the girl with the dragon tattoo

Before The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Refresh Your Millennium Memory

Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing

On November 9, 2004, Stieg Larsson climbed seven flights of stairs to the offices of Expo, an anti-racist magazine focused on investigative journalism that he co-founded, and suffered a fatal heart attack. He had spent years as an activist and journalist combatting nationalist, right-wing movements in his home country of Sweden, so much so that he and his loved ones were frequently targeted by violent groups who longed to see their enemy dead. However, he had recently received word that his Millennium series of crime novels were accepted for publication. Unfortunately, he would never see them printed.

No one in Larsson’s inner circle could ever imagine that the three novels he had written — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest — would become international bestsellers, selling over 85 million copies worldwide. The adventures of Lisbeth Salander, a Pippi Longstocking-inspired expert hacker who has survived a traumatic past, and Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist clearly modeled after Larsson, would captivate audiences around the world. Larsson filtered his leftist politics and a potent feminist subtext into a crime thriller framework; Salander and Blomkvist take down corrupt politicians, seedy patriarchs, and anyone whose impropriety affects the downtrodden.

Naturally, Larsson’s novels were ripe for film adaptations, which have taken many forms. The Swedish production company Yellow Bird, along with Nordisk Film, produced the initial Swedish-language trilogy, which was released in the Scandinavia region in 2009. (Only the first film was designed for a theatrical release with the sequels conceived as TV films; this strategy was changed after the strong commercial performance of Dragon Tattoo.) In 2010, all three films were extended and shown as a six-part miniseries on Swedish television that was later imported internationally. (This version is available to stream on Netflix.) In 2011, director David Fincher released an American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to critical acclaim and mild commercial disappointment. Now in 2018, Fede Álvarez has taken over the series and directed a soft reboot/sequel to Dragon Tattoo entitled The Girl in the Spider’s Web, based on the fourth novel in the Millennium series written by David Lagercrantz.

If you’re looking to get caught up on the series ahead of Spider’s Web, in theaters today, or if you’re looking to acquire an extra dose of Swedish procedural, Vulture has compiled a primer on all five Millennium films below.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of the first Millennium book hews closely to Larsson’s source material, which follows Blomkvist and Salander trying to solve a decade’s old crime in a wealthy family with ties to the Nazi regime. After Blomkvist loses a libel case against a corrupt billionaire, he’s hired by patriarch Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, whom he believes was murdered, and whose killer he believes has been taunting him for years. Vanger also hires Salander to investigate Blomkvist, and the two eventually get linked up after Blomkvist discovers that she has been hacking into his computer. Together, they suss out what happened to Harriet and become intimate friends along the way.

Fans of the books might enjoy Dragon Tattoo just to see Larsson’s story on the big screen, but mileage will inevitably vary for anyone else. Though the film works as a mood piece, one that takes advantage of Sweden’s icy atmosphere, neither Oplev nor the screenwriters are able to make Larsson’s labored mystery narrative dramatically or visually compelling. Part of the problem is the structure, with a lengthy first act drowning in character exposition and a tedious third act that ties up every loose end, but even when Dragon Tattoo finds a rhythm whenever Salander and Blomkvist share the frame, there’s a hollow energy that runs through the entire enterprise. (It’s also fundamentally difficult to render computer-based research into exciting entertainment.) Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist respectively bring Salander and Blomkvist to life, even though the former can mistake blankness for mystery and the latter coasts on forced charm. It’s unfortunate that such interesting characters are placed in a dull context.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)
The Girl Who Played with Fire picks up a year after the events of Dragon Tattoo, with Salander returning to Sweden after living a year abroad. She confronts her former legal guardian and rapist, Nils Bjurman, after learning that he had been trying to remove a tattoo with which she branded him a “pervert, rapist, and sadistic pig.” Seeking revenge, Bjurman then contacts some gangster associates who run an underground sex-trafficking ring to help take down Salander. She’s later framed for the murder of Millennium magazine’s newest reporter and his girlfriend, both of whom were investigating the ring. Now, it’s up to Blomkvist and Salander to clear her name and take down the baddies, who have a deeper connection to Salander than she expected.

