ROONEY MARA AS LISBETH SALANDERDespite Hollywood's penchant for remaking old movies, the remakes are seldom as good as the originals and often worse. Conspicuous exceptions that I especially like include The Magnificent Seven (1960), a remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai epic Seven Samurai, and King Kong (2005), Peter Jackson's reverential remake of the original.To which can now be added the 2011 American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which hews to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's posthumous runaway international bestseller -- the first book in the so-called Millennium Trilogy -- but improves on the 2009 Swedish film in almost every way.
Over the years, I've read my way through the great murder mystery writers -- Dashielle Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and P.D. James, to name but a few -- and thought I had pretty much tapped out the genre.
That was until I picked up the English translation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Since then I have been cherry picking my way through Scandinavian murder mysteries -- a genre sometimes referred to as Arctic Noir. They have been a revelation, while the work of Danish writer Peter Høeg is especially good.
I am prepared to make and defend the argument that the best of these Scandinavian mysteries equal or rival the mystery classics of yore, which is an unusual claim considering that Sweden, Norway and Denmark collectively are just about the most murder-free societies on the planet and seem unlikely to spawn a host of great murder mystery writers. But part of the power of these novels are their deceivingly tranquil settings, which make it all the more shocking when a crime occurs, as well as the powerful psychological dramas woven through them.* * * * *Both film versions of Dragon Tattoo hew to the book with a conspicuous exception that I'll get to. They open with investigative reporter Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist losing a libel case involving allegations he published about a billionaire financier. Lisbeth Salander, a pale and skinny young woman with red hair, which she dyes black, and a dragon tattoo, among others, is a world-class computer hacker whom is contracted to investigate Blomkvist by a lawyer for Hendrik Vanger, an 82-year-old retired industrialist.Vanger subsequently hires Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet, who vanished from the remote northern Swedish island where he lives on Childen's Day in 1966. Vanger believes that Harriet was murdered by a family member, several of whom are or were Nazi sympathizers.
Meanwhile, Salander's state-appointed legal guardian suffers a stroke and is replaced by Nils Bjurman, a sexual sadist who takes control of her finances and metes out money only in return for sexual favors, which escalate into anal rape.
Blomkvist moves into a cottage on the Vanger estate. Inside Harriet's Bible he finds a list of five names alongside what appear to be phone numbers. Using photographs taken during the Children's Day parade, Blomkvist believes that Harriet may have seen someone that day who may have killed her. Salander discovers the meaning of the numbers next to the names and together they connect all but one of the names on Harriet's list to murdered women.
And that's just the start.
* * * * *The challenge for filmmakers has been to adapt Arctic Noir books for the big (and little) screen while retaining the psychodramatic aspects.
The three "Masterpiece Theater" episodes based on Henning Mankell's books about Kurt Wallander, a soul-searching Swedish cop, largely succeeded. Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), starring Julia Ormond and based on Høeg's 1995 bestseller, largely failed.
Compared to a fuddy duddy like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or a hard-boiled period piece like Hammett's Sam Spade, the eccentric Salander has a steel-trap mind, a penchant for getting back at her enemies, and is positively hip with her arsenal of Mac Books, electronic eavesdropping devices and hacking skills, while Blomkvist digs deeply into the dark side of Sweden's political, corporate and social worlds. Holmes' Victorian parlor society and Spade's Tenderloin district escapades seem positively quaint by comparison.
The 2009 film version of Dragon Tattoo, with Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nykvist as Blomkvist, is a mess but nevertheless eminently watchable.
Larsson's book has too many subplots to count and director Niels Arden Oplev apparently felt compelled to shoehorn every last one of them into 152 minutes. The result is a jumble that only viewers who have read the book will be able to sort out.
This brings us to the David Fincher-directed remake, which is six minutes longer than the Swedish version but hurtles along at a ferocious pace. Rooney Mara is Rapace's equal as Salander and Daniel Craig a bit better -- which is to say more believable -- as Blomkvist, and my only criticism is that a key plot twist connected to Harriet's fate is eliminated to the movie's detriment.
No matter. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is even better the second time around.