Unspoken rule when discussing film adaptations of literary works: Films must be judged on their own merits rather than compared against the source material. For the most part, this seems fair. Film and literature, after all, constitute two very different storytelling mediums; the former must, if not for artistic purposes than for logistical ones, successfully and completely tell its tale within the confines of a two hour limit (with some notable exceptions popping up here and there), while similar constraints aren’t imposed on the latter. And inevitably any cinematic adaptation of a novel must also cut any amount of material out of the story, ranging from minor snippets to large and significant edits. In light of all of this, conventional wisdom dictates that when a filmmaker adapts a novel they owe to their source material a debt of adherence to its spirit rather than a slavish devotion to transplanting each of the original author’s words to celluloid.
Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is no different from your average adaptation, but some very odd choices made in turning the book into a script indicate that Oplev’s movie may have been better served by remaining within a tighter proximity to his source. But that’s not to say that retaining the one or two important plot details that he inexplicably jettisons would have saved his film; ultimately The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a slick, well-produced and gritty mess with incongruous structural elements, a slack mid-section, and frankly little reason for being in the first place.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is primarily concerned with uniting its two protagonists and setting them on the same course of mystery; the mystery itself hardly feels like it matters, and this is both due to the choices made by screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg in adapting the material and in Oplev’s loose and undisciplined approach to the story. In two separate plot lines, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) finds himself on the losing end of a libel case against a corrupt Swedish industrialist; his sources, it seems, have been faked, though he suspects meddling and tampering and believes he’s been set-up (and we’re never given a reason to suspect otherwise). With a three-month jail sentence looming over him, Blomkvist is convinced to look into a decades-old cold case by ANOTHER industrialist, this one less corrupt and much more sagely, involving the murder of said industrialist’s favorite niece (who happens to have babysat Blomkvist as a child). While all this is happening, Blomkvist is tailed by quiet, brooding, dark, and dangerous Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a brilliant and talented hacker with a brutal and sadistic probationary guardian and an inexplicable interest in Blomkvist’s affairs.
Sound convoluted? It all comes together in an adequately comprehensible manner, even if the resulting film never feels very satisfactory. In short, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the kind of film that consciously defies easy summation. There’s a lot going on in the packed plot of the film and the book, and Oplev attempts unsuccessfully to bestow some kind of meaning upon the numerous plot threads and details. Instead of cogency, Oplev gives us something much more arbitrary. We’re told, as mentioned before, that the missing and presumed-dead woman babysat Blomkvist during his childhood, but that detail never actually impacts the story in any way; one would think that a personal connection to the victim would clearly impel Blomkvist to take the case but Oplev’s version of the character seems to be driven by boredom more than anything else. After all, he’s just killing time; he’s got nothing better to do before going to jail, so hey, why not investigate this random mystery?
That seems to be the prevailing voice behind The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the reason it exists: Hey, why not? What’s strange about the dispassionate reasoning behind Blomkvist’s decision to take the case is that the book gives him a much more palatable reason to do so. That this detail is intentionally omitted defies any sense of logic or reason on behalf of the script, and put bluntly robs the movie of a lot of its forward momentum and suspense. Without a compelling reason to get involved, the movie basically tells us that Blomkvist does so just for kicks– which in turn lends a reductive touch to the mystery, which itself has all the elements of a compelling whodunit and could have made for a very interesting thriller. But the movie never feels like it cares, and therefore neither do we.
Where the film does find a voice worth acknowledging is in the plot line that unfolds concurrently to Blomkvist’s, concerning the aforementioned Salander. Hers is a story about how women are passed over, vilified, abused, and subjugated by Swedish society (specifically by men). In fact, I can imagine a movie where her arc is treated as primary being far, far more engaging since Lisbeth is so much more layered than Blomkvist. Petite, dark, silent by nature, brooding, capable of harsh violence and retribution, and endlessly brilliant, Lisbeth’s the kind of character that whose story we want to be told; unfortunately she’s treated much more as a secondary character in her own movie (in case you couldn’t guess, Lisbeth happens to be the girl the title refers to), playing second fiddle to Michael Nyqvist’s dogged and incredibly bland crusading journalist. In part Lisbeth’s enjoyable to watch thanks to the work done by Noomi Rapace, who with little dialogue still manages to convey character almost solely through expressiveness. Lisbeth has almost no capacity for connecting with other human beings; through Rapace’s portrayal, we end up learning a great deal about her in spite of her emotional and social defenses. It’s unfortunate that she’s practically designated as a supporting figure in her own film, but it’s to Rapace’s credit that she steals every scene that she’s in. Arguably such a feat isn’t terribly difficult when the rest of the characters of the film feel half-written; I don’t mean to say that the rest of the cast slouches, but rather that they’re given very little to do or even live up to.
If this sounds like a lot of kvetching over minor infidelities to Larsson’s book, it’s not; Oplev’s film is a mess because he made a messy film, not because he made a bad adaptation. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for all of its production values, has a schizophrenic pace that alternates between painfully dragging its feet and rocketing forward with all the grace of a stampeding elephant. Absolutely Oplev and the screenwriters made edits to the story that, however harmless and minute they seemed at the time, undermine the picture in total but it’s hard to believe that all of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s problems would have been alleviated even if it had stuck with the novel on these points.