Under the Spell of Dragon Tattoo

Comedy writer/director John Hamburg on his recent obsession with the Swedish murder mystery series—and whether the movie lives up to the book.

What is it about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

I can’t quite figure out why exactly I’m so obsessed with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy of books, but I am. My friend Teddy turned me on to the first one, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It started slow, but once Larsson introduced Lisbeth Salander, possibly the most compelling female character in modern fiction, the thing picked up speed like a 2010 Prius—well, until the last 50 pages or so, when we get a crash course in financial malfeasance and high-brow Swedish talk shows. Still, it’s an unbelievably good read—and the film adaptation was just released on Friday.

Lisbeth Salander. How the hell did Larsson dream her up? A former ward of the state—and one of the best computer hackers in the world—she’s brilliant, emotionally detached, and incredibly sexy, though she’s sometimes mistaken for a teenaged boy. She’s also really good with a taser-gun.

I actually fantasized for about 10 seconds of having my agent put me up for the directing job: “I know his last movie was about Paul Rudd having a mancrush on Jason Segel, but I’m telling you, he really loves the book,” and then thought better of it.

I tore through the first book, which is essentially a character study of a couple of lost souls—the aforementioned Salander and her partner in solving crime, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist—masquerading as a mystery/thriller.

Upon finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I ran to Barnes & Noble and bought the second novel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, which I proceeded to read in one day. And these books are not short. Larsson likes to take his time getting into his story, with simultaneously tedious and fascinating digressions about trips to Ikea, the beauty of iBooks, and the inner workings of SAPO, the Swedish secret police. The last book I read in a day was Love in the Time of Cholera—a great novel, but Garcia Marquez’s tome never had a giant villain who suffers from a rare medical condition in which he is literally unable to feel pain.

When I was done with book No. 2, I went online and saw that the third and final volume in the Millennium trilogy would not be available in the United States until May. It was January. There was no way I could wait that long. So I set up an Amazon U.K. account, and, a couple of weeks and about $70 later, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest arrived at my doorstep. That one took me about a week to get through, because, knowing that this was the last in the trilogy, due to its author having died unexpectedly at the age of 50 upon completing the three books, I wanted to draw out whatever remaining time I had with Salander, Blomkvist, and the other Swedes I had come to know and love over the past several weeks and roughly 2,000 pages.

When I finally finished Hornet’s Nest, to balm my sadness, I again turned to the Internet to read everything I could about Stieg Larsson—the left-wing journalist who, in his mid-40s, decided to dabble in fiction when he came home after a tough day digging up dirt on Scandinavian neo-Nazi organizations for Expo, the magazine for which he was the editor.

Because of his muckraking journalistic work, there were, of course, conspiracy theories about Larsson’s death, though his agent claims that he passed because he was a workaholic who smoked like a chimney, never exercised, and had a terrible diet.

I also learned that his longtime romantic partner, Eva Gabrielsson, had been cut out of his will because they had never officially married. She was, therefore, not entitled to any of the posthumous earnings of the man who, in 2008, was the second-best-selling author in the world.

And finally, I saw that a movie had been made of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it was apparently the highest grossing film ever in Sweden, and a massive hit all across Europe. This was literally the Avatar of Scandinavia, and yet, I never even knew it existed.

I watched the trailer online. It was exciting to see characters I’d spent so much time reading about come to life, but I was concerned when I saw who they cast to play Lisbeth Salander. Newcomer Noomi Rapace’s acting seemed perfectly fine, but I worried that she did not have the deranged pixie look that Larsson so vividly describes in the books. Sure, she had the Goth clothes, the jagged haircut, the dragon tattoo, but Rapace looked kind of like Famke Janssen—and no one would ever mistake X-Men’s “Phoenix” for a 15-year-old boy.

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So I went to a screening of the movie in New York with some skepticism. And to my great surprise, I thought the thing completely worked. No, Rapace is not exactly the Salander I had in my mind’s eye when I read the books—to capture that, they would have had to cast a Swedish, circa 1987 Winona Ryder—not so easy to find, I’d imagine. But Rapace definitely made the part her own.

To play alongside her, the filmmakers cast Michael Nyqvist, who not only perfectly captured the Mikael Blomkvist I knew on the page, but also starred in one of my favorite movies of recent memory, the amazing Swedish film Together.

The movie was creepy, scary, suspenseful, and, at times, very funny. It had the pace of an American thriller, but the tone of something that could only have been made in Scandinavia. I like to think Larsson would have dug it.

And so, there ends my journey with this great Swedish crime story—at least, until the American remake of Dragon Tattoo comes out some time next year. Reading about the upcoming Hollywood production, I was hit with a wave of disappointment that, as a comedy writer/director, I have absolutely none of the filmmaking skills necessary make a decent movie out of Larsson’s book (I actually fantasized for about 10 seconds of having my agent put me up for the directing job: "I know his last movie was about Paul Rudd having a mancrush on Jason Segel, but I’m telling you, he really loves the book," and then thought better of it.) Anyway, I think David Fincher, who’s allegedly attached to the remake, will probably do a better job with the material than I ever could.

Until that movie comes out, there is one last thing that gives me hope for a little more Stieg Larsson. If rumors are true, Larsson’s girlfriend, the one who was unfairly cut out of his will, has control of the late writer’s laptop, which may or may not contain... a fourth book in the Millennium series. And maybe even an outline for a fifth.

If only Lisbeth Salander were real, she’d be able to hack into Larsson’s iBook and find out if the damn thing really exists.

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John Hamburg was born and raised in New York City. He co-wrote the screenplays for Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and Zoolander, starring frequent collaborator Ben Stiller. Hamburg wrote and directed Safe Men and Along Came Polly and co-wrote and directed I Love You, Man. He has just finished co-writing and producing Little Fockers, which will be released December 22, 2010.