by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - November 29, 2010) Every time I watch one of the films based on Stieg Larsson's novels I have to remind myself to relax. That is because the three films -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest -- all push and pull me to the proverbial edge of my seat. They grip me, twist me, and turn me. I even grab hold of the armrests on the seat in which I am sitting. I do that for my own safety and as though the scenes on screen might spill into the auditorium and knock me about. Relax, I say to myself.
The three movies have had power over me in part because I am a sucker for film noir. I have been ever since I saw Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946) in Paris in 1961 when I was 20 years old. That year I learned for the first time that there was such a thing as "film noir," that an actor named Humphrey Bogart often played the detective in noir, and that while Hollywood invented the noir film genre, the French gave it its name.
William Faulkner worked on the screenplay of The Big Sleep; Raymond Chandler wrote the novel upon which the film was based. Though Hawks changed the ending, he did not entirely dilute the dark message, the menacing characters, and the ominous atmosphere.
Likewise, the Swedish director Daniel Alfredson has not entirely purged the subversive elements from Larsson's novels, though the movies are less overtly political. Alfredson directed the last two films based on the novels. Niels Arden Oplev directed the first film. Alfredson's versions are closer to Hollywood than Oplev's.
That Stieg Larsson would write a trilogy that takes on the powers-that-be in his own country was perhaps inevitable. In his native Sweden, he was a political activist for the Communist Workers League and the editor of a Swedish Trotskyite journal. From 1977 to 1999, he worked as a graphic designer at the largest Swedish news agency. Not surprisingly, one of the heroes of the Millennium Trilogy is a no-holds-barred journalist who believes in the old cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. Larsson died in 2004 at the age of 50. His novels were published after his death.
Hollywood noir films are often set in California -- the land of sunshine and light, promise and hope. They usually go behind the image and show that California is a land of treachery and betrayal, political manipulation and veniality. This is as true of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep as it is of Roman Polanksi's Chinatown (1974) that was influenced by the radicalism of the 1960s and by the Watergate disclosures of the mid 1970s. In film noir there is almost always corruption at the top. The genre demands it.
In all three of the movies based on Larsson's novels, Sweden is as corrupt as anywhere else in the world, including California, and so his novels -- and the films too -- deconstruct the image of Sweden as a progressive society that aims to do right by its citizens. The Nazi past, and Swedish complicity with fascism, plays a part in the novels and in the films. In The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Swedish authorities are deceitful, lying, manipulative, and more. They are implicated in the corruptions of the Cold War, and the global struggles between East and West. In Larsson's novels and in Alfredons's films, the toxicity permeates all of Swedish society and from top to bottom. It taints the courts, the medical profession, the police, and established Swedish families with wealth and power. Indeed, the power elite is insidiously evil.
Given Larsson's work as a journalist, it makes sense that the fictional journalist Mikael Blomkvist is the character on the page and on screen who uncovers the all-pervasive corruption. He is in effect the detective who gathers the clues and the evidence and who builds a case that indicts specific individuals and all of Swedish society at the same time.
The heroine, Lisbeth, is a child of the Cold War; she is literally brainwashed, sent to an asylum, and raped too. She is the ultimate victim, and she is also the quintessential rebel who seeks revenge and is unafraid to use violence to bring about individual and social justice too. With body piercings and tattoos she has a distinctly contemporary feeling about her.
Of course, the three films all use cinematic clichés. In fact, they are one long series of clichés. But they reinvent the clichés and recreate them with Swedish characters and on Swedish soil. They combine old clichés -- such as the character who rises from the grave and from death -- in new ways. (Umberto Eco once suggested that the more the clichés, the better the movie and demonstrated his point with Casablanca (1942).
Based on the box office success of the Swedish films, Hollywood is making its own version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Daniel Craig -- the newest cinematic version of James Bond -- plays the reporter. David Fincher, who is known for thrillers, is directing the picture.
No doubt, the Hollywood version will have suspense and action; it will have chase scenes and violence. It will have good guys and bad guys. What remains to be seen is whether or not it will be true to Larsson's noir vision of a corrupt society. To succeed at his task, director Fincher has to reinvent noir and go beyond Polanski's Chinatown in which Noah Cross, played to perfection by John Huston, literally rapes his own daughter and rapes California too -- steals its water for his own profit and gratification.
There is no end of corruption in the U.S.A. and it's all over the media (or some of it, including The New York Times). It will be a challenge for Fincher to recreate the venality of the Millennium Trilogy. It will require creativity to depict corruption on screen and make it appealing to audiences who have overdosed on corruption.
Film noir once told truths that reporters couldn't tell because of corporate and government censorship. In the 1960s and 1970s investigative journalists borrowed from noir; The Washington Post's Woodward and Bernstein behaved like detectives in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
In its heyday, film noir often stole the thunder of the undercover reporter -- the muckraker -- who revealed the corruptions of cities in the tradition of Lincoln Steffens. By the same token, the crusading reporters and editors of the Vietnam era -- and now the crusading editors and reporters of the Iraq and Afghanistan era -- stole some of the thunder of the old noir detective.
Meanwhile, I'm at home and on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what Fincher will do as director, and if Daniel Craig can move beyond his role as James Bond.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. (back)