Reviews

'Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo Trilogy': A Well Earned Feeling of Justice

Fans of the Stieg Larsson books will be rewarded with an overall successful adaptation, as well as a set of films that stand on their own.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Distributor: Music Box
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Sofia Ledarp, Peter Andersson, Micke Spreitz, Georgi Staykov, Yasmine Garbi, Annika Hallin, Jacob Ericksson, Anders Ahlbom
Directors: Niels Arden Oplev, Daniel Alfredson
Studio: Music Box Films
Release Date: 2011-02-22

Adapting a book into a movie is never an easy process. It's impossible to include everything written in hundreds of pages into a couple of hours on screen and certainly Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is not exempt. It's especially tricky to manage when so much of the audience is already familiar with and invested in the story.

Adding to the difficult nature of these adaptations is the difference in director from film to film. Niels Arden Oplev directed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the first and third films in the trilogy, while the second film, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was directed by Daniel Alfredson and while the transition between films is fairly seamless, there are some differences.

There's no doubt that a great deal of what has made the book series as successful as it is, is due to the singular character of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Salander is the atypical heroine in a story of institutional corruption, crimes perpetrated against women, and societal expectations. The complex plot that extends throughout the three books is filled with a growing cast of characters and conflicting interests making for a challenging adaption.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the most successful of the three films precisely because it is our introduction to Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). It's a more manageable translation from page to screen and Oplev’s commitment to the material is evident. Not only does the first film introduce our protagonists, but it also involves the mystery of Harriet Vanger, who has been missing since she was a girl. Vanger’s disappearance serves as a bridge between Salander and Blomkvist and they are initially brought together in solving the mystery. Some of the most harrowing and disturbing moments in the trilogy occur in this first film and Oplev manages to present these scenes in a straightforward, non gratuitous manner making them dark and affecting.

The Girl Who Played With Fire may not be as consistent or as adept at balancing the various complicated threads that run through a large gamut of characters as the other films. However, it is still an admirable and engaging adaptation that plays to the strengths of the lead performances by Rapace and Nyqvist. The second film does away with many of the characters in the corresponding book, police mainly. Despite some missing elements the film still manages to infuse tension and suspense, particularly in the moments when it seems as if Salander’s in as dangerous a situation as possible. Here is when Alfredson’s direction comes together to create a thrilling conclusion to the second chapter of this series.

Oplev’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest has the unique challenge of a story that keeps Salander almost completely isolated from those we’ve already come to know. In addition, she is in an especially vulnerable position as she is confined to a hospital for the majority of the film. It's not easy to imbue such a circumstance with ongoing tension, yet the film succeeds in doing just that. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest also benefits from the addition of Blomkvists’s sister as Salander’s legal representation and Dr. Jonasson , the kind and capable doctor in charge of Salander’s recovery. These two add to the support system that has built over the course of the three films and they serve to emphasize the progress, small though it may seem, made by Salander herself in interpersonal interactions, as well as present sympathetic allies that may not fully understand her but still feel an affinity for or protectiveness toward her.

At the culmination of the three films there is a well earned feeling of justice. While those that have wronged Salander can never truly be punished equally for what she has had to endure, there is still a sense of real victory as the series ends. While in some ways it may seem unfair to compare the books to the movies, it is not a stretch to assume that much of the films’ audience would also already be familiar with them. It is a credit to both Oplev and Alfredson that they are as good as they are. Smart story choices and excellent casting were integral to a successful adaption because in some ways it is a series that seems tailor-made to the screen, daunting though the task may be. Fortunately, fans of the books will be rewarded with an overall successful adaptation, as well as a set of films that stand on their own.

This collection contains an extra disc of bonus features that includes several documentaries and interviews. The documentaries extend to one on Larsson himself and the phenomenon of the trilogy, as well as a ‘making o’f featurette on the fight scene between Niederman and Paulo Roberto. The Larsson documentary offers an illuminating view into Larsson’s background (including even some bits of Swedish history) and his interest in the subject matter. The interviews provide serious, thoughtful insight into the characters, particularly Rapace’s and Nyqvist’s, and some revealing moments from Roberto.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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