Making a movie from a best seller is always fraught. Every single reader has their own personal fantasy of what the screen story ought to be. And, as even casual movie goers know, action on the page doesn't always translate well to the screen; or worse, sometimes it doesn't seem to want to translate at all. Can the filmmaker ever really dare to antagonise the best seller fan base?
Swedish filmmaker Daniel Alfredson has spent the last few years living through these challenges. Hired by the Scandinavian producers, Yellow Bird, famed for TV crime series, to direct the second and third movies based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium thriller trilogy, he told SBS that at first the second book, known in English as The Girl Who Played with Fire, seemed begging to be “re-written” for the screen.
Like the first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (directed by Niels Arden Oplev), Fire deals with the adventures of the blandly intense investigative journalist Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and computer hacker Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace); a bi-sexual, chain smoking, anti-social, abuse victim who here kicks, hits, and shoots her way through a mind-boggling series of perilous encounters with a cast of psycho-sexual hard cases.
Trouble is, Larsson's book breaks from screen plot conventions; for starters, he has supporting characters, not his protagonist[s] plunged into high-octane dramatic highpoints and Blomkvist and Lisbeth never actually meet in person.
“We have two heroes and there is [meant to be] some love interest between them... and they never talk (as in share dialogue) on screen,” explains Alfredson. For awhile, he says, there was a lot of discussion about whether Larsson's narrative should be worked over: “But we decided that that unusual structure was part of the originality of the piece.”
Unlike some sources, who claim that Yellow Bird only ever wanted to make telemovies and were convinced by Oplev otherwise, Alfredson says that the company always intended to make features of the films, since the trilogy was prohibitively expensive as just a TV project.
The plot of Fire once again deals with sexual abuse, and the corrosive and insidious power of institutions. Lisbeth is framed for the double murder of two researchers who've uncovered a ring of sex traffickers, some of whom have strong links to political leaders. As Blomkvist tries to clear his friend's name, Lisbeth goes deeper into the sex-slave underworld, which ultimately leads her to confront her past.
Unlike Tattoo, Fire, the film, says Alfredson, is more consciously baroque, even Gothic in feel. “We have this blond giant who feels no pain and we have action where a character is buried alive, only to return!”
Alfredson is quick to point out that the outrageous events and characters of the film are all drawn directly from the book. “Look, it would have definitely felt 'too much' if it were an original screenplay, and we would have changed it, but the fact is millions,” (at last count 22million) “of people have read these books and they know the story and so (they have an expectation).”
Alfredson says that part of the originality of the Millennium series of books (and he hopes, films) comes in the way Larsson co-mingled facts with the cultural myths of post-World War II Scandinavian history only then to mix it with the conventions of the procedural thriller. “So we have to stick to a sort of realism and in the meantime we have to accept the more surreal characters...”
While the Millennium films have been generally greeted by critics with modest praise, the first two films had an emotional timbre and erotic frankness that transcends their TV movie crime production pedigree – Fire has an electrifying love-scene between Lisbeth and her lover Miriam (Yasmine Garbi). “The sex scene was in the book and the relationship was very important to Lisbeth's character since we need to see a caring loving side (beneath the hard hunter of abusers).” In terms of the scene's extraordinary explicitness, it was Rapace's idea, Alfredson says: “She didn't want it to be 'Hollywood'; she said if we were going to do it, it had to be real.”
For many, the Millennium books (and now films) are testimony to Larsson's ability to tap the cultural zeitgeist. Beneath the twisty plots and genre conventions is a deep and abiding distrust of institutions and a longing to confront the dark places in the collective psyche, say Larsson's champions. Still, Alfredson believes Larsson had only modest ambitions. The books were published when popularity for Swedish crime fiction spiked. “I really think Larsson thought 'I need a pension for my retirement'...and in being an expert investigative reporter and knowing about sex crimes, corporate and government corruption and Swedish neo-Fascism, he used what he knew best when it came to plotting the books.”
As for the fans, Alfredson says that from all that he's been able to ascertain, yes, they seem happy with the films. “I go to Q&As and there are people who just know everything about Lisbeth...” his voice trails off in an awe-inspired laugh, “they must have read the books over and over.”