Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Carson Book Review - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

This is a book review. Not a script review. For those who know nothing about this book, I recommend you read it before reading any review. There are lots of surprises in the story, some of which I'll be spoiling here. You’ve been warned.

Genre: Mystery/Crime
Premise: A disgraced journalist is hired by the head of an eccentric family to solve the murder of a girl 40 years ago.
About: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the best-selling Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson and the first in a series of three books that have come to be known as the “Millennium Trilogy.” The books are so popular that Larsson became the second best-selling author in the world in 2008, behind Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. By March 2010 his Millennium trilogy had sold 27 million copies in more than 40 countries. Sadly, Larsson never enjoyed this success. He wrote the three books for his own pleasure every day after work and they were only published after his death from a massive heart attack at age 50. Larsson left about three quarters of a fourth novel on a notebook computer; synopses or manuscripts of the fifth and sixth in the series, which was intended to contain an eventual total of ten books. Recently, David Fincher signed on to direct the film, and is currently in the middle of a months-long search for the actress who will play the famed tattooed lead.
Writer: Stieg Larsson

First off, no, I don’t have this script. So I’m ordering radio silence on requests.

If you’re like me, whenever something big comes along that people say you “have to see” or “have to read,” you immediately go into Resistance Mode. A roll of the eyes. A tightening of the jaw. ‘Don’t tell me what I *have* to see. I’ll see what *I* want to see dammit!” And then you go on an illogical months-long strike of the movie/show/book for no other reason than to prove (to no one – cause no one’s paying attention) that you are not influenced by the fleeting tastes of pop culture. Okay, well, maybe that’s just me. Either way, I didn’t think I’d ever see the inside cover of the surely overrated Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But then vacation came along.

And as you know when you’re on vacation, you have to “do things” that are “different,” in order to justify travelling hundreds of miles away somewhere. And since I never have the time to read books anymore and nobody would stop talking about this damn tattooed girl, I realized that Mr. Larsson and I were going to have to make up. It was time to stop avoiding each other. It was time for me to read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Tattoo follows two main characters, the unshakeable journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the anti-social genius Lisbeth Salander. When we meet the bright but sad-eyed Blomkvist, he’s been convicted of slandering the snake-like businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom in his self-published magazine, Millennium. This has put both his business and his name in serious jeopardy, and Blomkvist, who was quite a popular figure in Sweden, has been relegated to a petty criminal by the press. Things aren’t looking good for him.

But they’re certainly better than the life of 20-something Lisbeth Salander. An orphan for most of her childhood, Lisbeth’s been bounced around from family to family, guardian to guardian, most of whom were men who physically and sexually abused her. Even now, she must report to a guardian, a man who has control over her financial assets. Asking for money always requires a sexual favor in return. Lisbeth is just a tortured individual, a dog who’s been kicked every day of her life. She doesn’t trust a soul, especially men. The only happiness she finds is in her job. Lisbeth is a crack-researcher working for private eye companies to dig up dirt on people, usually large corporate types. It’s a job she enjoys because most of the people she gets dirt on are men. It’s a small way to return the favor and speed up the karmic train.

One day Blomkvist is visited by a mysterious man who informs him that retired entrepreneur Henrick Vanger, of the famous but dying Vanger Corporation, wants to offer him a job. Blomkvist travels to the isolated and spooky island of Hedeby to meet with the reclusive Henrick, who, after a considerable amount of backstory, asks Blomkvist if he would like to write a book about the Vanger family. Henrick won’t be above ground for much longer, and he thinks it would be important to chronicle the intricate cracks and corners of his large and complicated family history.

Henrick informs him that this is only the first half of the job. 40 years ago Henrick’s 16 year old niece, Harriet Vanger, disappeared here on the island. The circumstances of her disappearance have left no doubt in Henrick’s mind that she was murdered. He has spent the last 40 years researching what happened that day, and is convinced that one of his own family members killed her.

Henrick wants Blomkvist to conduct an investigation here on the island, where all his eccentric family members live, and see if he can find any new information leading to the truth about Harriet’s disappearence. His cover story will be to write the Vanger Family History, but the real reason he’s here is to find Harriet’s murderer.

Initially reluctant, Blomkvist is intrigued enough to commit, and sets up shop on the creepy island of Hedeby, where he begins an extensive look into the Vanger family history. What he will come to realize is that the Vangers are one of the most eccentric and dysfunctional families he’s ever come in contact with. And that they are very secretive. These are people who do not want to dig up their past and they don’t want anyone, especially some criminal reporter, digging it up either. The stonewalling forces Blomkvist to do most of his research through archives, which contain more information than he could possibly sift through in a lifetime, which is why he enlists the help of the gifted Lisbeth Salander.

