The girl who was hard to take seriously

David Fincher’s slick adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller fails to do justice to its central character.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ series of books has become one of the most successful literary franchises in recent memory. In 2005, the first novel in the series, Män som hatar kvinnor (meaning ‘men who hate women’), was published in Sweden and quickly generated a considerable amount of critical attention. Its English translation in 2008, renamed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, pushed it to even greater heights and it became an international bestseller, alongside the subsequent two installments.

Attacking sadism and moral corruption in all its modern forms, Larsson’s crime thrillers captured the public imagination the world over. Much of the trilogy’s success, however, is owed to the legend created by Larsson’s untimely death in 2004. The first book in the series was published a year after his death and marketed as a classic sent from beyond the grave. Furthermore, as critics and fans began to delve into the past of this mysterious dead author, his career as a feather-ruffling investigative journalist gave the series a heightened sense of authenticity and depth.

Having already produced an award-winning Swedish film outing, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has now received the full Hollywood treatment. With David Fincher, director of films including The Social Network and Fight Club, at the helm, this no-expense-spared remake seemed poised to do full justice to the novel while giving the uninitiated a chance to experience Larsson’s world without needing to pick up the hefty novel or bother with pesky subtitles. Whereas Fincher does well not to cleanse the narrative of its difficult moments, however, there is something painfully amiss at the centre of this adaptation.

Other than a few minor changes and the relocation of some of the action to London, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay sticks pretty closely to the original story. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a disgraced investigative journalist, who loses a libel case against corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg), after publishing an exposé on his dodgy dealings. Soon after, Blomkvist is asked by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a retired businessman himself, to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet, who he believes was murdered by one of his malevolent family over 40 years ago. With the promise that Vanger will provide him with the dirt he needs on Wennerström to overturn the libel case, Mikael accepts and enlists the help of punky private investigator Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).

As a straight-up society murder-mystery, this film works rather well. Set in the desolate northern reaches of Sweden on Vanger’s private island, Mikael and Lisbeth discover a web of dark family secrets, complete with old Nazi uncles and torture chambers hidden under hilltop mansions. Fincher’s glossy style lends well to this material, and he provides us with a conventional but pleasurable whodunit.

As with so many detective narratives, however, the psyche of the investigator is as important as the mystery itself. In Larsson’s novel, it is Salander rather than solely Blomkvist’s character that is subject to this exploration. This is something critically lacking in Fincher’s adaptation. Having grown up under state supervision, Lisbeth suffers constantly at the hands of abusive and vindictive social workers. It is her hatred of the sort of sadistic men who take advantage of her that fuels her efforts in solving the case of the murdered Harriet. Unfortunately, Fincher buries the pathos of her character in his characteristically slick aesthetic. As a result, she becomes little more than a cartoonish badass with a difficult past, who swaggers around spouting one-liners and smoking endless amounts of cigarettes. Whereas Mara is at times remarkably intense in the role, it becomes incredibly difficult to take her seriously as the film wears on.

Despite the often-sanitising effects of Hollywood financiers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really doesn’t pull any of its punches. The central, graphic scenes that defined the murky tone of the novel are all here, yet unfortunately the crisp styling renders them emotionally inert nonetheless. The few who will go to see this film without any preconceptions may well find it an enjoyable, if somewhat dark, mystery thriller. Yet anyone even slightly aware of the legend surrounding Larsson and his trilogy will walk away thinking the film has been over-hyped.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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