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Oscars Book Review: "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" Works Better Onscreen Than On The Page

Michael Chasin |
February 25, 2012 | 4:14 p.m. PST


 Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Random House)
Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Random House)
Of all of the books made into films last year, the one you had the greatest likelihood of actually reading was the late Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which could be spotted in the hands of commuters on public transit with a level of permeation not witnessed since "The Da Vinci Code."

One can never be sure why a certain work gains public interest to the level of phenomenon, and this is an especially unique case considering the book is exceedingly Swedish, taking place in the country and tapping heavily into native politics, yet still managing to find a huge international audience.

The reason might very well be that the premise, despite presented in an unfamiliar way, has a core story with simple appeal: Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist framed for libel by a powerful adversary, is sentenced to prison. He's then unexpectedly recruited by Henrik Vanger, head of a family-run industrial company, to solve the decades-old murder of Vanger's niece that took place under circumstances amounting to a locked room mystery. A standard serial killer subplot gradually comes to light as Blomkvist gets in way over his head.

The story would be entirely unoriginal were it not for the titular dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander, a mentally unstable (so the courts say) hacker extraordinaire with a violent streak and a seething, deep-rooted hatred of anyone who inflicts violence on women.

Initially hired to look into Blomkvist, he soon enlists her to help him with his investigation, and the two form an unconventional but effective team as their bizarre relationship develops alongside the narrative.

The prose is dispassionate, the events depicted as coldly as the wintery setting, and that definitely has a distancing effect on the reader. The story never really gains a pace quick enough to justify the immensely slow set-up, and the payoff isn't exactly shocking so much as a matter-of-fact revelation. Reading the novel, though, it's easy to see the appeal it might have to David Fincher, and while not fully gripping as a stand alone work it certainly creates a desire to see the story realized onscreen.

In that respect the film absolutely delivers. Rooney Mara especially is an electrifying Salander, fully realizing all the potential for the character that always existed on the page but never quite satisfies in Larsson's writing. Fincher as well proves himself suited to the material, creating a three hour film that never feels slow.

Most appreciated is a change to the ending that both makes complete sense and is far cleverer than the original conclusion. That Larsson missed the opportunity is a bit surprising, and while the book certainly deserves credit for laying much of the groundwork, the American film is, with its incredible cast, direction and excising of unnecessary material, the definitive version of the tale. Hopefully Fincher will return to adapt the next two books as well; he's certainly proven he's the man for the job.

Follow Michael on twitter, check out his blog Story is God for more on all things fictional, or reach him at [email protected].



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