The Girl Who Played with Fire Review
I’ve always been a strong critic of remakes; Hollywood’s distinct lack of originality has been evident since its inception, but more so than perhaps ever before, these last few years have been packed with total and utter rip-offs of original foreign works (and 80s classics), some of which are only a few years old themselves. The notion that English-speaking audiences are still so averse to watching great movies just because they are in a foreign language really gets my goat; worse still, even filmmaking geniuses like Martin Scorsese appear to be getting on the bandwagon – his 2006 The Departed a prime example of a needless, unworthy remake of a comparatively recent Hong Kong production – the superior Infernal Affairs. With umpteen similar examples making big bucks in Hollywood, and unnecessarily overshadowing the foreign works (Let Me In, The Next Three Days, The Tourist), you have to wonder whether US filmmakers have an original bone left in their collective bodies.
This brings me to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – a superior Swedish mystery thriller based on the acclaimed source novel from the late Stieg Larsson – the remake of which is due for release in a matter of weeks. Despite my natural aversion to remakes, particularly those of recent foreign productions, of which this is obviously one, I have to say that I am truly intrigued and unquestionably enticed by master director David Fincher’s upcoming reworking of the 2009 production, starring Rooney Mara in the lead role, alongside Bond himself, Daniel Craig. But is he just another Hollywood sell-out, remaking what is already an unquestionably great movie (albeit returning to the source novel to give his own ‘take’), a mere 2 years after it was released? I guess only time will tell, but in the meantime, fans of Larsson’s Millennium Series can finally enjoy the original Swedish movies in their full-length format, released in their original versions as a 6-part TV mini-series of 93-minute episodes. Now is as good a time as any to get into this great series, although I have to warn you that watching them will likely inherently affect your enjoyment of the upcoming remake(s), even though that fact only furthers the argument that Hollywood should have perhaps left this excellent production well alone.
Acclaimed journalist and posthumously-famous author Stieg Larsson died in 2004, at just 50 years old. He left behind three near-complete manuscripts, a fourth half-completed story and synopsises for a fifth and sixth entry in what he apparently planned to be a ten-book series. The three books would be published as the Millennium Series, which (so far) comprises Men Who Hate Women,The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Castle in the Sky that was Blown Up (the latter two would be renamed for English readers: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). The books were bestsellers around the world.
In 2009, a Swedish film company commissioned screenplays for the trilogy, with a view to releasing only the first entry theatrically, and then releasing the two sequels as a four-part TV series (two 90-minute parts per book), but when Dragon Tattoo proved to be a massive success, the 3-hour sequels were cut to a more manageable 2 hours for a cinematic release. Unfortunately, in the process of trimming them, key storylines were removed, characters were given far less development, and the end result was simply not as satisfying, and not as fluid. Finally, this new release gives us the opportunity to look at the complete, uncut versions, as they were originally intended to be seen.
The primary focus of this review is to look at the Millennium Trilogy in its complete format (entitled ‘extended’, but, as stated, the reality is that the aforementioned releases were heavily cut to achieve more theatrically-acceptable running times) and to assess its advantages – and potential disadvantages – over the abbreviated forms. The fact is that all three are good movies, and the first – Dragon Tattoo – is a great movie, but they all benefit from being presented as a longer-format TV mini-series. Without a doubt the best way to see these movies is in this extended package so, if you haven’t yet done so, I would read no more, pick it up, and absorb the excellence.
Stieg Larsson’s original trilogy of 700-page novels offered considerably more detail than was ever explored in the theatrical versions of these movies but, of course, his books still all have underlying themes. Many originated from his witnessing, at just 15, the gang rape of a young girl; and from his guilt, even though he was so young, over not having done anything to stop it. The largely positively feminist themes are obviously derived from those horrific experiences: the central character in his book – Lisbeth Salander – even given the very name of the girl who he saw get raped; but the themes of political machinations, corruption within the police and authorities, and even the co-lead character of the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, all emanated from Larsson’s own experiences as a journalist with his own controversial publications. The films, whatever versions, do justice to these themes, maintaining the notion of strong women, malignant corruption, and an underlying quest to get to the truth of it all. Yet, for fans of the books – and even more casual fans, who just enjoyed the movies, but still felt they were lacking somewhat – there was so much more than what we saw on the Big Screen.
Still here? Well, I have to assume that you’ve already seen the three films, and are just wondering whether you should bother double-dipping on them. If I haven’t persuaded you that you unequivocally have to, then I shall go into greater detail.
