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Book vs. Film: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

June 19, 2010 at 12:32 am

[Edited, 6 Jan 2012:  This blog post refers to the original Swedish film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, and starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.  Here is a link to another post about the American remake, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.]

Like zillions of other people, I've been devouring the Stieg Larsson "Millenium" "Millennium" trilogy.  My copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest hasn't arrived yet, which has made for some painful waiting.  (Darn you, Powell's!  Why must you be so far away?)  But I anticipate an engrossing read when it does arrive.  The first two novels in the series made a joy of my 100 minutes of daily commuting.

I'm still processing my thoughts about these books.  They break many of the rules of thumb that we like to recite when it comes to writing and storytelling.  In many places they stand at odds with the standard advice beginning novelists receive.  But for all that they're compulsively readable and, let's face it, huge international megabestsellers.   So the late Mr. Larsson sure did something right.

Anyway, last night I zipped over to a local college campus to catch the film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  I'm glad I had a chance to catch it while the novel was still somewhat fresh in my memory.  I found myself continually comparing the film's storyline to that of the book, taking note of the places where the screenplay diverged from the book, and theorizing about why the filmmakers made the choices they did. 

Since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery, it's kind of hard to do such a plot comparison without some major spoilers.  So, if you haven't read Dragon Tattoo yet and don't want it ruined for you, don't read below the cut.

This is one of the more faithful novel adaptations I've seen in recent years.  The film, like the book, is atmospheric and engrossing.  The screenwriters deserve a lot of credit for their adaptation.  They distilled the essence of a somewhat lengthy murder mystery (the book is actually quite a bit longer than it needs to be, in my not so humble opinion, but that's a topic for a different post) into a screenplay while preserving the central storyline and the protagonists with remarkable fidelity.

The movie is long as movies go, over 150 minutes, but it doesn't feel long.  And it's more efficient than the book.  But movie adaptations strive for that anyway, since internal monologues and deep character introspection are extremely difficult to do on film. 

The film adaptation is very faithful to some of the darker elements of the book, and doesn't shy away from depicting in graphic detail one of the most disturbing scenes.  I have to give it credit for doing that, especially because that scene doesn't lead to an eventual payoff inside the movie -- in the film, as in the book, it sets up events in the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire.  That was a bold choice. 

(It would be interesting to hear from somebody who saw the movie without having read the book first.  Now that I think about it, I wonder if the Bjurman scenes in the movie come across as unnecessarily gratuitous when removed of their context in the overall storyline.)

Changes That Made Sense To Me, Or At the Very Least Didn't Confuse Me:

In the interests of efficiency, the film adaptation cleanly excises some plotlines that add texture to the book but which don't serve the main plot in the way a film demands.  Among these are Blomqvist's affair with Cecilia Vanger, and likewise his polyamorous relationship with Erika Berger.  The attraction is hinted at in both character interactions, but isn't played as in the book.  This seemed like a very reasonable decision.  And I say that in spite of the fact that one of my favorite pieces of character interaction in the book, a lovely little grace note, comes from the Cecilia/Blomqvist affair.  But the screenplay is definitely stronger for having avoided that diversion.

The filmmakers were also wise to dispense with the biography of Henrik Vanger.  In the book, Henrik and Blomqvist agree to a cover story for Blomqvist's investigation into the murder of Harriet Vanger.  Blomqvist's job, the one he's actually paid for, is to spend the year writing a biography of Henrik Vanger.  This gives him an excellent excuse for researching the family tree.  As a plot device in the book it works well, because the Vanger family is extensive, and Blomqvist's efforts to keep the cast of characters straight eases the reader's understanding.  But what's achieved over many pages in the book, through Blomqvist's research and interviews, is conveyed much more efficiently in film.  People make fun of montages (especially those that unspool while an 80s power ballad plays in the background), but there's a reason movies use them.  We get a little montage of Blomqvist looking up each member of the family, and taping photographs to the wall to construct the family tree.  Easy peasy.  This had the added benefit of providing a visual reference -- the family tree on Blomqvist's wall -- that the film could refer to several times throughout.

As mentioned above, it's clear the filmmakers considered this film as one part of a trilogy.  The Dragon Tattoo film also goes to the trouble of showing us a flashback scene that's taken directly from the sequel novel.  In this case, though, they do something particularly nice, and make a tiny tweak to a scene near the end that is otherwise very very close to the depiction in the book, but connect it to the flashback in a way that explicates Salander's character.  (In the book, Martin Vanger dies in an automobile accident.  In the movie, he's grievously wounded by the accident, but burns to death while Salander watches.)  That was a place where I thought the screen adaptation did a nice job of efficiently conveying information that's doled out much more slowly in the books.

Changes That Perplexed Me A Little Bit, But Which Probably Have An Excellent Explanation:

Vanger doesn't lure Blomqvist with the promise of information about Wennerstrom.   I saw no reason to remove that detail.  (Perhaps the dialogue was written and even filmed, but ended up on the cutting room floor?)  It's a small addition.  Without it, the connection between the film's opening sequence (regarding Blomqvist's libel conviction) and his decision to take the job offer from Henrik Vanger is somewhat tenuous.  In the book, there is a clear connection between the two.

In the book, Blomqvist doesn't break into Harald's house.  It seemed unnecessary in the movie.

There's a clue in the book that's actually very significant, but dropped with such subtlety that it's not obviously of any importance whatsoever until the final sequence in the book when the mystery is unraveling.  (I speak of Martin Vanger's very modern looking house, which contrasts with the more traditional homes of his relatives/neighbors, and which he designed himself.)  That information would have been very very easy to include in the film -- a single line of dialogue would have done it.  I wonder if it was in the screenplay but edited out for length?  The filmmakers had this nuance in mind when translating the book to screen, because when we see Martin's house it is in fact notably different from the others on Hedeby Island.  Why not go all the way?

