Sequels always face an uphill battle with the public, and for good reason. When they follow a perfectly good standalone story, it begs the question of what need there even is for a continuation of that story and those characters. Oftentimes the serendipitous, lightning-in-a-bottle effect that informed the making of the initial story has moved on by the time that the original creative team (if you’re so lucky as to have them returning) sits down to make the nascent franchise’s second installment. Why not just leave well enough alone?
The novel The Girl Who Played with Fire easily rebuffs all of these concerns. It continues the story set out in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with aplomb, finds fascinating in-routes to expand upon the central themes of sexual violence and attacks its central subjects — being series protagonists Lisbeth Salander (played in the film by Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (played in the film by Michael Nyqvist) — with renewed vigor. Despite a quite extensive prologue, featuring a minor mystery for Lisbeth to solve while on a Caribbean getaway, it delves heedlessly back into the conflicts that had been merely hinted at in the previous installment.
The film… is a slightly different matter. In as much as it is a film (rather than a book), it falls into many of the traps common to the medium. Like other middle entrants into film trilogies — think The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — its entire runtime is made subservient to the film that eventually follows it; in other words, this second film exists only to prop up the third film, bearing the brunt of all of the setup whereas its sequel will eventually bear the brunt of all of the payoff. And while necessary at parts, and faithful to its source material in general, the end result is a very different beast compared to what it spawned from: an over-long and individually underdeveloped narrative that lacks any of the punch of the original and necessarily ends right when it starts to get interesting.
In this entry to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, Lisbeth returns from her whirlwind tour only to be faced with the unexpected fallout from her previous misadventures. Social worker Nil Bjurman (Peter Andersson), who remains as Lisbeth’s legal guardian in the Swedish government, has not born the punishments done to him by Lisbeth graciously. Tapping into illicit contacts from his days as a younger man, he seeks to extract whatever vengeance he can from his absentee ward. But when he winds up dead, Lisbeth becomes the chief suspect, catapulting her into the ghosts of her past: her father, survived her pubescent conflagration, and his underground syndicate of operatives.
The core problem with The Girl Who Played with Fire is its placement within the larger Millennium series. It and its sequel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) are ultimately one jumbo-sized story that just so happens to play out over multiple movies. And the division of setup and payoff means that this ne half of the story is thematically disconnected from either Tattoo or Hornet’s Nest (a fact which is exacerbated by the admittedly wise decision to excise the prologue sequence, which was a clear continuation of the sexualized violence established in the first film). Despite the presence of surviving antagonist Nils Bjurman from the first film, who here serves the utilitarian purpose of catalyzing the new plot, and the implication of “Mr. Salander”’s immolation at the climax of the first film, the connections to the earlier story feel tangential at best and all too-divorced from what should have otherwise been an organic continuiation of Lisbeth’s story.
Perhaps a more skilled director (like David Fincher), with a more experienced writing team, could have smoothed over these narrative and thematic bumps in the road and more satisfactorily adapted the remaining two films. But that, alas, was not meant to be, and the creative team behind this film attack the source text as bluntly and directly as the first film did. But with no smooth transition from one film to the next and no thematic through line present in this setup-only sequel, watching the film is a rather alienating experience: like being set adrift without any means of anchoring yourself to the familiar shoreline.
This is not to say that the film is bad by any means, just that it is a noticeable low-point for the Swedish franchise. Its actors are just as exemplary here as they were in the previous film (even if there isn’t as much meat on the bones of this script for them to work with) and the eventual end-point of all this setup (all of which is sadly in the next film) does make for a satisfying conclusion to the series. The problem is that this film, in the moment — moving from scene to scene — doesn’t really work
I am tempted to say that there really should have been only one sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: a single film drawn from The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and trimmed down to only the essentials. The problem is, though, that that’s a lot of movie to cut out — both in terms of setup and payoff — and the resulting film would likely have to be unwieldly long to work at all. It’s an awkward situation to be in, and an unenviable one to be sure, but, taken as is, this is just a ho-hum follow up to a gangbusters story.
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