Here’s a fun fact: Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was originally named ‘Men Who Hate Women’ in its Swedish homeland. Niels Arden Oplev – the filmmaker responsible for bringing the book to the screen – missed a trick by not similarly naming his adaptation ‘Directors Who Hate Viewers’. Much like his intensely-hateful characters, he seems to take great delight in subjecting his audience to some cinematic torture. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a rape-and-murder-mystery sans the mystery, and a character-drama minus the character … and drama. I personally find the wide-spread affection for this movie astounding. The film versions of the late Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (which include Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) are box office blockbusters in Scandinavia, and have been similarly successful abroad. Do people love the original book so much they’re willing to forgive a film that is sorely lacking in substance, motivation, action, tension, ambiguity and style?
The film stars the excellent-but-ultimately-wasted Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, a criminal computer-hacker who lazily assists journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in the hunt for a particularly uninteresting serial killer. Lisbeth is dour, determined and (obviously) dragon-tattooed. We’re told that she’s been sexually abused in the past, and shown that she’s being sexually in the present (by her parole officer no less). This, for some reason, is motive enough for her to become interested in Blomkvist’s investigation of a missing girl. That’s probably all you need to know, and frankly, all I can be bothered to divulge about the paint-by-numbers plot. Let’s get back to the title.
Men Who Hate Women is the better label for a number of reasons. First of all, the eponymous ‘Girl’ is absolutely a non-character, and not at all deserving of having a film named after all. Secondly, she is grossly outranked by the film’s almost-comical number of misogynists, who each reveal themselves throughout the interminable two-and-a-half hour runtime as if emerging from a clown-car. Were the international distributors of the book and film concerned that having the words ‘men’, ‘hate’ and ‘women’ in the title would make us immediately assume the film was misogynistic itself? That’s silly. The content of the film – in which the acts of rape, child molestation, gendercide and the methodical psychological abuse of females are tossed off as exploitative, dismissive plot points – would be reason enough to make that assumption.
I’m not necessarily accusing Oplev and screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg of misogyny. But I don’t understand why audiences would cheer on the ‘Girl’, when you can instead root for Antichrist’s ‘She’; a woman who is similarly broken down by a cruel man, and also takes her bloody revenge. At least ‘She’ is a character. Why accuse Antichrist director Lars von Trier of hating women, when he offers a richer, more sympathetic depiction of a woman ruined by male cruelty? The problem is not (only) that Lisbeth is an irresponsibly constructed “hero”. It’s that she’s an intensely boring one too.
Lisbeth is supposedly spunky, but we only ever see her being abused by men, or settling the score in a rather aloof manner. Neither of these extremes elicits much of an emotional reaction. That’s not necessarily a flaw in the film; in fact it makes sense for Lisbeth to remain desensitised to such trauma after the abuse she’s suffered in her life. But we never really learn about her trauma, and have no sense of her character outside of this abuse. She’s a computer hacker … but why? Because it’s cool? As we already know, computer hacking is one of the least interesting things to watch on screen, and among the laziest of screenwriting tricks (every piece of info required in this case is practically Googled). Is this really all there is to this character? Is she merely a thing to be raped? A nonentity with access to the internet? This isn’t a human being.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one hell of a slog. It’s unencumbered by personality or finesse. I’ve not read Larsson’s original book, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and presume that in its 450-plus page length it offers the depth and motivation absent from the film. Perhaps the book crafts tension, instead of merely trying to hit the requisite beats of a procedural, as if it were an episode of Law and Order: Stockholm. Maybe Lisbeth Salander is actually a character in Larsson’s novel, instead of just a faux-gothic cipher fuelled by a vaguely-defined sense of vengeance. Perhaps the 180-minute extended edition of the film that screened on Swedish television fills in all the gaps that I’ve been complaining about. Maybe that’s the one I should sit down to watch. Hmm…