Saturday, August 14, 2010

Origin Stories: Holmes & Salander

A question arises from the sharp contrast between the first and second episodes of Steven Moffet's excellent new BBC series "Sherlock," a thoroughly modernized yet utterly faithful re-aninimation of A.C. Doyle's master sleuth: Why does the introductory first episode, "A Study in Pink," seem so much livlier and more engaging than the second, "The Blind Banker"?

The quality of the direction is a factor, the energy level picking up again with a snap when "Pink" director Paul McGuigan ("Push") returns for episode three, "The Great Game." But that's not all of it. "Pink" is the episode in which the characters (Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Mycroft) are being re-introduced in their cleverly worked-out, cell-phone-and-GPS-using modern incarnations. The episode is as much about setting up situations in which the characters can win our devotion by showing us who they are as it is about crafting puzzles for Holmes and Watson to solve. Inevitably, of course, in a genre series, there is a potential for a letdown, a hint of anti-climax, as the characters become fixed so that they can trot briskly and essentially unchanged from adventure to adventure.

The three novels collectively know as The Millennium Trilogy" are the "Study in Pink" of the ten-volume series of thrillers Swedish Stieg Larsson was planning to write before his untimely demise. The three volumes constitute one big "origin story," which in addition to spinning out three ingeniously plotted puzzles (each in a different classic genre: murder mystery, political conspiracy thriller, courtroom drama) offer the never-to-be-recaptured excitement and surprise of finding out more and more about what makes these complex characters tick. The trilogy ends with a moment that's the exact equivalent of Watson deciding to move in with Holmes at 221B. Ferociously autonomous Lisbeth Salander lightens up just enough to let journalist Mikael Blomkvist back into her life, at a point when most of the issues that created tension between them have been resolved. She's needed every one of the trilogy's 1,500 pages to convince herself that she can trust him, and he's now safely in love with someone else, a (vaguely Salander-esque) policewoman. The decks have been cleared for...

For what, exactly? What would the next installment have been if Larsson had lived? Once upon a time my theory was that the series as a whole would have charted the gradual humanization, without compromise, of the Salander character. The domestication of the feral cat. That would be anti-abuse crusader Steig Larsson's wish-fulfillment fantasy -- that she could be "normalized" only by his menschy journalist surrogate.

Fans should not be too quick to denounce as greed-heads Hollywood producers who envision the "Girl" series as a potential mystery/action franchise, one that could carry on telling new stories indefinitely -- not when their inspiration could turn out to be the drafts and outlines for seven additional books left behind on the legendary laptop. That it was Larsson's plan, in the first instance to write a long series about Blomkvist and Salander isn't necessarily the best argument in its favor. A jaded author might not be the best judge of the richness of his own creations; more likely than his readers to regard them simply as puppets. Perhaps we should feel grateful in a way, that it hasn't yet come to that. It may seem morbid to say so, but like an actor or singer who dies young, with his or her legend untarnished, who never gets fat or loses his hair, the Millennium Trilogy stands now as an origin story that has not been diminished for us in retrospect by "going to series" and being boiled down to a formula.

There is something in this particular modern myth, however, that might serve to protect it from sinking into routine, from ever "getting old." It has a central character, in Lisbeth Salander, who could turn out to be irreducible, an axiom of popular culture standing shoulder to shoulder with Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, joining the ranks of heroes who represent an essential, resonant strain of wish-fulfillment. Salander is a hacker-genius variation on the classic "lone wolf," damaged and all-but feral, an intensification of the kind of uncompromising individualism readers and moviegoers recognize as essentially a fairy tale and have always loved rooting for.

This occurred to me as I was watching, finally, the conventional but quite effective Swedish film adaptation of the first of the novels, Niels Arden Oplev's  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I was as impressed as everyone else seems to have been by the performance of Noomi Rapace in the title role. This is charismatic movie star acting at its most subtle, employing body-language and posture, silence and sidelong glances, not so much to project Sakander as to draw us toward her -- an apt approach to a character who never reaches out, never lets anyone in.

