[8 April 2010]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
MIAMI — Like just about everyone else who has read and marveled over Stieg Larsson’s dark, violent international bestseller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” director Niels Arden Oplev is mesmerized by Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s pierced, fierce computer-hacker heroine.
“The book is part Agatha Christie with punk squalor infused,” says Oplev, 49, whose brooding Swedish-language version of “Dragon Tattoo” is in limited release and opens in more theaters Friday. “There’s the isolated island, the dark secrets, the missing woman, the filthy rich family, the freezing cold, a classic investigator ... But the genius of it is Lisbeth’s character. She’s totally unusual. When she comes in, that’s when the book takes off. My joke is that she is the scariest thing coming out of Scandinavia since ABBA.”
Lisbeth, who joins forces with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of 16-year-old Harriet Vanger from her family’s home almost 40 years earlier, is surely the main reason “Dragon Tattoo” has captured the imagination of readers and filmgoers. The Millennium trilogy — of which “Dragon Tattoo” is the first installment — has sold more than 26 million copies worldwide, according to Entertainment Weekly, and the third, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” won’t even be released in the United States until May 25. It’s already cracked Amazon.com’s Top-10 bestseller list — at No. 6 at press time — based on preorders. (Larsson, sadly, knows nothing of this frenzy; he died in 2004 at 50 after a heart attack.)
Oplev’s film, which was released in Swedish theaters in February 2009, boasts equally impressive numbers: it racked up $100 million in European box offices before it even opened in the United Kingdom or Ireland, Oplev says. “That I can tell you has never happened for any Scandinavian film.”
In March, “Dragon Tattoo” quickly sold out at the Miami International Film Festival, leaving procrastinators waiting in line outside downtown’s Gusman Center. When it opened in 10 U.S. markets, it grossed half a million dollars its first week, “a great start” for a subtitled, foreign-language film, according to Edward Arentz, managing director of Music Box Films, which is distributing “Dragon Tattoo” and the rest of the trilogy. (Music Box also distributed the French film “Tell No One,” the top-grossing foreign-language film of 2008.)
So why the furor over what is essentially a fine suspense novel? Strong, atmospheric writing; a complex and intriguing plot; startling details about corruption and violence in Sweden, but especially the unforgettable Lisbeth, “a character people really respond to,” Arentz says.
“Lisbeth has become an icon for women,” Oplev says. “She goes through this bad stuff. She’s abused ... but she never, ever becomes a victim. She fights back. She gets in your face.”
And so Oplev decided early on that Lisbeth, not the crusading Mikael Blomkvist, needed to be the film’s focus. He despised an early draft of the script — “Everything I loved in the book was gone” — but with screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, better clarified his vision.
“The premise was everything we were changing from book to film had to be invisible,” Oplev says. “You should feel that you read what happens. When they are driving around Sweden finding all the murder sites, you should feel you read that even though you didn’t.”
Fans may notice some significant (but not jarring) changes. Actress Noomi Rapace, a formidable Lisbeth, isn’t the 95-pounder described in the book but a slightly more substantial (and realistic) size. And Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) isn’t quite the Lothario he is on the page.
“I wanted the love story between them to be strong,” Oplev says. “The screenwriters said, ‘Then Blomkvist can’t sleep with everybody who’s 37 degrees Celsius!’ In the book he sleeps with EVERYBODY. He should go into one of those clinics for sex addiction that all the male actors go into when they have affairs. Although I think the clinics would give up on him.”
And so Blomkvist’s sex life was pruned to a more sedate level, although to call his relationship with Lisbeth “romantic” might be a stretch. But neither Oplev nor the screenwriters would shy away from “Dragon Tattoo’s” sadistic — and suddenly controversial — rape scene, in which Lisbeth is savagely attacked by her guardian. And though she eventually takes revenge — a situation that elicits cheers from a large chunk of the female audience in every country, Oplev says — some critics have complained that the rape is exploitive. It is, however, crucial to the novel (originally titled “Men Who Hate Women”) in theme and as a setup to the events of book No. 2, “The Girl Who Played With Fire.”
“In the U.K. and the U.S. there’s been a stronger reaction about the rape scene than there has been in Europe,” Oplev says. “Certain critics, both male and female, seem to have gotten thrown off by the graphic violence against Lisbeth. They’ve not really understood the rape scene is made to make the audience uncomfortable. It’s of vital importance to me that it NOT be entertaining.
“In Larsson’s book, it’s a very important part of the story. The book is entertaining, but I wanted to keep the political edge of the subject of violence against women. I wanted Larsson’s vision to live on. I didn’t want it to become toothless. So I chose to make this scene really tough. But, interestingly enough, the scene does not show more than five seconds of the attack. It’s all preparation… . I wanted the audience to feel horrific. Rape is a horrific thing. I have a wife and two teenage daughters and a strong old mother who is 89 and was a feminist before the word was defined. She has OK’d the film. I would hate if somebody thought I did that to exploit women.”
Oplev opted not to direct the rest of the trilogy. “I said no upfront to do all three for a variety of reasons ... All had to be shot in a year, and I just thought it would be impossible to try to finish such a big film in postproduction and direct Nos. 2 and 3 at the same time.”
Music Box plans to release the other films in the United States later this year, tentatively scheduling “The Girl Who Played With Fire” for July, with “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” due around Labor Day weekend, Arentz says. “The second ends as a cliffhanger, so it’s vital we don’t keep people waiting too long.”
Acquiring the rights to “Dragon Tattoo” was a coup for tiny Music Box.
“The book only caught on in the U.S. a little after it was first presented to us,” Arentz says. “A lot of American buyers weren’t aware of what it was. To be fair, I wasn’t either. We only became aware because the film was so popular in Europe in the summer of 2009. Then it dawned on us: ‘Wait a second, this book is incredibly popular here, too.’ And it’s just a good thriller.”
Meanwhile, Sony Pictures plans its versions of the films, with Scott Rudin as producer and Steve Zaillian, who won an Oscar for his “Schindler’s List” adaptation, working on a screenplay. David Fincher (“Zodiac”) has expressed interest in directing, but the film has not yet been cast. Rumors have suggested Natalie Portman or Kristen Stewart as potential Lisbeths.
Oplev, who is still irate at a Sony Pictures press release he says claimed his film was made for TV, has no problem with someone else’s reinvention of his vision.
“I’m fine with that,” he says. “I wish them luck. But they have to get up early in the morning to compete with my version.”