Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson's Posthumous Masterpiece

Lisbeth Salander... crime against women...Sweden at the forefront of modern literary history being created. Does any of this ring a bell? No. Ok...seen anybody at the airport, the neighborhood coffee shop, at a park holding books with titles such as 'The girl with the dragon tattoo', 'The girl who played with fire' or 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'? If not, you will definitely hear about all the above very soon, actually by the end of this year when Hollywood springs on us its, hopefully not too watered down and deviated version of the first  book in the series 'The girl with the Dragon Tattoo' and introduces a character that will quite possibly go down in film history, as it has in the history of modern fiction, as enigmatic, oddly distinctive, misunderstood yet so lovable that we want to reach out and give her a big hug. Her name is Lisbeth Salander. And the series 'The millennium Trilogy'.

The thoughts I bring here today, long before the Hollywood versions arrive, are of the backdrop of the books and their swedish movies versions that had hit select theatres across America this past year and are now on DVD. I am not reviewing any one movie here, but giving my views on  how the entire trilogy translated onto the big screen in it's original Swedish version, having first read and then sitting through the cinematic interpretations of the trilogy.

The author, Stieg Larsson was a political activist and journalist. He was deeply involved in researching and documenting right wing extremism and racist organizations in Sweden during the '80s and '90s. Being an extremely influential voice on these subjects, he lived for years under death threats from his political enemies. For his own recreation, in the mid '90s he created the synopsis of 10 books in the crime fiction genre and then went on to complete the first three in the series, which were taken up for publishing in his native Swedish as well as German and Norwegian in 2004, months before his sudden demise of a heart attack. 

Only a few months later, Sweden was to be introduced to a brilliant novelist when the first book was unveiled. Initially titled in Swedish which meant 'Men who Hate women', it went on to become a phenomenon in Europe and quickly got picked up to be published in English under the title 'The girl with the dragon tattoo'. In quick succession, were published the other two completed manuscripts, 'The girl who played with fire' and 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'. And the crime genre in fiction has not been the same ever since.

We are taken on a whirlwind ride into the worlds of Mikael Blomkvist, Erika Berger and their monthly magazine Millennium for which Blomkvist is an investigative journalist. He is hired by a millionaire to investigate the age old case of his missing niece of nearly 40 years. The grounds of the first book is mostly covered in solving this mystery and in the process unveiling probably the most enigmatic literary heroine of the last decade, Lisbeth Salander. While the first of the series follow the mystery at hand, it also lays the ground for events we are going to be hurled under in the remaining books. The rest of the trilogy delves into Lisbeth's tainted past and investigates hidden truths exposing a conspiracy that reaches the highest echelon of the political scenario in Sweden. A face of Sweden, largely unknown to outsiders, is brought to light. Larsson's professional background translates into shocking details found in the books which even though fiction, reek of the existing underbelly in Sweden's politics and law enforcement.

Crime against women and the shameful men who perpetrate it, is largely the common thread pool of the trilogy. Apparently, as a teenager Larsson had witnessed the gang rape of a girl and had been unable to stop the crime, leading to a lifelong hatred towards crime against women. That girl's name was Lisbeth. Not a coincidence, I am sure. Though the thriller/crime genre is commonly considered pulp in the modern fiction world, I have to applaud Larsson's research, the weight of his words and the exquisite detailing, so much that the books play out like a movie in our heads. The books are highly atmospheric. The snow clad small towns of Sweden are as vivid as the murky political world in Stockholm.

The worldwide success of the books heralded the cinematic versions in Swedish. Prior experiences have shown great books make not for great movies, with very few exceptions. This was going to be an extra hard job, for the series is liberally sprinkled with situations of graphic violence and one extremely  detailed rape which is at the heart of the books. Playing with it, could take the entire punch out of the drama. Thankfully, the swedish movies have succeeded to a great extent in keeping the essence of the books intact. The grittiness, the edginess are all there.

'The girl with the dragon tattoo' is eerily close to the book and gets the most important detail right, giving us the correct Lisbeth Salander in Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. The misunderstood, socially challenged child woman delinquent, genius/ hacker vigilante with  a penchant for goth wardrobe and a body full of tattoos is brought to life by Rapace's accurate potrayal. Michael Nyqvist gives a decent potrayal of Blomkvist.

The second installment 'The girl who played with fire' is a good followup to the first movie and gets its facts correct as well. It is safe to say that if one is not a reader, you can get away with watching the first two movies. Though, in no way can I undermine the pleasure in reading the books. Where the movies falter is in the depiction of the final installment, 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'. This movie loses a good part of the book as the magic of the superlative writing is in the details, the questions it raises and the explanations given. There is not as much of the physical action of the first two books happening here and the movie absolutely fails to capture the details, sidesteps a lot of interesting plot lines and even though ending well, it lost me as an audience pretty early on.

If the series interest you, watch the first two movies even if you haven't visited the books, but do yourselves a favor and grab a written copy of 'The Girl who kicked the hornet's nest' and reel under the masterful kick the grand finale delivers. A pity, we never will find out how Larsson would have played out seven more narratives around his marvelously etched characters. This could well have been the Harry Potter series in adult crime fiction. Alas!

The entire series is available on Netflix Instant Play

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