I enjoyed the performance so much that, only a few minutes in, I found it no longer mattered to me that Rapace was not playing Salander -- which is to say, my Salander, the one I co-created in my head as I was reading the novels. Rapace is for me too tall, too striking (in a bony-skulled way that makes softer modes of beauty look boring) and, crucially, she is much too strong-looking, with ripped biceps and washboard abs. As a result, both the terror of the physical threats Salander endures, and the exhilaration of her worm-turns slashing responses, are muffled. (Some moviegoers who'd read the book may actually be relieved that the film scenes are less intense.) The key to our (my) devotion to the Salander of the novels is that, initially, at least, all her strength is in her spirit and her intelligence, in her hair-trigger readiness to leap in and inflict poetic justice. Miss that and you've missed her.

Movies that work, however,  are so powerfully immediate that they tend to sweep away every preconceived notion we were carrying when we came in. The "Lisbeth Salander" that Noomi Rapace co-created in her head and embodies seamlessly on the screen is such a great pleasure to watch and root for in her own right that I made a conscious decision, then and there, to set my distracting reservations aside.  Which does make the on-going gossip circus surrounding the casting of David Fincher's up-coming Hollywood "Dragon Tattoo" (the most intense since the role of Scarlet O'Hara in "GWTW" was up for grabs in the 1930s, according to some) seem beside the point. If something this satisfying can result even when a role is "miscast," why get so wrought up about it?

Bearing in mind, too, that if Salander turns out to be as durable a character as I suspect she is, neither of these interpretations, the Swedish or the British/American, is likely to be the last. Sherlock Holmes and James Bond have been played over the years by many different actors, each contributing a slightly different slant and emphasis. Benedict Cumberbatch in the new "Sherlock" is more overtly "socially dysfucntional" in the contemporary pop-psyche sense, more Salander-like, than any previous Holmes.

Lisbeth Salander now has millions of devoted co-creators. Quite a few of them are likely to be pissed off no matter who gets cast in the role. She will never be exactly the Salander anyone (except David Fincher and the actress) imagines. Best we can hope for is a result that's as thrilling in its own way as the great work of Noomi Rapace. And if so we will consider ourselves fortunate.

Cool Noomi Rapace interview

"Lisbeth Salander is possibly the character in modern Scandinavian drama with the most expectations attached, and I can’t believe the luck we have had in finding Noomi Rapace for this part,” [director ] Oplev said. “Noomi has transformed herself into her character to a chilling perfection. Her performance as Lisbeth is outstanding.”

He’s not the only one saying so. Rapace won Best Actress awards at two Scandinavian festivals last year for her portrayal of Salander, and she was nominated in the same category for the European Film Awards.

What is it, though, that made her want to play Salander, a character of such extremes? She commits acts of violence but she’s also the victim of horrific brutality.

“I like the fact that she’s a fighter. She’s a survivor. She doesn’t accept being a victim. She always finds a way to be the one who’s acting, who’s doing things: she’s trying to get control over her life. Again and again and again. She’s struggling and she’s very stubborn and she’s trying to fight life, and I like that. I think that it’s very beautiful that she never feels sorry for herself.”

Rapace modelled her character on Anne Parillaud’s title character in La Femme Nikita, the 1990 Luc Besson movie about a convicted felon who becomes a spy-assassin. Oplev asked her to see the film prior to making The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but she didn’t need the prompting.

“I’d seen it many times before. It was one of my favourite films, actually. I also love True Romance, with Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater. I love the scene when Patricia is fighting against James Gandolfini. It’s a classic, and I’ve probably seen the film 10 times.

“But it was extremely important for me to find my own personal Lisbeth, so I had to clear my mind and clear my brain and start all over from zero.”
Noomi in Hollywood.


Tulkinghorn said...


I second your enthusiasm for a series of originals -- Apart from the creation of Salander, the books seem to me to be largely generic thriller stuff -- the kind that any mature screenwriter could easily replicate, as long as the writer understands Salander and how to use her.....

In fact (obvious commercial reasons aside), I'd prefer that the US versions go straight to the new stories and leave the trilogy. Rapice is untouchable in those stories.

True fact: Last week in the US, a copy of a Larsson book was sold every second -- 600,000 of them.

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