Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev discusses how he overcame early hesitation to adapt Stieg Larsson's acclaimed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the screen.
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25 Mar 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy has sold around 22 million copies worldwide. Journalists have described its hold on the imagination of readers in Scandinavia and Europe as achieving a kind of Harry Potter-like cultural impact.

Still, that kind of hype needs a serious qualification; Larsson's books are a long way from fantasies that can lure a wide, all-ages readership looking to feel good. Larsson's work is dark, very violent, and dense. They are modern mystery thrillers in a hard-boiled tradition of crime fiction, written in a no-nonsense, austere style that emphasises plot over poetic prose (at least that's how the English translations by Reg Keeland read). Larsson, who did not live to enjoy his success (he died of a sudden heart attack in 2004) was a serious investigative reporter of the top rank, before his first book was ever published. An expert on corporate malfeasance and contemporary manifestations of fascism, Larsson's fiction reflects his obsessive interest in the way corruption is both a threat and a curse. The books are in a sense a grim, and according to experts, authentic commentary on a dark seam of hidden history in Larsson's homeland. The first in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo appeared in 2005 and its deep and tangled storyline offers at least on the surface, a classic thriller narrative; a missing person case that looks like murder. But the plot ultimately takes in Swedish Nazis, white-collar crime, a serial killer and a famous (and fictional) family who have more than one skeleton rattling away in a closet that they are determined to keep firmly shut.

The movie rights were grabbed by Yellow Bird, which wanted to turn the books into a series of feature-length telemovies and approached Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, well known on the festival circuit for his features Portland (1996) and Chop Chop (2001) to direct. He surprised them when he turned down the offer: “I had no intention of making a thriller…most of my work was in drama and Swedish thrillers just don't do too well at the box office,” he tells SBS via phone from the US where he is preparing his next film.

He had to be convinced to read the books and when he did, what intrigued him was not the plot but the story's pair of mismatched 'detectives'; investigative reporter Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and the twenty-something punkish computer hacker Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace).

“It seemed to me that the books were more about these characters than the plot and I could see it had a grandiose quality and I thought you could do it as a sort of Silence of the Lambs.” Indeed, Oplev's film has, at least superficially, a few quirks in common with Demme's oscar winner; especially in that its genre framework becomes a vehicle for a progressive commentary on gender and sexual politics (in Swedish the first book was called Men Who Hate Women).

“It's a crime story with a strong social critique,” Oplev says. “I think the strongest fuel for writing the book was violence against women. But everything is there for thriller lovers.” Certainly, in the film Oplev delivers the conventions with great skill and no apologies; there's chases, fights, sudden plot reversals and several quite brilliantly attenuated suspense set pieces. He says, though, his heart was elsewhere: “What you don't expect is Lisbeth; this hardcore woman – a dark angel – she is a punker, a squatter, a sort of cousin to Luc Besson's Little Nikita…and really she takes over the story.” He says it was this character that was the key to Larsson's success.

“Women identify heavily with this character, she's violently treated – but no matter what happens to her she never becomes a victim.” In the story Lisbeth is a former psych patient with a violent past who come under the “care” of the state.

In adapting the novel Oplev elected to dedicate perhaps twenty minutes of the movies two and half hour running time to a subplot about Lisbeth's abusive legal guardian. “That would never pass a Hollywood producer,” he argues, ”because its so peripheral to the plot.”

Oplev says he wanted to do a big screen, pop thriller with a serious undertow with the kind of cast and budget to match. He didn't want to do a quickie, TV type thing. He sold the producers on seven conditions including final cut, casting, final script approval and the epic running time.

In the book, Oplev says, Blomkvist is actually the main character and Lisbeth is a kind of “side-kick”. What Oplev and his co-scenarists, Rasmus Heisterberg and Nicolaj Arcel, did in the adaptation process was to make Lisbeth equal to Blomkvist in importance and narrative status. “We're actually 74 minutes into the film when the pair meet,” he explains. “The structure the producers wanted was to begin the film with their first meeting. The interesting thing is that no one now comments on it now – it wouldn't happen in Hollywood!”

Oplev was passionate about Lisbeth's subplot – which involves a graphic and disturbing sadistic assault on a young woman, because it refracted the larger plot; a terrible conspiracy, where for generations, young women had been captured and tortured. “In this way you don't have to show what the bad guy has done because you already have it in your head.”

As much as Oplev protests that in some ways he found the tropes of thrillers a little too routine, he applies them to his version of Larsson's narrative with a passionate fidelity. For instance, Dragon offers the classic thriller trope of an anti-hero detective who is hiding behind a job…only to get involved personally, politically and emotionally. When the aged industrialist Vangar (Sven-Bertil Taube) offers the sad, disillusioned Blomkvist a job –to find his niece Harriet, who disappeared forty years earlier – it's clearly a chance at redemption. Recently humiliated in a libel trial Blomkvist is moved by the faith Lisbeth has in his integrity. “He's a writer, who can't write,” says Oplev. “He sees a strange parallel in the mystery he's researching for Vangar and the mystery of this strange and emotionally dysfunctional “partner” he has. Lisbeth and Blomkvist lives have been derailed. By getting involved in each other and the case they get a second chance – and that's one of my favourite themes in stories. He dares her to have normal emotions.”

The novel is interior; much of the books 500-plus pages are taken up with detailed descriptions of what Lisbeth and Blomkvist digest in manuscripts, police reports, and photos. Oplev and his key creatives use a kind of JFK type montage of images to keep the action churning; re-calling conspiracy thrillers like Blow Up, Blow Out and The Conversation, we return over and over to a set of visual clues that, it seems, hold the secret to the mystery.

“What we wanted to stress was it was possible for the audience to be inside Blomkvist's computer,” he says, as he sifts the evidence. “People said, how are you going to do it because they're sitting down at computers and reading police reports and looking at old photos,” he says, they were worried it would be boring! And I ne`ver looked at it that way. It's about different levels of information. You can get an audience involved in a character and when a man stares at a photo, its possible to make that man's passion the audience's passion.”

Oplev says that Dragon is the most successful Scandinavian movie ever made; it's already grossed $100million – and that's from mostly European territories. The second and third films in the Millennium series have already been produced and released but Oplev wasn't involved: "I didn't think, given the restrictions of time and budget that I could deliver the same quality as Dragon."

He reckons that part of the reason for its impact is that the film is shamelessly emotional. It is also because it touches on something that still resonates with the home-audience; a sense of things left undone, of wounds that need to be healed. “In 1986 the Swedish PM, Oloof Palme was gunned down and the killers were never caught.” Dragon, he says has caught something in the zeitgeist, a need to get the “bad stuff” in society out in the open and have it dealt with.

The other books in the series are The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who kicked the Hornet's Nest