In short, this book is fucking great. I mean there’s been a lot of talk about nothing happening in the opening 200 pages and I agree it takes way too long to get to the plot. I’m wondering if this is because Larsson never had an editor. He was writing these books in a vacuum and I think a lot of that shows, as the last 100 pages are also somewhat insignificant and probably could’ve been cut. But once we get into the central mystery of what happened to Harriet Vanger, this book moves as fast as any I've ever read.

Because the history behind the Vanger family is so extensive, and because there are so many members of the family with ties to so many weird and eccentric experiences, there’s an endless amount of fascinating material to explore. After hundreds and hundreds of pages, we begin to realize that Harriet Vanger is just the tip of the iceberg, and that she is actually one in a series of brutal serial murders, which have been carefully covered up over half a century. Uhhh, yeah! Count me in.

I could get into all the great things about this book (as well as some of the sillier things– Lisbeth’s hacking feels a decade late and a microchip short) but in order to keep this review relevant, I wanted to talk about how they’re going to adapt it into a film, because make no mistake, it will be a difficult adaptation.

The book has some qualities that are perfect to build a screenplay around. For example, the nice thing about Larsson droning on in the first 200 and last 100 pages about Wennestrom (a villain whom, it should be noted, we never meet), is that you can lob those parts of the story off and not lose anything, allowing you to adapt a 300 page book as opposed to a 600 page one.

But here’s the thing. I watched the Swedish film adaptation of this, and that’s exactly what they did, is jumped right into Henrick’s offer. I don’t know what it was but something felt off about it, like it was all happening too fast. The book spends a hundred-some pages introducing us to all the varied Vanger family members. Being stuck on that island with that creepy clan builds a necessary feeling of isolation and fear that jumping right in there can’t do. As a result, the Swedish film felt too much like your standard cold case mystery show on TV. The investigation felt too simple and ultimately empty.

Another issue they’ll have to deal with is the timeframe, which takes place over a year in the book. Like I always preach on the site, you want your timeframe to be tight. The ticking clock adds immediacy to your story, which keeps it exciting. But like I mentioned above, a strength of the book is the way it milks its character threads, which all seem mundane initially, but eventually pay off in huge ways. Unfortunately it takes a lot of time to set up those payoffs. When Blomkvist becomes involved in a months-long relationship with Cecilia Vanger, and then is inexplicably dumped and avoided by her, we’re terrified of what she's capable of, especially as he starts unearthing the truth about Harriet. There’s also just tons of information he has to dig through over the months. The sheer amount of time he puts into this is what makes it so satisfying when he finally makes some progress. To put it plainly, I would not want to be tasked with figuring out what the timeframe is here, as both the short route and the long one have major pros and cons.

But I think where this really becomes a movie, and maybe the one area where the movie can actually improve upon the book – is the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist. Lisbeth is such a fascinating character and one of the driving forces of the novel is to see her finally break out of her protective shell and trust another human being. The novel paints a very complicated relationship between her and Blomkvist that involves an intimate work environment yet a distant personal one. What each character desires and fears always seems to be in direct contrast with one another and this broken timing weaves its way into them like a pair of frantic claws, shoving them together and ripping them apart at will, all the while leaving us confused about what’s ultimately going to happen between them. It’s a great romantic subplot because it’s different and it’s dark and it’s weird and you never have any idea where it's going to go. Most importantly, we desire to see them end up together, so it's like this huge bonus storyline that we're dying to see the conclusion to, which is already sitting on top of the mother of all plot engines, with the search for Harriet's killer.

I know Fincher is desperately searching for an actress to play Lisbeth Salander and indeed it’s the kind of role that will change an actress’ life. But I just don’t know who you can cast. Everyone’s saying Ellen Page but there’s just no way. She doesn’t have the edge that Salander needs, and yes I’ve seen her in Hard Candy. This character is like that one times 100. You need an actress with some real genuine hatred in her life to pull this off. Maybe they can get Pink or that girl M.I.A. That's a joke by the way. I offer the question up to you guys. Who do you think should play Lisbeth Salandar?

Anyway, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has the potential to finally reinvigorate a 10 year old dead genre, the serial killer flick. There’s more depth in this one novel than there were in 100 serial killer specs I’ve read over the past few years. It’s been a long wait but I think we may finally get that "The next Silence Of The Lambs."

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[xx] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I love how the main character here must hide behind a lie for his investigation. Think about it, if Blomkvist was simply asking the Vangers about Harriet’s disappearance, it would be boring – way too straightforward. Instead, he must pretend he’s doing research for the Vanger Family history. This gives every conversation/interview of his an underlying subtext, and therefore keeps the dialogue fresh and unpredictable. For example, he may ask a character about her childhood, but what he really wants to find out is what her childhood friendship with Harriet was like. Trying to steer the conversation a certain way without giving away your true intentions is always going to lead to an interesting scene. It also adds an element of danger to every conversation, because we’re afraid (and he’s afraid) of what might happen if he’s caught. The integration of this tip is story specific, so you can’t just add it to any character. But if it works for your story and your protagonist, definitely consider using it.