Life after death

Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo nearly lives up to its juicy back story

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM By the time the first of Stieg Larsson's so-called "Millennium" books had been published anywhere, the series already had an unhappy ending. Its author planned 10 volumes total, but only finished three (plus some work on a fourth) before he died in 2004, none printed during his lifetime. The following year The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became a Swedish, then eventually international sensation, its sequels following suit (though the English-translated third won't come out here till May).

The books are addicting, to say the least, and despite their essential crime-mystery-thriller nature, don't require putting your ear for writing of some literary value on sleep mode. As a result, there's a sense of frustration and injustice that Larsson isn't around to finish the job — no doubt exacerbated by the rumors that have milled around his premature demise. Like his male protagonist, he was a well-known muckracking journalist specializing in exposing right-wing scandals (especially racist and white-power organizations), so his massive heart attack at an apparently very healthy age 50 naturally set the conspiracy theories rolling.

Then there's the matter of what happened to his fabulous, ever-escalating posthumous "Millennium" wealth: he never married a longtime partner, since his nonfiction work had drawn death threats and registration as a legal couple might have led violent extremists to their door. Unfortunately, that meant the onetime Trotskyist journal editor's fortune now flows directly to the conservative family he was largely estranged from. No doubt there will be eventual books and films about this real-life intrigue.

Meanwhile, the first of three adaptive features shot back-to-back has reached U.S. screens. (Sorry to say, yes, a Hollywood remake is already in the works — but let's hope that's years away.) Even at two-and-a-half hours, this Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by necessity must do some major truncating to pack in the essentials of a very long (600 pages), very plotty novel. Some significant relationships, back stories, subsidiary characters, most humor, and a lot of interesting detail are sacrificed; that paring down means some very disturbing violence (warning: the book's Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women) now looms much larger.

Still, all but the nitpickingest fans will be fairly satisfied, while virgins will have the benefit of not knowing what's going to happen and getting scared accordingly. Soon facing jail after losing a libel suit brought against him by a shady corporate tycoon, leftie journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) gets a curious private offer to probe the disappearance 40 years earlier of a teenage girl. This entangles him with an eccentric wealthy family and their many closet skeletons (including Nazi sympathies) — as well as dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), androgynous loner, 24-year-old court ward, investigative researcher, and skillful hacker. She and Blomkvist eventually, uneasily team up to uproot what becomes a very nasty burial ground of old misdeeds.

Director Niels Arden Oplev (replaced on the two remaining films by Daniel Alfredson) and his scenarists do a workmanlike job — one more organizational than interpretive, a faithful transcription without much style or personality all its own. Mikael is straight man to Lisbeth's wild card, yet Nyqvist is still duller than need be; Jacob Groth's original score is downright cheesy at times. Nonetheless, Larsson's narrative engine kicks in early and hauls you right along to the depot, with nary a dull moment, nor an overly formulaic one. And to think he wrote the series as a sort of hobby (supposedly basing Lisbeth on Pippi Longstocking!), doubtless never imagining in death he'd quite possibly take a turn as the world's most popular author.

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