly not least) the two lead protagonists themselves. Salander, newly refurbished and rich beyond belief, is still considered a crackpot by Swedish society at large, and The Girl Who Played with Fire goes much deeper in her personal history than anyone would expect. This is her big novel in terms of back-story, and it cleanly illuminates a number of the character traits established in the first volume: why she’s so asocial, brilliant and driven. Meanwhile, Blomkvist holds steady as a gifted editor/journalist, though he gets little more to do here than piece together the whole story and race ineffectually on Salander’s trail.
That The Girl Who Played with Fire is Salander’s story is most directly reflected in its tone. After a lengthy procedural first half, the novel gradually transforms itself in a revenge thriller, and the ending is nothing short of brutal for everyone involved. While there is a mystery to solve, this second volume is more forward-moving than the first: it’s a thriller more than a mystery, and despite the Cold War flashbacks, we don’t go digging quite as deep in Swedish history.
The price to pay for this story, unfortunately, the amount of sometimes-ridiculous procedural detail that Larsson crams into his novel. This reaches an apex of sorts as we follow Salander during a page-long trip at IKEA: We get not only the specific models of what she buys, but a total of what it cost. For all of the fuzzy warm feeling that readers may get in realizing that they’re reading the novel on the very same Poäng armchair that Salander has in her apartment, there’s a point where it’s possible to wonder How much of this is really necessary? The novel goes far beyond Salander and Blomkvist as viewpoint characters, involving an entire cast of protagonists, antagonists, friends, police and helpful bystanders. The thriller plot itself barely begins before the first half of the book is over, and only starts cooking in the last quarter. If nothing else, reading the novel will affirm how skilful the movie adaptation was in keeping the truly essential elements of the story.
Still, seasoned thriller readers will find a number of interesting elements to savour. The often-corrupt Swedish setting is just as interesting, whereas Larsson’s tweaks to the usual thriller plot templates can keep things interesting: Both heroes are kept physically apart until the very last moments of the novel, and two of the book’s big action moments go to secondary characters rather than the lead protagonists. (In a note that will go unnoticed by most North-American readers, Larsson even gives a significant heroic role to real-life boxer Paolo Roberto, resulting in one of the best real-life cameo in any novel, ever.)
Readers with sufficient patience and attention span to last through the often-lengthy but usually delicious exposition will only be pleased by this successful second volume. But anyone with even the slightest interest in reading more about those two characters should keep the third volume close by, since the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire leads directly to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
(In theatres, May 2010) Already a monster hit everywhere in the first world, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy is slowly conquering the American market, the belated release of this first movie preparing the terrain for the release of the third volume in translation, and maybe even an Americanized version of the films. It’s no fair betting that the eventual remake will be a lot less distinctive than the Swedish original, which does quite a few things differently from what we’d expect. For one thing, it starts slowly. Really, really slowly: While the mystery is suggested early on, there isn’t much of an investigation for the first hour of the film, and its main characters are kept apart for a long while. The film later moves very leisurely, and takes forever to wrap up after the action climax of the story. But those who have read the original novel know that it’s even worse at pacing than the film. Fortunately, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo places so much emphasis on its characters that the plot doesn’t reign supreme: Instead, we can be fascinated by the odd pairing of a pudgy reporter (Mikael Blomkvist, appropriately underplayed by Michael Nyqvist) and a prickly hacker (Lisbeth Salander, incarnated definitively by Noomi Rapace) in unravelling a decades-old mystery by the slenderest of threads. The thematic underpinning of the story is all about violence against women (the original title translates at “Millennium: Part 1 – Men Who Hate Women”), and the film finely upholds the original’s progressive political outlook. The Swedish setting only adds to the interest of the picture, as we get to see the character dig through decades of local history and travel throughout Sweden. It all adds up to a crime thriller that works in unusual ways, taking advantage of strong characters to paper over a weak structure and inconsistent pacing. It all adds up to a fascinating thriller, and one that flows quite a bit better than its 158-minutes running time and slow pacing would suggest. Bring on the sequels!
Viking Canada, 2008 translation of 2005 original, 465 pages, C$32.00, ISBN 978-0-670-06901-9
As an avid six-books-a-week reader, I’m finding increasingly difficult to resist the allure of the It Book. You know the one: The book at the top of the best-seller lists. The book that everyone else, casual five-books-a-year readers that they are, can’t stop talking about. That’s how my bookshelves have somehow acquired copies of The Da Vinci Code, The Celestine Prophecy and even The Secret, along with a number of otherwise respectable books in movie tie-in editions.
So when I realised that nearly everyone around me was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, I started thinking that I was missing out on something. The series certainly has a fascinating background: The work of a left-leaning Swedish journalist who died in 2005, the Millennium trilogy was published posthumously to near-instant international acclaim. A trilogy of movies speedily made their way around the world, first landing in Canada in French translation about two years before the English editions. By the time the first movie hit theatres in English and the third novel was published to good sale numbers, I decided to catch up on what had everyone raving.
It turns out that contrary to elitist belief, quality and sales sometimes have something to do with each other. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, first volume in Larsson’s trilogy, is a pretty good mystery set in modern-day Sweden. It presents an effective enigma, two fantastic lead characters and is written with the kind of attention to procedural detail that only mystery readers can fully appreciate.
It starts unusually enough, as its hero-journalist Mikael Blomvkist is convicted of libel against a rich industrialist. Disgraced, he quits his position at the Millenium magazine he co-founded and plans on idling away the days until his prison sentence. But things take another turn when he is hired by another rich businessman to investigate on a decades-old disappearance. Working from the slenderest of threads with an unlikely ally, he manages to not only gain clues about the mystery he’s been asked to resolve, but uncover a far more terrifying one as well.
Never mind the story, though: The real heart of the novel is the unlikely team between our journalist and a prickly hacker named Lisbeth Salander. He is kind, honest, smart, a bit passive, a hit with the ladies and working from the privileged position of a well-off white male. She, on the other hand, is moody, asocial, brilliant, considered a ward of the state and unable to form attachments with anyone. They’re mismatched, but they develop an understanding. Still, their partnership isn’t without its issues, and it’s that dynamic that ends up carrying the novel as much as the development of the plot.
It also helps that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has quite a bit of thematic depth. The original title of the book (and indeed the subtitle of the French edition) is Men Who Hate Women, and that theme does end up having an impact on the entire story on more than one level. It’s no accident, for instance, if Salander is the one character of the pair who is both most victimized and most capable of violence.
What does end up lessening the novel, though, is its relatively slow pacing. It seemingly takes forever for the mystery to be revealed to the character, and even longer for any criminal activity to become apparent. The investigation itself is fine, but the action climax of the novel happens far too early: The rest of the novel reads like an extended epilogue as all the remaining threads are slowly tied together. If I was feeling generous, I would call this a delightful change of pace stemming from the different cultural milieu in which the novel was written (ie; the Swedes take their time). For more impatient readers, however, this may end up being a sticking point.
(Nitpick: The translation of the Canadian Viking edition also has the annoying tendency to translate measures in American-style imperial, rather than the metric system common to both Canada and Sweden.)
But this aside, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is not just an enjoyable mystery/thriller, but also a promising first volume in an ongoing series cut short to a trilogy by the author’s death. Blomvkist and Salander are a fascinating team, and there are at least two more books to spend with them.