If you’ve heard of this series (in either its film or book form), there’s a good chance it’s because David Fincher of Fight Club/Se7en/The Social Network fame directed the American remake. Even if you’ve heard of it, there’s a also a good chance you haven’t seen it- Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did only so-so at the box-office, not quite tanking, but also not becoming as popular as many were speculating it would be. And that’s a real tragedy, because the story, in spite of its flaws, is a really good one- you’re just going to have to make a few adjustments in how you see it.
I. Watch the Swedish Version Instead
In my post about the differences between British and American television, I pointed out that American film typically physically glamorizes each and every character- no matter how minor- while the Brits are comfortable with their protagonists actually looking like people you’d meet on the street. While not quite to on the level of the British (from what little I have seen of Swedish film), the Swedes do seem to lean more towards the Brits when it comes to this, and while it doesn’t like it’s all that important, “humanizing” the characters a bit more by making them look like people you’d actually know gives all that more grittiness and clout to the issues the story grapples with.
Beyond that, there’s the issue of casting for Lisbeth Salander. Now I’m not going to knock either Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara, partly because they’re both terrifying…
But I do nevertheless have to address the eyebrows.
More specifically, the fact that Mara’s Lisbeth doesn’t have any.
Ok, that’s not entirely fair- Mara’s version does have eyebrows- they’re just wispy blonde and really hard to see. And that’s something that’s pretty dang unsettling- heck, it’s downright terrifying.
I know it’s probably petty, but Rapace’s Salander, having eyebrows we can actually see, makes it that much easier to watch an already tough movie.
II. Watch the Second Movie First (Then the First, Then the Third)
Not having had any background knowledge of the series, I accidentally wound up watching the second part of the trilogy (The Girl Who Played With Fire) instead of the first segment (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). As confusing as it was, I think that this is the best way to do it. While it’s a good movie, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo really is something of a stand-alone piece, often accused of being pretty linear and slow. The subsequent stories, filled with high stakes of human trafficking and political intrigue, are a lot faster and more action-packed, but really depart from the general style of the first segment. By starting with The Girl Who Played With Fire, you get to be dropped right into the action and have a relaxing “flashback” with TGWTDT that fills in all the blanks and builds up tension and momentum for the final film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Give it a shot- I promise it’ll pay off.
IV. Cut Steig Larsson Some Slack
A lot of critics of both the film and the books have pointed out that the male protagonist in the stories, Mikael Blomkvist, is essentially author Steig Larsson’s literary avatar. As a result, plenty of people blow off the films and books as just being Larsson’s own little fantasy in which he, the last honest journalist teams up with a goth-punk hacker to solve mysteries together. The fact that Fincher chose Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James ****ing Bond) to play Blomkvist probably didn’t do anything to assuage those accusations.
But here’s the thing- Larsson can’t be accused of writing a fantasized version himself into his books because the real Steig Larsson is way more badass!
As a boy, Larsson witnessed the rape of a woman, and so wracked with guilt at not having been able to do anything, wound up dedicating the rest of his life to fighting for justice and equality. In the 70s, he traveled to Eritrea to train an all-female squad in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. He returned to Sweden to found a watchdog journalist group and investigate and combat neo-nazism and white supremacy, despite continually receiving death-threats.
Yeah, that’s not so much a biography as it is a superhero origin story. That’s enough right there to make Jack London and Ernest Hemingway look like pansies. If anything, Blomkvist is a version of Larsson nerfed for the sake of believability. Let’s cut the guy some slack.
IV. Understand a Bit About What’s Being Addressed
Part of the issue with the series is that it’s a commentary in no small part on Swedish social and political issues. I only recall it being hinted at in the American version, but the Swedish version of the film spent a bit more time touching on the Wennerstrom family’s (and the entire country’s) shameful flirtation with Nazism in the 30s and 40s, as well as the ongoing issues of xenophobia and racism in contemporary Sweden. Beyond that the series tries to address issues of corruption within the state, as well as the ugly reality of human trafficking (which despite growing awareness, might not quite strike home with American audiences). You don’t need to have a detailed understanding of the intricacies of State-Capitalist governance and Scandinavian history, but knowing a bit about the very real issues of fascism and racism in Europe does add a whole lot.
So what are you waiting for? Go watch ’em!