Changes That Were Probably Made For Purposes Of Simplicity, But Which Had The Undesirable Side Effects Of Weakening Blomqvist's Character And/Or Feeling A Bit Lazy

In the movie, Salander sends Blomqvist an email out of the blue, after having already cracked the significance of a major clue in the disappearance of Harriet Vanger.  This leads Blomqvist to track her down, thus the partnership is forged.  In the book, Blomqvist realizes he needs help with the case, and actively requests information about the excellent investigator from Milton Security who performed his background investigation on behalf of Dirch Frode and Henrik Vanger.  But, in both cases, Blomqvist is able to deduce one of Salander's secrets -- her super-ninja computer hacking skills -- because she references a document that only exists on his laptop.  In the movie, it's apparently deliberate, and included in her email to him.  In the book, it's included in part of the file she compiles on Blomqvist, which makes for a rare oversight on Salander's part.

This alteration in the adaptation weakens Blomqvist a bit, because it turns tracking down Salander into a simple matter.  In the book, it comes as a surprise to Salander when he tracks her down.  He gains some points with her, and a grudging respect, which is not an easy thing to do.

The clue Salander cracks immediately in the film -- the sequence of Bible references in Harriet's diary -- is cracked in passing by Blomqvist's daughter in the book.  The book approach might have felt terribly convenient, but Larsson sets it up in a way that makes it easy to swallow.  Off the top of my head, I admit I don't see a satisfying way to quickly crack that clue.  The film's approach does have the benefit of being fast, and showing us that Salander is really, really smart.  So, I guess I have to give them a pass on that one.


The film does exactly the same thing a second time, near the end, regarding the revelation that Harriet is still alive and living in Australia.   Again, the filmmakers lay this major discovery entirely on Salander...  but this time, they do it off screen.  That's right-- one of the most important developments in the book is completely removed from the screenplay.  I can see how it might have been a challenge to work this in without ending up with a three-hour movie, but this cut in particular weakened the film imho.  It's still Blomqvist who goes to Australia to confront Harriet, but only after Salander solves it for him.  In the book, Blomqvist and Salander work together to confront Anita, and through tricking her they locate Harriet in Australia.  Though, to be fair to the filmmakers, the book accomplishes this via sophisticated phone tapping carried out by Salander's contacts in the 733t hax0r underground, characters who enter the book solely to perform that one function.   I don't blame the screenwriters for trying to avoid that particular piece of Plot Convenience Theater.  But the approach they did choose wasn't much better.  It's also another place where they weaken Blomqvist, because he plays no part in this crucial piece of the solution.

Changes That I Can't Get My Head Around No Matter How Much I Try:

Speaking of Anita Vanger, she is the source of my biggest head-scratching moment in the theater.

This one, frankly, blew my mind.

I do not understand the screenwriters' decisions regarding Anita Vanger.  In the book, Anita Vanger is offscreen for virtually the entire story.  Having broken with most of her family long ago, she lives abroad, and only maintains contact with one cousin.  We basically never see her, only hear about her.  In the movie, we're told up front that she died of cancer 20 years earlier.  It achieves the same thing -- keeping Anita offscreen -- but in a way that makes the eventual solution to the mystery much more obvious and much less satisfying than the way it unravels in the book.  So, I really don't understand why they chose to do things this way.

[Incidentally, in both book and movie, I have trouble suspending disbelief that nobody notices Harriet Vanger and Anita Vanger look so similar to each other.  The extent of their physical similarity isn't emphasized until very late in the book, almost until after Blomqvist and Salander have solved the mystery.  In the film, they're able to deduce that what is supposedly the last photograph ever taken of Harriet is actually a photo of Anita.  I cannot believe that nobody in the Vanger family noticed that.  Please.]

Bonus:  Things I Have Learned About Sweden From Reading Stieg Larsson Books

1. Everybody in Sweden, from famous investigative journalists to emotionally warped punk pixie computer hackers, subsists on a diet of sandwiches and coffee.  Sandwiches and coffee are to be had at all hours of the day and night (particularly the coffee).

2. Winters are cold.



Melinda June 21, 2010 at 6:41 pm
Things I've learned about Sweden -- open relationships are very chic and commonplace. :) Wow, you nailed some things I had missed. You're right, they weaken Blomqvist substantially. I understand having Salander solve the Bible mystery. There's no reason for the daughter to be in the film, but Blomqvist should have tracked down Salander. Great analysis. I'm excited to discuss the entire trilogy once you've finished Hornet's Nest.
Ian June 21, 2010 at 9:28 pm
Thanks. I worried a bit that I was way out in left field with this comparison. I had to think about it quite a bit before I could sort out my thoughts. Can't wait for my copy of Hornet's Nest to arrive...
Carol November 30, 2010 at 10:36 am
Thanks for these explanations. The Anita connection came out of left field for me, and the first email from Lisbeth to Mikael seemed a little farfetched (but now understandable). And I agree about breaking into Harald's house being unnecessary and unexplained. Yet Harriet doesn't refer to her figuring out of Martin's and Gottfried's murder connections at the end. So it all had a bit of a farfetched Hollywood feel. Noomi Rapace is a good actress who has me believing the character. Tight acting.
joan January 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm
So, it seems that some of the changes from book to film have been restored in the new Daniel Craig film version. Generally I have to approve of this.
Ian January 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm
Yes, indeed, the new David Fincher film makes several different choices with regard to the adaptation. It's a very interesting comparison-- I'm hoping to do a blog post on it later today or this weekend.
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