The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Book #15
written by: Stieg Larsson
released in: 2005
original language: Swedish
length: 533 pages
finished reading on: 22 July
Film #22
directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
released in: 2009
language: Swedish
length: 152 minutes
watched on: 23 July

aka: Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women”)

Thought I might try a new layout for this one, seeing as otherwise there’s masses of white space. So the astute among you may notice that I finished reading this book and watched the film adaptation the day after. And the even more astute might then infer that this means that I quite liked the thing. And yeah, it’d be fair to say you’re right. I’ll concentrate on the book first, though.

No, actually, I’ll concentrate on that damn title, which is the biggest amount of bile that I’ll fling at the thing so I may as well get it over early. I don’t fucking blame the author’s widow for hating the fact that the title of the book was changed from the rather imposing “Men who hate women”, which one can only say is unambiguous as to its subject matter, to the infernal English title, which I can only describe as wishy-washy, and liable, importantly, to get mixed up with The Girl with the Pearl Earring – which is a painting and a Colin Firth film… and rather not like this one. So you’ve got people like me at one end, avoiding it because they don’t like that sort of stuff, and you’ve got Colin Firth fans at the other, probably, thinking they’ll get some kind of -ahem- romance. Yeah, right. Basically, I had to be bought the book for Christmas and have it sit on my shelf for six months before I bothered to actually try it. Where am I going with this rant again? Oh yeah, the title of a work is important, people!

I can’t really see why they changed it. It seems to upgrade Lisbeth Salander to unambiguous heroine character rather than one of two main protagonists in this book – and I’d argue that the other one, Mikael Blomkvist, gets a much bigger role in the first book. It upgrades an aspect of her description to something much more important-seeming; in the book it’s a small dragon, and one of many tattoos, while in the film, possibly to keep better with the adopted title, it becomes a veritable work of art covering her back. I can possibly see where they got the idea for the title, because the Swedish title of the sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire really does translate literally as just that, and themed naming seems to be popular with publishers for some very annoying reason (for another international look at this, the German versions are Verblendung, Verdammnis and Vergebung – fucked if I know what they mean, but they’re obviously named on a theme). Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself massively. Back to the first book…

So it’s a crime novel set in Sweden. A crime novel which paints a very realistic world around itself, presumably a portrait of a sadistic Sweden that Larsson knew; rather different, perhaps, from other portrayals of the country, such as Pippi Longstocking or Abba…

Now, if the original title doesn’t give it away (of course, English speakers don’t get that luxury), the statistics about violence against women in Sweden printed before each chapter will probably give you a bit of a sense of foreboding. Yep, it’s a violent book alright, and it comes to a head with a particularly gruesome scene in which our heroine is raped about halfway through the book – although if you didn’t know that already, you’re probably living under a rock or something. She manages to pull a level in badassity in the subsequent scene in which she makes the sadistic bastard pay, however.

That was really the moment that the book really gripped me and wouldn’t let me put it down. Before that, it had been building up very slowly; when Blomkvist was told that he was to investigate the murder and disappearance of the niece of the obsessive businessman Vanger, I knew it was probably going to get good, but I didn’t quite know how much, and it still hadn’t gripped me properly. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but what with all the hype about it, you’d expect to be gripped on page 1, but it wasn’t like that for me; it was more like page 200 – still half the book to go, but it could have come earlier.

The plot itself is a reasonably standard closed-group crime-scene affair; anyone who could have committed the crime was by a fairly contrived coincidence on the island of Hedeby on the day that it was committed, and because there was a festival, there was plenty of photographic evidence, which is scoured over in detail in the book. Mainly I view it as a contrivance (an exciting contrivance, nonetheless) to bring together the characters of Blomkvist and Salander and get them copulating. And to explore some issues like violence against women and touch on the issue of trafficking of prostitutes (expounded on in greater detail in the sequel), without seeming too preachy, something that the book does very well.

