The Girl Who Played With Fire
2009 (UK release 2010)
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Screening at UK cinemas now
Here be Dragons but, also, here be spoilers! These spoilers will extend to the third part of the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest as well as giving away stuff from the books which didn’t make it into the movies... ooh, and also gives away something which happens to Lucy in one of Patricia Cornwell’s novels. You have been duly warned and proceed at your own risk.
I’m going to start this review by trying hard to remember something Kurosawa once wrote (probably in his book Something Like An Autobiography I would imagine) about his early days learning the ropes at Toho and the difference between a novel and a movie script... a story he remembered which demonstrates the different dynamics between a book and a movie... this is as well as I can remember it so I apologise for any small inaccuracies but the message should remain undiluted.
He’d written an adaptation and taken it for approval. In the book he was adapting, a faction of people were wanted with a price on their heads. A wooden sign is posted in a village about them and when one of them saw it, he rushed to where they were hiding and told them all about it. Kurosawa was told that his direct translation was not cinematical enough. To rewrite it so that when the person in question saw the notice, he uprooted it from the ground and ran away with it to show his friends... and that this was the correct way to do things cinematically.
Why am I starting with this little anecdote from Kurosawa? It’s because I want anyone reading this review to know that I am quite aware of the difference between a novel and its on-screen adaptation. Of course things are going to be cut or handled differently to fit the demands of the medium... I get it, I really do. I’ve not got a problem with it and I want you to trust me on this one.
So I’ll go ahead and say now that The Girl Who Played With Fire is, just like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo before it, a really good movie but it’s only a half good adaptation.
Stieg Larsson’s original novels are fantastic and I truly think they are bold, pulp masterpieces of their time. So it’s quite possible I’m a little too close to the source material to be totally subjective about this but I’ll give it a go...
I remember sitting at the cinema during the first movie thinking how annoying and commercial a decision it was that they’d left out the “swinging” sexual lifestyle of two of the main characters Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger. In fact, Erika Berger’s a major character in the books and has a very important role to play in the third part but she seems to be really pushed to the sidelines in the movies so far. When you think about it, there are hardly any of the female characters in that first book (save for a couple of the Millennium staff and the old lady who has the photographic link Blomkvist needs) who don’t end up sleeping with Mikael Blomkvist. He seems to be having sex with everyone. Both Salander’s and Berger’s affection for sado-masochistic sex is also kept out of the movies for some reason. I kept thinking that they would have to, at the very least, bring the Blomkvist/Berger sleep and f*ck together as the best of friends whenever they feel like it element into the movie at some point because what happens in the last couple of pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has serious consequences in the way that Lisbeth Salander relates to these other characters for the remainder of the other two books.
For Salander, you see, Blomkvist is her first serious relationship... the one which she has decided to go against her best instincts and finally trust someone for and invest in them after all and attempt to be a committed, loving person for them. Then at the end of the first novel, as she heads over to Blomkvist’s place to give him a Christmas present she sees him from across the street in Bergers arms and... from that moment on... she hates Blomkvist and his betrayal (as she perceives it, it’s not a totally black and white issue in the book) of her and it’s not until the very end of the third novel, some months after the main events depicted in that novel, that she decides to let him into her life again as a friend... even though he’s been helping and fighting for her the whole way throughout the second and third novels.
It’s an important slant and it’s only briefly alluded to in the second movie when we find out that Blomkvist has absolutely no idea why Salander’s been avoiding him after everything they went through in the events of the first part (just like he does in the novels). Some viewers who haven’t read the book don’t twig at all that she’s deliberately avoiding him in the movie and it’s no surprise after that little “Thank you for being my friend” message she leaves on his computer in the movie. Can’t quite remember if this note was in the original novel or not but if it was, you can be damn sure it was a covert and coded message meaning something completely other than the warm, fuzzy sentiment it comes across as in the movie.
Another glaring ommission, although not as necessary as those stated above but certainly sorely missed, is Salander’s criminal but thoroughly sympathetic global practices across the world. As she syphons off the money from the criminal organisation she’s come into contact with from the previous book and employ’s “cut outs” etc to invest and embezzle more money, she instantly becomes a multi-multi-millionaire many times over. This Modesty Blaise/Simon Templar-like figure she cuts so impressively in the novels is, again, only briefly alluded to in the movies for people who have read the books. Great swathes of her exploits were alluded to in a brief scene of her in one of her many disguises at the end of the first movie. In the second movie there are three references as far as I could make out... one scene near the start when she is instructing one of her employees how to invest her money, another scene in her former boss’s office (another character relegated to the sidelines but they’ll really need him for the third movie if they do it properly) where she acknowledges that she doesn’t need any money and then a third oblique reference on some documents Bomkvist finds in her new luxurious apartment. It was a shame they couldn’t get at least some of this stuff in the movies but there’s only so much time you can push in a theatrical release.
The film itself is very good for what it is. A tad cliched in parts (the romanticised computer hacking sequences which pay lip service to the Salander character as portrayed in the books) and the characters have, perhaps, as you can see from previous paragraphs here, been softened down a few notches to make them acceptable to a commercial cinema audience (at least in the eyes of the producers and sponsors is my guess... people liked the characters in the books enough, didn’t they?).
I find it curious that the most cinematic of the three novels (the Hollywood action fest style novel) dropped so much from it including some of the action scenes... where was the brilliant three handed foot chase sequence when Blomkvist is trying to find Slander for example? It was strange looking down at my watch and finding only about 20 minutes of The Girl Who Played With Fire had passed but we were already maybe two thirds of the way through the novel when the big, shock death of two of the characters was already upon us. All of the characters suffered from severe cutting due to length of time (they’re quite thick tomes) but the director certainly managed to pull it all together and sew all the selected highlights together to make a pretty comprehendible and watchable movie. Well done to him for that. And you got to meet Blomkvist’s sister who represent’s Salander at her trial in the third book... for most of the third novel Salander is recovering from the events depicted at the end of this movie in hospital under police arrest and the remainder of the book is taken up with her trial and then an action sequence where she faces off against her Robert Shaw-like Bondian henchman brother (as he is depicted in the movie... a less lethal and more clever version of the character than that in the novels)... and you want to see how that fight turns out :-) Hope they do it like the novel!
Actually, I thought the amount of damage inflicted on Salander in the movie version of The Girl Who Played With Fire was a little toned down compared to the novel. I wonder how many of the movie audience realised she’s been shot in the head. That she survives in the book after you have already had to give up on the character and accept her as dead is quite a tightrope of credible writing to balance on... like Lucy in the Scarpetta novels, she is only the second character I can think of off the top of my head who has survived a bullet in the head (Patricia Cornwell did her character one better by having the near fatal shot handily remove a certainly fatal brain tumour which was growing in the head of her character... thus curing her rather than killing her). I think perhaps I’m being a little harsh here because if the excellent Noomi Rapace had played her totally as the at-deaths-door-can-barely-move-vengeful-ghost-spirit she becomes at the close of the second novel... it might have stretched the ability of the audience to continue to buy into the character.
Actually, I think I’ve said enough here... I’m probably being a little over harsh on the movie but it’s only because I enjoyed the novels so much. The Girl Who Played With Fire is a really great thriller and it’s bound to be better than the US remake of it which we’re all going to have inflicted on us in a couple of years time. If you’ve seen the first movie and liked it... rush to your cinema to see this one too. It’s well worth your time if thrillers and larger than life genre characters are your thing. And certainly better than any other crime thriller playing at the cinema at the moment I would guess.