Books to Movies: Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy”

by July 27, 2010 at 12:04 am 8,298 0

Mary Burgan Borderstan Movie Fan

Mary Burgan is the Borderstan Movie Fan.

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. Mary Burgan is a retired professor of English and association executive. Her previous reviews are listed at the end of this post.

Some bad books make great movies and some great books are turned into bad movies. I was reminded of this after having finally read the three novels in the international best-selling trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson.

And then, of course, I had to see the films of the first two, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, which have been running in and around DC for the past several months. The third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, has not yet been released as a film.

The books in Stieg’s Millennium Trilogy are full of extreme violence against women–complete with rape, sadism and incest. There is also official corruption that plays in highly plotted action–all in the service of intricate puzzles that are unraveled by Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl,” who is not only a highly tattooed and pierced denizen of Stockholm, but also a bravura computer hacker.

If “foreign” detective novels translate easily to the screen because language is not so important as plot in them, then there is some loss in the adaptation of the Tattoo novels. This is because a lot of the plot has to be cut out to make the narrative fit the less than two hours required for most films. Too much plot can sink a movie. A novel can take a lot more, though The Millennium Trilogy sits dangerously low in the water.

The Swedish film adaptations of the novels make up for the loss of plot by giving us a more sympathetic Mikael and a fully memorable Lisbeth. She is straight out of the novels, and she carries both the books and the films with her outbursts from brooding silence into justifiable violence.

Her partner in solving puzzles is more attractive in his easy, middle-aged tubbiness and his acne-scarred face in the movie than his younger and hipper version is in the novel. There is not enough time to have him sleep with every woman in sight, for example, and that helps the films concentrate on his relationship with the enigmatic Lisbeth.

I found the Dragon Tattoo film mildly entertaining, though others I’ve talked to found it incredibly violent. I guess I missed that because the film was less violent than the novel. As for the Played with Fire movie, I couldn’t see how a non-trilogy reader could make out what was happening without having read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

The end result of my submergence in the Girl novels and the films for the past several weeks is that:

  1. I am more careful about locking up the house,
  2. I don’t worry about my computer passwords because I know how easily they are hacked,
  3. I spot possible suspects in the check-out line at Whole Foods, and
  4. I feel Swedish, though I still can’t pronounce Blomkvist.

The Girl books and movies owe a lot to American crime films and novels, so I’ve gone back to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930); the film was made in 1943. I found the prose of the Hammett tale a bit tough to get used to at first. He sets a lot of store by descriptions of personal looks; Sam Spade’s character never comes through in this treatment, but then we’ve all come to think of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade anyhow.

The Maltese Falcon: Great Book and Movie

The other Falcon characters–Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, and Kaspar Gutman–are either perfectly described by Hammett or Hollywood found their perfect embodiment in Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. By now it’s hard to know which came first, the novel or the movie. Either way, they are unforgettable.

And so are their characterizations. I’ll pass on Joel Cairo’s because the portrayal in the book is baldly homophobic, though the movie downplays that somewhat. But the obsessed Kaspar Gutman is perfectly portrayed by Greenstreet in girth as well as in the deep, wheezy formality of his compliments to Spade, “By Gad, sir, you are a character.”

Finally, there is Mary Astor, the “Girl without the Maltese Falcon.” If Lisbeth Salander is the epitome of sullen reticence and explosive violence in The Girl movies, Mary Astor plays Brigid just as breathlessly modest and devious as the novel directs.

Spade’s attachment to her is this side of believable until he tells her at the end, “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

There’s nothing as neat as that line in The Girl movies because there is nothing like it in the books. Some bad books make dandy flicks: see The Godfather. Some good books make lousy movies: see The Great Gatsby. But The Maltese Falcon is a fine book and a terrific movie. That’s a combination that’s hard to find these days.

Other Reviews by The Borderstan Movie Fan


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