Surveying the Millennium Trilogy
Stieg Larsson’s three crime novels, known together as the Millennium series (and still unread by me), were some of the hottest books in 2010, but the film versions also received a lot of attention, especially considering they are foreign films. Joint Swedish-Danish productions, the films were released in theatres in Scandinavia throughout 2009 and in North America throughout 2010. While the first film garnered rave reviews, the other two encountered increasing negativity. I imagine this was in part due to the inevitable backlash against anything very popular or highly praised these days, but we also cannot ignore the fact that the second and third films are simply not as good as the first.
In many ways, these movies are conventional thrillers that at times border on sensationalism and exaggeration. Therefore, the success of each movie hinges on how well the conventions are executed and to what degree possibly hackneyed or ludicrous elements are made interesting, serious, and realistic. For example, Lisbeth Salander could very easily have been a lame stereotype of an angry goth girl or completely unbelievable with her extraordinary photographic memory, but the stories add such depth to the character, and Noomi Rapace’s exceptional performances breath such cold fire and life into her lungs.
Let’s break down the films to further evaluate them.
(Spoiler warning: this article reveals certain plot points!)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev; screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg; starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.
SWEDISH TITLE: Män som hatar kvinnor
TRANSLATION: Men Who Hate Women
SYNOPSIS: Disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) and goth-hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) join together to search for a woman who went missing over forty years ago and who was connected to the mighty Vanger clan.
CONVENTIONAL ELEMENTS: Mix-matched detective duo for protagonists; unsolved murder plot; closed, atmospheric setting of the wintry Vanger estate.
VILLAINS: Anti-Semitic, misogynist father and son serial killers.
EVILS IN SWEDISH SOCIETY EXPOSED: Old money Nazi sympathizers; sexual harassment in the probation system.
SALANDER’S MOST NOTABLE OUTFIT: Standard goth—black leather jacket, black eyeliner, facial piercings, etc.
MOST SHOCKING MOMENT: The revenge rape.
VERDICT: Although the picture is a fairly conventional murder mystery, it is skillfully executed and features some uncommon strengths, in particular Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander. The most involving, suspenseful, and harrowing of the three films.
RATING: 8 out of 10.
The Girl Who Played with Fire
Directed by Daniel Alfredson; screenplay by Jonas Frykberg; starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.
SWEDISH TITLE: Flickan som lekte med elden
TRANSLATION: The Girl Who Played with Fire
SYNOPSIS: As Blomkvist and the staff of Millennium magazine prepare a feature on prostitution and human trafficking for publication, Salander is framed for three murders. Blomkvist and Salander work independently to find out who is really behind the murders.
CONVENTIONAL ELEMENTS: Disfigured criminal mastermind; physically abnormal henchman; protagonist framed for murder; protagonist buried alive; surprise revelation of the protagonist’s father’s identity.
VILLAINS: Crime lord father, and killer brother who cannot feel pain.
EVILS IN SWEDISH SOCIETY EXPOSED: Swedish sex trade; moral corruption of government officials; secret government dealings.
SALANDER’S MOST NOTABLE OUTFIT: Black athletic clothing, face covered in white makeup with a red slash painted across—killer mime?
MOST SHOCKING MOMENT: When Salander is shot and buried alive, then digs her way out and takes an axe to her father’s head.
VERDICT: The least engaging of the three movies, mostly because even though Salander has been framed for murder we rarely fear that she is not in control of things. Salander’s hulking and nearly invincible evil brother is like a James Bond villain.
RATING: 6 out of 10.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
Directed by Daniel Alfredson; screenplay by Ulf Ryberg; starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.
SWEDISH TITLE: Luftslottet som sprängdes
TRANSLATION: The Air Castle that was Blown Up
SYNOPSIS: Salander is hospitalized after her violent encounter with her father and is subsequently put on trial. Blomkvist investigates to clear Salander’s name and to figure out why Swedish authorities have mistreated her.
CONVENTIONAL ELEMENTS: Trial of wrongfully accused; shadowy government group.
VILLAINS: Pedophile psychiatrist, older generation government operatives, and, still, the evil brother.
EVILS IN SWEDISH SOCIETY EXPOSED: Covert illegal government operations; corruption and abuse in legal and medical institutions.
SALANDER’S MOST NOTABLE OUTFIT: Full-on goth with intensely spiked Mohawk hair.
MOST SHOCKING MOMENT: The rape video when shown in the courtroom.
VERDICT: A solid final chapter that satisfactorily wraps up most of the loose ends of the story, granting importance to certain parts of the previous two films that originally seemed unessential. The only aspect that was dealt with unsatisfactorily was Salander’s brother; he is never explained and hardly humanized.
RATING: 7 out of 10.
The Millennium Trilogy will be mainly remembered for Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, for the character is the backbone of the series and the source of our greatest interest. Containing such a fascinating, layered protagonist, this engaging and well-made trilogy of thrillers deserves much of the hype.
The films should also be applauded for their direct confrontation with misogyny and for their hard-hitting depictions of sexual violence (especially shocking to our North American eyes constantly lulled by Hollywood and television). However, I suspect these strong and difficult themes owe more to the author Stieg Larsson than to the filmmakers. Larsson engages with disturbing topics not uncommon to thrillers—like rape or serial killers—but he wants to explore the causes of such terrible things. Nurture is emphasized over nature in these stories; environment and social influences create an individual. For example, misogyny is repeatedly something taught father to son in these stories, and not just an evil someone is born with. Perhaps this is because Larsson seems more interested in social criticism than philosophical discussion. These movies (and I imagine the books as well) are less concerned with human nature and more with how social structures, like families, damage people and create monsters.