The Problems With ‘Dragon Tattoo’

Posted: September 16, 2010 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

Here I was, all jazzed about my local movie house, The Colonial, running the second adaptation of Stieg Larrson’s “Millennium trilogy,” The Girl Who Played With Fire.

I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a lot when it came out, both because of the lead performances and because people seemed interested in an honest-to-god detective story, and so I figured I’d watch that one again via Netflix’s instant viewer, just to get caught up.

And I’m glad I did – though it completely cooled my interest in the sequel – because…holy cow. As far as detective movies go, this is kind of a mess. 

Don’t get me wrong – I like that a detective novel/movie adaptation has become so popular. And I like that the popularity seems based in the odd character pairing of anti-social punk-hacker Lisbeth and straight-laced reporter Bloomqvuist. They’re engaging characters. But…it’s a really sloppy detective story. Really, really sloppy, now that I’ve watched it twice.

This isn’t a new complaint in detective stories, really. For instance, there’s that old saw about someone asking Raymond Chandler about a loose end involving a missing driver in The Big Sleep, and Chandler realizing he’d completely ignored that plot thread. Sometimes when you write a labyrinthine plot, things get lost in the shuffle, right?

But, well. That was then, this is now, and “This is now” is the most popular detective novel of the last decade and it’s got some gaping problems, such as (Oh, SPOILERS ON, EVERYONE, SPOILERS ARE SO VERY MUCH ON NOW):

The Red Herrings: In the family of Vangers, there’s a shit-ton of suspects, rattled off name after name in quick succession, some abroad, some enfeebled, some old Nazis, most dead, and any of them possible killers. But, well, we’re not stupid. There’s no dramatic punch if any of the dead Vangers killed Harriet. Then there’d be no one to confront. It has to be one of the still-living ones. Which is where Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters waves its meaty hand, thanks to…

The Astonishing(ly Unlikely) Clue: There may have been a lot of other significant clues that give the killer away, but none more damning than two photos showing the killer wore a conspicuous blue sweater the day that Harriet disappeared. What are the odds?! Dun-dun-duunnnnnnn! This leads to the climactic reveal of…

The Talking Killer: Another crime-drama trope, where the killer, once revealed, explains his motivations at length, instead of just killing the interloper like he should, thus giving the interloper time to escape (though god knows how he intends to explain that). This film really works it over, not only because the culprit’s pretty obvious early on, but because his motivations get explained all over again later. Which brings up an even bigger problem…

There’s No Body: This is significant, and by significant, I mean “Deeply suspicious.” Years and years of TV and comic books have cemented this old trope: If there’s no body, chances are there was no murder, either. Which brings us to…

The (Wildly) Misinterpreted Clue: At the beginning of the movie, kindly old Uncle Henrik receives yet another framed flower on his birthday, marking the 40th anniversary of his beloved niece’s disappearance. Now, let’s look at the given facts here:

  1. Niece Harriet used to give him a framed flower every year on her birthday.
  2. Henrik knew Harriet’s family was full of absolute monsters who treated her horribly.
  3. Every year since Harriet disappeared – her body never recovered – Henrik receives a framed flower in the mail from some exotic location.

With these facts at hand, Henrik assumes his niece was murdered – despite years of investigation saying there was no way to hide her body – and that these framed flowers are coming from a murderer who mocks him by sending him a flower every year, with a postage mark, something that a decent P.I. could use to at least start an investigation.

Umm, Henrik? I think you had a pretty important clue here, all along, for forty years running. Which means…

This Investigation Didn’t Need to Happen. At All: Sure, in the end it uncovered a greater horror (and gave Lisbeth and Bloomqvist some badassery to enact), but if at any point in the last 40 years, Henrik had hired an investigator to look into the flower issue (or hell, even pushed the local police, given their interest in the case even now), there would probably not be any story here.

Someone told me Stieg Larrson hadn’t actually gotten a chance to edit his manuscripts before his death, and while I have no idea whether or not that’s true, it would explain things. These are goofs that a thorough revising process would reveal.*

But they make me apprehensive about the next two movies – and the Fincher remakes – have in store for me.

*A note to aspiring writers: From personal experience, I am a huge proponent of the revision process. You all know the “kill your darlings” precept, but seriously: it’s important. It’s necessary, to trim the fat from your story, and also to realize which parts of your narrative, no matter how much you like them, just don’t work. Whatever you’re writing now, when you’ve finished it? Let it rest for a month or two. Then go back. You’ll be shocked what you let in there the first – or even second – time around.

  1. Daniel says:

    The first film was enjoyable enough – but you’re right, on close examination the whole thing falls apart. I walked out of the second film because it was so very, very poor. As well as having great big Pirates of the Carribean-sized holes in the plot, the film-makers have convinced themselves that they’ve given us an interesting character simply because she gets a bit gay and a bit tattooed. Ooooh the tabboos! What is this, the fifties?

  2. Lisa says:

    I just watched the first movie, and am a big fan of the books. I agree the movie had some twitchy editing. I thought they made it pretty obvious (in the movie) how it was going to end up. When reading the book, I realized that NO ONE would torture the old man for 40 YEARS from within the family and not out themselves if his niece had actually been murdered. That said, I didn’t realize who the murderer was until toward the end of the book.

    My main idea about the book (and trilogy), was that it was refreshing to NOT see the whole guy-gets-girl-and-live-happily-ever-after-ending. The guy actually did something pretty stupid (investigating main suspect’s house by himself) and got caught, only to be saved by the girl.

    Also, after the brutal rape, she got her own revenge herself and went on her merry way and worked out a nice life for herself, on her own. You almost never see this kind of things in murder/mystery novels, or any other novel.

    That, by itself, makes me recommend the books to others. I’m not sure if I would have read the books having seen the first movie, first. Also, the second book is the weakest in the series, so I am not expecting much from the movie version of it.

  3. […] the other hand, If you’ve never seen or read GwtDT, I don’t recommend it because it’s based on some pretty hinky logic-leaps. But if you’re wondering just why it’s so “feel-bad,” I’ll give you a hint: it is because […]

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