Funny enough, the procedural elements work better in this lesser sequel, directed by Daniel Alfredson, mostly because it’s a simpler story that doesn’t extend itself too far in any direction. The story largely resembles a broodier episode of Law & Order, but that’s honestly not a bad thing in this context. The overarching flaws in Played with Fire are much more glaring than in Dragon Tattoo — plot contrivances everywhere, characters constantly reiterating events that just occurred, clumsy direction, terribly staged fight scenes — but at least the side characters are interesting and the action remains on one track. Played with Fire has all the trappings of made-for-TV, but at least it has some fun and embraces the pulp.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (2009)
The final film in the trilogy, Hornets’ Nest picks up immediately after the events of Played with Fire: Salander being airlifted to a hospital after killing her abusive father. As she lays in the hospital, Blomkvist and his lawyer sister, Annika (Annika Hallin), help clear her of murder charges while the dangerous Section, a splinter group within the Swedish Security Service, try to impede their efforts. Eventually, Salander’s case goes to trial where she and Annika fight to destroy the Section’s credibility.

Dramatically inert by design, Hornets’ Nest essentially sidelines Salander to a hospital bed, a jail cell, and then a courtroom for the majority of the film. Besides being the least cinematic installment, Hornets’ Nest essentially amplifies all of the series’ worst traits — one-dimensional baddies, sadism for sadism’s sake, didactic dialogue repeated ad nauseam — but places it in the least interesting context imaginable, complete with a protracted trial sequence and too many “research” scenes. It’s nice to see Salander’s rape video have narrative utility beyond kicking off the revenge plot in Dragon Tattoo, and it’s fun to see her don her full haircut and makeup in court almost like an honor, but other than that, Hornets’ Nest is a slog that plays like a two-and-a-half-hour long denouement.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The best adaptation of Larsson’s work if only by default, David Fincher filters Larsson’s first Millennium book displays his distinct style and works overtime to conceal the source material’s compendium of issues. Ultimately, he falters, if only because the novel shackles Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian to its myriad film-adverse ideas. As one of the best procedural directors, and someone who has previously made dense exposition absorbing, Fincher was the appropriate choice for an American adaptation, but it’s not enough to turn Dragon Tattoo into anything else. Ironically, it’s a credit to Larsson’ work: It can’t be molded to its adaptors, adapters must mold to it. The shining lights are Rooney Mara, whose unique take on Salander imbues her with edgy charm without sacrificing her innate mystery, and Reznor/Ross’s foreboding industrial score, which has become an essential text in its own right.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
Claire Foy replaces Rooney Mara as Salander in the latest entry in the Millennium series, which takes place sometime after the events of Larsson’s original trilogy. The film follows Salander as she attempts to stop a tech program that can access the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons from getting in the wrong hands. Naturally, there’s a family connection at play here and Salander must re-confront the trauma in her childhood all while ensuring that the world doesn’t get destroyed.

Fede Álvarez’s take on the Millennium series mostly involves strip-mining Larsson’s characters and established iconography to turn it into franchise-friendly affair. Granted, Spider’s Web isn’t a Larsson original, and it doesn’t try to replicate his bleak tone, but its strategy of diluting Salander into a Dark Knight figure and Larsson’ world into a Bond-like playground isn’t an improvement. Foy’s Salander remains dispiritingly superficial; she coasts on the audience’s knowledge of her character, as well as the costume design, makeup, and a ghastly Swedish accent. The plot becomes a dull game of keep away between Salander and a host of bland enemies. The cast features some stellar actors in supporting roles (Lakeith Stanfield, Vicky Krieps, Cameron Britton), but the script routinely wastes them. The emotional content is bland, the action is dumb, and all the sincere ideas Larsson interrogated are treated like wallpaper. It’s a studio film so of the moment that it makes almost all of the previous installments look unique in comparison.

Catch Up On Lisbeth Salander Before Girl in the Spider’s Web