Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - review

I just saw the movie “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” I’d already read all three books of the Steig Larsson trilogy (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Girl Who Played With Fire, Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Next. I haven’t yet seen the movies for the other two books.

The movie has certain advantages, the book others. Certainly the movie captures some key elements of the book, particularly characterization. It misses a great deal. Some would find the differences an improvement. The movie is more brisk, more exciting, more immediately gratifying and usually more gruesome, not because certain details in the book aren’t equally disgusting, but because the absence of the flashing video vividness and the rather flat tone of the written narrative leaves them less lurid. A flat tone could set them off and make them MORE lurid, but it doesn’t work that way in these books, usually, because things are revealed over a more extended period of reader-time and more gradually.

But I want to recommend the books to you (if you haven’t read them already). I have very little time these days – work (and I do mean work) about a 65 hour week, plus about 12 hours of commuting a week. But I made time to read these.

In case you have NOT read them, here are a few points:

1. They are not exactly slow moving, but they go into detailed and often fascinating revelation of processes (of journalism, hacking, investigatory techniques, disinformation strategies, finances, etc. Larsson knows his stuff. He was, like his protagonist, Michael Blumqvist, an investigative reporter, one who became an expert on right-wing extremism, Sweden’s Nazi sympathizers (especially the eugenicists who sterilized some 70,000 Swedish women) and abuse of women, among other things. And he did receive threats. Per Wikipedia, he never married his lover of 25 years, because marriage in Sweden requires registration of address, and he felt too threatened to have his address in public records. (In volumes 2 and 3, the off-the-map address of the title’s “Girl”, Lizbeth, becomes crucial.)

2. The books are not wham-bam, but an oyster-like secretion of details. (And by mid Vol. 3 the grain of truth in the book starts to acquire that milky opalescence of pearl as the interaction of apparently disconnected threads coalesce around that grain.) The books don’t move slowly, if you consider them as a complicated chess match. The moves are rapid. But the ACTION is not. The movies eliminated most of the REAL action of the book, which is mental, akin to a chess player’s review of possible strategies. The tone (which sets off Lizbeth’s razor-edgedness) is rather bland, conservatively friendly, expository. There’s no “deep, dark” background music.

The trilogy has an overall emotional/logical/ethical curve of its own. The first book is mainly a set-up of characters for the next two. The key passage at the heart of the trilogy, in a sense, is the prologue to volume two, whose meaning is obscure (for most readers, I imagine) until near the end of volume three. The first volume seems complete in itself, but that completeness is shredded in volume two, and by half-way through volume three, the awful Vangers of volume one seem distant and relatively unimportant. And yet, everything in the first novel seems preparation for all that follows, not so much in terms of obvious plot, but in terms of understanding of the two main characters and what’s important to them and the building and straining of trust between them and the increasing schism between what we know about Lizbeth and what other characters (other than her chosen few almost-friends) think she is, and how this schism nearly destroys her, but ultimately proves to be her most effective weapon…and how it all relates to the perhaps legendary “world we live in.”

3. The movie changes the book as all movies change all but the most movie-like books (e.g., Elmore Leonard novels – which I greatly enjoy, don’t mean to denigrate them, but the best movie versions alter little, omit little), simplifying, omitting whole sub-plots and many characters. Some of these changes are improvements for me. For example, Blumqvist’s sex life, in the books (his various affairs) I find a bit unreal in their asserted sanity. These and some unlikely coincidences (Blumqvist happening to witness something) are mostly omitted. Most of those that come up in Dragon Tattoo are left out of the movie.

Other changes are probably necessary -- given what a movie can do in the time allotted and the difficulty of presenting what a character is thinking at length without putting viewers to sleep -- but unfortunate. For example, most movies and television shows make hackers magicians, and require an awful lot of suspension of disbelief, as genius nerds tap a few keys rapidly to get into arcane sites. The Dragon Tattoo movie is little better, but the books are a LOT better. You can actually get some idea how it’s done.

4. I haven’t yet seen the other two movies. I can tell you that if you read the books, what you’ll probably find is that the first book is slow-going for about half-way through (and each book is big – about 600 pages), gets better, gets gripping, goes on past where most books would climax, but still holds interest. The second book moves in many different directions at once and at times seems to disperse attention and repeat itself, but still fascinates, and has a lot more action than vol. one, but by the end, a reader may begin to feel that it’s hard to see a good way to an integrated finish. Then (with Hornet’s Nest) you get something like 600 pages of PAYOFF PAYOFF PAYOFF at a level of intensity and grippingness I’ve seen in few novels. Kind of a record for prolonged orgasm (all in the same bland, analytical style of the first novel). It’s still mostly an intellectual game, not chase scenes, etc. (Not many.) But you do hit the ground (mentally) at high speed, and there’s no let-up, and the court scene near the end is incredibly real and satisfying. I don’t know if it’s what you’d call literature – well, it is, but perhaps not great literature – but it’s a great intellectual thriller, half genre/half “literature,” borderline, but playing the two off against one another in a way that contributes to both. There’s a segment at the almost-end that’s more standard thriller (but true enough to the characters) that amounts to tying up a loose end and is a bit anti-climactic (climactic in terms of action-thriller, but in terms of MENTAL thriller, a let-down), but interesting, then a final scene between the two protagonists that seems to me an excellent, fitting and wise conclusion.

Larsson died before these books were published and supposedly left outlines for more novels (and complete text for much of one of them). Perhaps he planned more novels with these characters, but I’m not sure he could have topped Hornet’s Nest. I’m not saying it’s better than the other two volumes. I’m saying that, however compelling the first two books are, when you see how they feed into the collapsing armies of dominoes in the third book, the earlier books take on an additional dimension.

Is it great literature? Who cares. I’d say no. Too talky, too many voices (at least in translation) that are the same voice. But it’s great SOMEthing. And the author tells us a lot about what we live in -- that’s literature. He knows how a variety of professionals act and, in some cases, how they talk and how they spin things. He knows something about what it takes to survive if you take on the military-industrial-psychiatric-security complex. (And he makes that complex real – this isn’t SMERSH.) And he manages to embody much of what it takes to survive in what appears at first to be (to put it in high-school year-book terms) a “Least Likely to Survive” character (“The Girl…”.), a victim who refuses to be a victim, then almost becomes one from the reflux of the force of her refusal, then manages to transcend that and become, to some extent (and in a real way) something more than “not a victim,” something positive.