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Friday, May 18, 2012

We watched MAN SOM HATAR KVINNOR, the Swedish original film of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. (The Swedish title translates as "Men who hate women," which is pretty accurate, if not as racy.)

This is going to be one of those posts where I appear to bitch about someone else's enormously commercially successful plot, so HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD, of course.

Dramatically, it is quite an odd picture. The main character is a mild-mannered, somewhat schlumpy journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who's just been suckered by an industrialist he was trying to expose. He's hired to get to the bottom of a 40 year old murder involving a rich and rather nasty family.

And so he investigates, and gets Not Very Far. Fortunately, though, he has a fairy godmother, in the form of a 24-year-old bisexual punk hacker with problems of her own. Lisbeth has hacked into his computer and is monitoring his investigation, for reasons that don't seem clear in the movie.

She emails him the solution to the not very difficult code that has stumped him for months. (Lisa got there in about 5 seconds.) Then she saves him from being murdered after he manages to get himself kidnapped by the murderer . Then she hands him everything he needs to convict the industrialist.

Which kind of begs the question ... why is he the hero of the story? He's essentially ineffectual. He accomplishes almost nothing himself. He's merely the socially acceptable face of the investigation -- the Man Who Does Not Have A Tattoo.

It's a dictum, particularly in screenwriting, that the hero is supposed to be the prime mover of the plot. And indeed, most screenplays where the hero isn't the prime mover of the plot (in opposition to the antagonist of course), fail.

But there are some fairly consequential hit films where the main character is barely more than a witness to the events of the screenplay. TWILIGHT is another example. Bella does nothing to attract Edward. And then she's caught up in all sorts of shenanigans because she's with Edward. And she does nothing to save herself. Edward does all the work, along with the guy who takes his shirt off all the time.

There are event some fairly consequential novels where the main character is along for the ride. Ishmael is the narrator of MOBY DICK. Ahab is arguably the villain. Though perhaps you could call him the anti-hero.

What's going on here? Why do these stories work? Usually it really is bad to have a passive hero. But here it works.

Or, is Lisbeth really the eponymous hero of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, even though the film seems to be from Mikael's point of view, and starts with him (and is a story about a journalist written by a journalist)?

I wonder if in all of these cases the storyteller is using an ordinary character, a foil, to tell a story about a character who is so far out hard to get into their head. Lisbeth is severely damaged. Edward is a vampire. Ahab is twisted by vengeance. Maybe the storytellers have decided it is more interesting to watch them from the outside and try to guess what is going on with them, rather than looking out at the world with their eyes, and missing what is going on with them?

(You could theoretically tell the story from their point of view but then you get into untrustworthy narrators, which might be too subtle for a movie.)

You don't have to do it that way. TAXI DRIVER manages without a foil, and Travis Bickle is pretty far out. But it seems like an interesting way to tell a story. And it seems to work.

2 Comments:

I'm guessing it's because the movie is based on a book, like Twilight. Books often have passive main characters who tell/observe great stories. That's part of the challenge of adaptations.

In theory, you could probably, say, cut Nick Carraway out of a movie version of The Great Gatsby without hurting the story. But the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo needs the set-up, and it needs two investigators, etc.

It's interesting how movies are"supposed" to have active protagonists, but do fine with passive heroes when they're based on books.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 11:16 AM  

I have a theory about Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for which I have read the book and seen the Fincher movie version.

I think Mr. Larsson was writing the novel, his first ever, and made the mistake where you make yourself the star of it. Midway through the novel, he realized that was kinda boring. Then he created Lizbeth, who basically was so awesome that she took over the book. He went back and slotted her in earlier in the novel in some ways that don't flow very well, but at least it was less boring. He had her do great stuff at the end, basically most of the cool stuff. He changed the name of the book. In the end, that book is nothing without her.

I haven't seen the Swedish film, but if it's anything like the Fincher film, the book is much much more about Bloomkvist. He does a lot more valuable investigation, getting info Lisbeth, who lives only online, can't get. But she's so cool, in the movie adaptation process she's in at least 60% of the movie, while she's only in 30% of the novel.

I believe the later books, which I haven't read yet, are much more about her, because by then he'd figured out what he on his hands.

But as you say, it works. But she's the co-hero at least, if not the main hero, even though the first book isn't structured that way.

- Richard

By Blogger RR3, at 4:55 PM  

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