My previous, full and detailed reviews of each, separately-released, ‘film’ can be accessed below should you wish to read more about the individual theatrical films:
Recapping the first movie the story followed Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a partner in the Millennium publications group, who is hired to investigate an old missing persons’ case at the behest of an ageing millionaire, Henrik Vanger, whilst he awaits his jail sentence for libel. He is assisted by a freelance research analyst, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a striking, aloof, goth-dressed computer hacker with a dark past and a violent defensive streak, who proves to be a vital companion to Blomkvist. He, in turn, shows himself to be one of the few people in the world that she can actually trust. Together they solve the mystery, but the story concludes with Lisbeth stealing a large chunk of blood money and escaping to far-off sunny climes, leaving Blomkvist with the evidence required to write a story (from his prison cell) to clear his name. This was a fairly satisfying ending to a compelling mystery thriller, but it was not the last that we would see from these colourful characters.
Where Dragon Tattoo was almost more about Blomkvist’s investigative journalist than Lisbeth’s research analyst, Played with Fire reversed the trend, now positing her previously-introduced heroine as the focal point of the story; picking up with her living off her ill-gotten gains, having severed her connections with the past for over a year. But after being targeted by a mysterious group and framed for the murder of several people, Lisbeth has to put her life on the line once again, and use all of her cunning and intellect to keep one step ahead of not only those who are hunting her, but also the authorities who are after her. By coincidence, two of the people she is accused of murdering happened to be journalists working with Blomkvist on a joint-investigation to uncover a large sex slave ring, with ties to politicians, the police and even a mysterious Russian spy who defected to Sweden several decades back, so this time it is Lisbeth who needs Blomkvist’s help in clearing her name and getting to the truth behind it all, a dark revelation which is far bigger than either of them ever expected.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the original Swedish title translates into: The Castles in the Sky that were Blown Up) continues the main story immediately after the events in the last film, with Lisbeth recovering in hospital. Meanwhile Blomkvist must continue his mission to prove Lisbeth innocent, now investigating the men behind everything that has been going on, a group which he later dubs “The Section” – a group which operates under the radar of both the authorities and the Government itself and threatens to silence not only Lisbeth, but actually the Millennium publications group too. The Section realise that things have gotten out to hand and, with Lisbeth heading towards a big trial that could blow the lid on their unauthorised operations, they decide to take a different approach – they are going to discredit her evidence, and challenge her very sanity, with a view to hopefully seeing her put back into the same asylum she was forced to go to as a child. Will Lisbeth ever be free of the evil hands that have been manipulating her for most of her life? And will the truth ever come out about “The Section”?
Theatrical Version to TV Series Format Comparison
Dragon Tattoo is the first chapter to look at and, even if it was the one that was always intended to be theatrically released, and thus was probably tailored more for a dual-format (i.e. short and long versions, both of which worked coherently and satisfactorily), it still benefits from being presented here in a longer, two-part format. Three hours allows for many book-spawned story elements to be reinstated – from the side-deal that Henrik Vanger makes to support Blomkvist’s Millennium publication, to the back-story of Lisbeth’s father-figure-like former guardian (a character who, in the theatrical versions, is not revealed until the second movie). There are more expanded explorations of almost all of the characters – including the new addition to the Millennium group, Malin Erikkson (played by Sofia Ledarp), the aforementioned former guardian Holger Palmgren, and Blomkvist’s lawyer sister (who would benefit from more fleshing out across the first two films as she becomes all the more important in the third instalment); as well as the important supporting character of Erika Berger (Lena Endre).
Erika is Blomkvist’s lover in the stories, but is only briefly referred to in the theatrical cuts, and is generally only seen in her capacity as a partner in Millennium – in the ‘extended’ version we see far more of her relationship with Blomkvist, as well as the damage it did to their credibility (when their affair – she is married – is splashed all over the front page of the tabloids). In addition, her character is the one who goes behind Blomkvist’s back to make a deal with Vanger to save Millennium, an entire sub-plot that was present in the book but was ripped out of the film adaptation. The new group member, Malin, also is given better depth and goes on to be the person to discover the traitor in the group’s midst, a character who is also developed further (even if this storyline still does not feel fully resolved, as the plan to ‘feed him misleading information’ does not have any obvious results).
Finally it should be noted that there are a great many more establishing shots, all of which go to better set the scenes and locations of the subsequent scene – the island’s expansive settings, Blomkvist’s cabin, Plague’s apartment, the subways, and even some of the road trips given better covering footage. Whilst the first film was released in a 2.35:1 widescreen format, the sequels were presented in the original 1.78:1 format – and here the entire series gets presented in the latter format, including Dragon Tattoo. Although this does rob the feature of some of its cinematic ‘glory’, this is more than made up for by these extra location shots
All in all, whilst Dragon Tattoo was already an excellent movie, this three-hour version will surely please fans of the book, who no doubt hoped that the adaptation would have been slightly more respectful of the source material; this is their wish come true.
