January 19, 2010

Men who hate women: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another day, another dead girl. But Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestselling thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is cold, brutal and serious -- well-acted, clearly-told, efficiently-staged -- against the frustrating indirectness and twee over-elaborateness of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones. There are other differences. In Bones, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is killed; we know who the killer is but it takes everyone else the rest of the movie to figure it out. In Dragon Tattoo, left-wing investigative journalist Michael Nyqvist is hired by a member of the wealthy Vanger family to investigate the disappearance, 40 years earlier, of blonde 16-year-old Harriet Vanger. Unlike the supernatural speculations in The Lovely Bones, Larsson's book is clearly one of those thrillers that depends on the clinical, fact-based possibility of its story, even if to get there we need to bring on a young super-hacker with conveniently all-knowing, all-seeing powers (the tattooed girl of the title, Lisbeth Salander). But the key difference between these two mysteries is the why. In The Lovely Bones, our killer is a lonesome and secretive drifter, taking teenage girls at random from various eastern states, just one very small manifestation of evil in a world that is otherwise charmed and beneficent; in Dragon Tattoo -- and what follows is surely a spoiler only for those remote tribes in the New Guinea highlands who have not yet read the book and its sequels -- the Harriet crime is connected to a decades-long pattern that is itself directly linked to the conversion to the Nazi cause in their youth of now elderly and powerful members of the Vanger family. Here, girl-sacrifice becomes one more form that institutionalised evil has taken and I was reminded of a couple of scenes from Roy Andersson's 2000 film Songs from the Second Floor. Andersson's film is surrealism as you would expect the allegedly dour Swedes to practice it -- told in mirthless sketches and vignettes, it runs like a heavily depressed Monty Python. One sketch, set in what we assume to be a version of contemporary Sweden, has an elderly industrialist who lived in neutral Sweden during the war paying homage to Hermann Goering and greeting others with a Nazi salute; another sketch has a young girl sacrificed -- literally sacrificed -- for the economic good of a business.

According to Wikipedia, the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translates from the Swedish as simply "men who hate women". That would be a very hard sell as a movie title but it gives you a sense of Larsson's agenda. It sounds more like a treatise than a novel, which might be apt. A left-wing journalist himself, Larsson paralleled the treatment of Harriet and other girls at the hands of the Nazi Vangers against the treatment of Lisbeth Salander in the present by a male establishment figure -- in the film, his tastefully minimal apartment is the picture of wealth and refinement against the squalor of Salander's flat -- who demonstrates his total control of her in scenes of awful sexual violence.

Of course, Hollywood will adapt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rather than expect American audiences to sit through a film that requires them to read as they go. You would also expect that the story will shift from Sweden and that the Nazi background will disappear accordingly. A story is always portable but a milieu is not, and so the shifting of Dragon Tattoo out of Sweden really makes as much sense -- ie not much at all -- as Ridley Scott's plan to restage the films based on David Peace's Red Riding series in Pennsylvania. On the surface, the Scott decision might make sense too: the industrial cities of America's rustbelt might correspond easily enough to Peace's coalmining towns of west Yorkshire and you can find or at least set police corruption anywhere, but the unexpected occult element in Peace's series was of course the Yorkshire Ripper. Although the timeframe of Peace's four books stretched to before and after Sutcliffe's crimes, running from 1974 to 1983, those murders tainted the entire story, they poisoned the atmosphere, they revealed a wider picture about power and social structure, just as secret fascism does in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.