Tattoo director chooses design carefully

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like unlikely fodder for runaway success. The top-grossing film in Swedish history, like the bestselling novel by Stieg Larsson on which it’s based, is an exceptionally dark piece of crime fiction that deals bluntly and provocatively with violent rape, sexually charged murder and the depraved excesses of the privileged classes. There are moments in Dragon that make American crime thrillers like Se7en seem positively innocent, and those moments are specifically engineered to horrify, not titillate.

Despite his role in bringing the book’s chilling world to life, it’d be unfair to assume that the ugly nature of Larsson’s crime scenes appealed to Neils Arden Oplev — Dragon’s director is not a fan of the overtly sexual violence that has seeped into everything from airport paperbacks to prime-time TV. The crimes weren’t what caught the director’s attention; it was the honesty of the source material, a combination of Larsson’s journalistic attention to detail and his unflinching criticism of Swedish society. That, along with the book’s strong yet unconventional female lead in goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, was enough to convince him to make the film — but the prospect of filming the more explicit scenes proved troublesome.

“Those particular scenes, I actually prepared over a long time trying to find the key to how to shoot them in the right way, because I did not want to make a rape scene that would be treated as light entertainment, and I did not in any way want it to be sexual,” Oplev explains. “Ultimately, I chose to focus on the preparation instead of the actual rape. The actual rape is only five seconds in the film, where the preparation is a full two minutes, and that makes it such a different scene from what you’ve seen before in film. Really, in some ways, you don’t see that much, but because [the victim] is caught and the audience is caught with her, their own imagination plays so heavily into the scene that it becomes a horrible scene.”

That scene and the actions it inspires provide some of Dragon’s most searing images, but at its heart, the book and film are more concerned with commentary on class and gender than with simple shock value. The original title of both translates to Men Who Hate Women; if Larsson’s scathing depiction of Swedish society is anywhere near accurate, life in Scandinavia isn’t as idyllic as the Nordic would have us believe.

“One of the things that really excited me when I read the book for the first time is that I actually do, even though I’m not entirely the same generation as Stieg, I strongly sympathize with his point of view,” the director says. “I felt it was a very cool thing to be able to make a film that dared to dig into the underbelly of Swedish society. Scandinavian societies pride themselves on being of a high level of human rights, and far down the road they do deliver. But there are also parts of those societies that do not deliver that, and once you dare to criticize them, they get incredibly defensive.”

While the late Larsson was able to offer his criticisms from within Sweden, Oplev, who was born in Denmark and has moved to the U.S. to capitalize on Dragon’s success, didn’t have the same luxury. Still, he never worried that his outsider status might lead to resentment from Dragon’s Swedish audience, explaining that “As far as Swedish society goes, they see [the criticism] as an extended arm from Stieg Larsson.” But while Larsson (who died in 2004 from a heart attack) deserves full credit for the story, the film version of Dragon is Oplev’s alone. Every effort was made to stay faithful to the spirit of the book, but Oplev only accepted the project under one condition.

“I said ‘Yes’ under the condition that the producers handed over all the artistic sovereignty to me, and all decisions of artistic nature would be mine and mine solely, including the length of the film,” he explains. “There was discussion at a certain time of doing an English-speaking version of the film, but I really didn’t like that idea. I wanted the film to be Swedish cast and Swedish language and Swedish setting. I think the landscape plays a tremendous role in the film as a Nordic exoticness.”

Despite his reticence, an English-language version of Dragon may not be far off. Even as Oplev’s film opens across North America, there’s been word of an American adaptation with Se7en director David Fincher at the helm. It’s only natural that Hollywood would want to get its hands on one of the hottest properties in European film (and a potential franchise, as Dragon is the first book in a trilogy), but Oplev remains skeptical about the remake.

“When it goes to the North American version, I can only say that I would be very surprised if they would dare to have the edge that the original version has,” he says. “I can only say to the audience, go see the original version, because whoever makes the American version is certainly going to have to get up very early to compete with the version that we have done in Scandinavia.”

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