Played with Fire, on its theatrical release, was a far more flawed film than Dragon Tattoo. Of course this was in a large part thanks to the fact that it was never originally intended to be theatrically released – so heavy-duty editing took place in a desperate bid to reduce the three-plus-hour runtime down to a more acceptable length. The reinstatements here are arguably more than just tweaks and added story strands which would please those familiar with the book – indeed the characters, across the board, are given far better introduction and much more development.
Due to the fact that Played with Fire was largely about an entirely new story to Dragon Tattoo, many new characters are introduced, and these are all fleshed out better, from the investigating couple who first approach Millennium with a view to publishing their study into trafficking, to Blomkvist’s sister – a lawyer whose work will become of paramount importance in the final instalment, Hornet’s Nest. The police investigation is also vastly expanded – all of a sudden the police are more than just shallow characterisations dipping in and out of a plot that largely does not include them, we now have a whole investigating group comprised of distinct personalities and different agendas. The head of the police investigation knows that there is more than meets the eye – that Lisbeth isn’t the clear-cut killer that all the evidence points towards, and whilst one of the members on his squad is like-minded in this, a further, rather bigoted member, simply labels her as an evil killer lesbian who is part of a satanic cult – and leaks the same story to the press.
These entire story strands were woefully ripped out of the original theatrical cut, and they really make a great difference: both the press and the police play a much more important role and it adds to the weight, suspense and drama of the proceedings no end. Suffice to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire is greatly enhanced by being presented in its original 186-minute TV format.
Of course, another big problem with releasing the second and third adaptations as theatrical films is that they are actually not disconnected stories, but more one big storyline. You see, Dragon Tattoo is something of a standalone entity – ending with Lisbeth effectively walking off into the sunset – but the second and third stories are both part of a continuous tale, and this ongoing story suits the ongoing TV mini-series format far better.
Consequently, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels like a much more complete story too – the previously overlooked characters, who get far bigger parts here (like Lisbeth’s lawyer – Blomkvist’s sister), have now had a much better introduction (in the previous extended epsidoes), and thus feel like real entities. Other characters also more explicitly get their comeuppance – like Gunnar Bjork – and both Lisbeth’s nasty childhood doctor, Teleborian, and the two opposing Governmental splinter factions – The Section and the investigators – are better developed.
Perhaps the biggest changes though, and what makes this arguably the most comprehensively re-edited instalment in the trilogy, is the complete rearrangement of scenes, allowing for a much more fluid, natural narrative that flows far better and progresses to a more satisfying conclusion. I always had issues with the protracted nature of the third ‘movie’, and this was clearly in large part thanks not only to the length of the movie itself, but also the way in which it had been haphazardly edited in order to fit a theatrical format. Since it was never designed to be rendered theatrically, it clearly benefits from being presented in its original format, and returned to its original state.
The Swedish Dragon Tattoo Trilogy – in its original 6-part Millennium TV mini-series format – is a laudable and respectful adaptation of the material, a great TV series based on a great series of novels. It caters for the lengths of the books, the myriad characters and the many labyrinth interconnecting plot strands. It not only better develops the key players over the course of the 6 parts – often introducing them earlier, reminding the viewer of them throughout, and giving them better conclusions – but it also redresses the balance between the two lead players, so their dominance in the ensuing stories is more evenly divided. The performances from the leads were already great, but here their characters are even more refined, and the numerous supporting parts are fleshed out to such an extent that even the smaller players get to shine. With more fluid editing, better scene-setting cinematography, a consistent aspect ratio, better narrative progression, and a more appropriate episodic format (the second and third ‘movies’ always felt like parts of one big story, and here they get to be just that), this is the definitive way to watch and enjoy the Dragon Tattoo adaptations.
Although there is no doubt that I will be queuing up to see Fincher’s Hollywood take on the first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, over Christmas, I cannot honestly see how could possibly be a better version than what we have here – and, unless we get three hour versions of each of the instalments (no doubt it’s on the cards, somewhere down the line), there’s no way it could ever match them in terms of comprehensive coverage of the source material. Noomi Rapace will likely remain the definitive girl with the dragon tattoo, just as this will probably be the definitive adaptation.
My recommendation: pick these up for Christmas and enjoy these great original Swedish adaptations in their full glory.