Swedish Suspense

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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, left, and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson's international bestseller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has already been made into a movie in Sweden, but it is almost certainly going to be remade in English by Americans. There's already a producer attached, (Scott Rudin), a director being discussed (David Fincher) and rumors circulating about who might play the female lead, Lisbeth Salander — a tattooed hacker with major issues and loads of unusual sex appeal. Will the part of the reed-thin computer genius go to Natalie Portman? Maybe Kiera Knightley? Kristen Stewart?

All this speculation seems somewhat foolish once you've seen the Swedish film adaptation of Dragon Tattoo, subtitled in English and arriving in America this week after storming the European box office. The Lisbeth you know from the books (and an awful lot of you do know her — the paperback of Dragon Tattoo just finished its 36th week on the New York Times bestseller list) as a flat-chested Swedish girl with spiky hair, punk clothing, black lipstick and a bracingly bad attitude toward rules, has already been found. Her name is Noomi Rapace and she owns the part. If I were Portman, Knightley or Stewart, I'd be shaking in my boots. Actually, this Lisbeth could scare Jason Bourne.

The movie, helmed by Danish TV director Niels Arden Oplev, is a much-streamlined version of Larsson's book. (It's also the first of a franchise; cinematic adaptations of Larsson's two sequels were also released in Europe last year.) The basics are there: a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (played just right by Swedish star Michael Nyqvist) is hired by an elderly industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to investigate the disappearance of his 16-year old niece Harriet 40 years ago on a remote island. Henrik believes Harriet was killed by a member of her large and thoroughly nasty family and he wants Blomkvist to figure out whodunit. Salander ends up helping Blomkvist and falling for him, although the concept of love is alien to her; she's so anti-social that Blomkvist speculates she has Asperger Syndrome.

The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, but it whisks along in a business-like way, not sparing a minute for red herrings. The only times it slows down are during a couple of grisly, graphic moments involving rape and torture — scenes that are hard to endure, even if readers of the book know they're coming. The supporting characters are less memorable on screen than on the page; Taube's Henrik in particular sadly doesn't make much of an impression, while Lena Endre is an outright weak choice to play Blomkvist's editor Erika Berger. But if Dragon Tattoo gives short shrift to some of its players, it excels at giving us a sense of place, whether it's the frigid coastal setting of Sweden's Norrland, where the Vangers have their imposing compound, or a murderer's fastidiously ordered torture chamber.

If you've read the book, you can't help comparing and contrasting both versions constantly. Oplev's movie whisks key characters right out of the plot, either by death or omission. Much of the journalistic intrigue is gone (sadly, since presumably this was an element precious to Larsson, who like Blomkvist was a financial journalist before his death in 2004.) The changes may jar those viewers well-versed in Larsson's work, but because of them Oplev is able to tease more thrills out of the material than they might expect. Blomkvist twice stumbles unwittingly into suspenseful situations involving spooky houses and while we're annoyed that he's less savvy than he is in the book, you want to feel the urge to cover your eyes in a thriller like this; by tinkering, Oplev amps up the tension even for avid Larsson readers.

The biggest thrill though is Salander, feminist icon to some, disturbed vigilante to others, who matters more on the screen than she did on the page, far more than her male co-star. This Lisbeth is proactive. She inserts herself into Blomkvist's detective work before she's asked. Where you might expect a movie to also make her sassier, this one makes her, if anything, angrier, more furtive, more darkly funny. Shorn of the competing love interests Larsson gave him in the book, Blomkvist only has eyes for Lisbeth now, which makes him more likeable, but less interesting — a shame because Nyqvist could easily handle the nuance.

It's hard to blame Blomkvist for being smitten though. Rapace has some Spanish heritage mixed in with her Swedish, and her eyes are dark, almost black. Her nose is strong, her cheekbones prominent. As with the written Salander, she's inexplicably attractive. I finished Larsson's novel with the uncomfortable sense it used a good mystery as an excuse to dwell on sadism and perversity — an aspect only exacerbated on screen. I thought I'd had quite enough but Rapace's quietly simmering performance made me curious about what The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does next.