Salander’s own backstory provides plenty of room to explore similar issues – there is of course the scene where she’s “taken advantage of”, but despite the book not giving away very much about her backstory (again, expounded upon in book two), it does paint a picture of a young women very much let down by society and placed into the care of bad men. Evidently, Larsson witnessed a rape of a girl as a teenager, and a lot of the book, and the way he writes Salander, is about his guilt that he never did anything about it.

As for the other characters, I thought they were all brilliant. I loved the way that little details about the background of Salander’s boss Armansky, a fairly minor character, were described fully and without abbreviation. It was things like that that really made the book come alive for me. But, and it’s a fairly big but, there were masses and masses of characters, and I’m a great fan of keeping things simple. This was perhaps compounded by the fact that half of the characters in this book were Vangers. They could be called by their first names, but it did start getting confusing after a while. Helpfully, however, a family tree was provided at the beginning of the book. At the same time, it was only a few characters like Armansky who got a full lowdown by the book, and some other names, particularly of Blomkvist’s colleagues, were mentioned once and then brought back up in more detail many chapters later, leaving me going “who?” a couple of times.

The structure of the book was in parts, which seemed to work for the most part, but the narrative kind of breaks down towards the end, because the main storyline is finished, but there are still loose ends from the beginning of the book to tie up – a story for the magazine that Blomkvist needed to write and Salander was to research for him. It makes for interesting reading, and it was nice to focus on Blomkvist’s magazine Millennium, which had been in the sidelines for most of the book and becomes more important again in the sequel, and it wouldn’t have fit into the second book, but it makes the book suffer from a massive case of Lord of the Rings-style ending fatigue. It’s kind of as if Larsson had forgotten about the plot elements he introduced in the first few chapters and had gone back to them last minute to tie them up again, when he could have just left them out and it’d have worked OK.

Now, the other thing I’m going to complain about in the book’s case is the translation. Apart from the title change, it gets sloppy in places. Presumably to try and create a sense of Swedish atmosphere, it never translates any names out of Swedish. So you get lines such as “at Svenska bork bork bork, the Swedish national television station” rather than just “at the Swedish national television station”. Perhaps it can’t be avoided – in this particular example, it probably had to introduce the acronym or something, which is fair enough. But it manages to wildly fuck up at various other points, like using “Goteborg” instead of the Swedish “Göteborg” or traditional English “Gothenburg”, or in one particularly infuriating example, “the village had a road running through the centre of it, which was naturally called __”, __ being what I presume is the Swedish word for “Main St” or something. I think the translators need to sit back and remind themselves that they have this job to do because we don’t understand Swedish.

Anyway, aside from the assorted complaints, brilliant book which should be read by everyone. Now onto the film… I’ll try and keep it short!

As I mentioned earlier, I watched this straight after reading the book, so I got a fairly good impression of all the bits they’d cut out – quite a lot, with a dense book like this. Essentially, it was pared down to the basic plot of the murder mystery and the various plotlines involving Salander; the fact that Blomkvist goes to prison, which is a big deal in the book, and the epilogue section where they tie up all the loose ends, and his magazine job and lover Erika Berger, are now mere footnotes. They still solve the mystery, but by a less convoluted route.

I thought they did a very good job, all things considered. The book is dense, but not nearly as dense as the later ones. Noomi Rapace is pretty much perfect as Salander – she carries herself in exactly the right way and has that petite look which is appropriate for the character, while Blomkvist’s actor is evidently a very famous man in Sweden and gets all the major acting jobs like this one – and he’s quite deserving of it, too.

The details beyond that would be nitpicking and it’s been a while since I watched the movie, so I can’t add much more than that. However, I will say that I did get very pissed off at it when it gave away what was essentially a spoiler for the second book near the end. It is a spoiler, about Salander’s mercilessly hidden backstory, that gets revealed fairly early in the second book, but a spoiler nonetheless. Grr.

But again, worth watching, and worth reading. Definitely worth it.

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One Response to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

  1. Pingback: Book #108: The Devotion of Suspect X (2005) | reuoq

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