Monday, December 12, 2011

"Dragon Tattoo": A Minute with Nordic Culture Expert Anna Stenport


Anna Stenport, an EUC Program Board and affiliated faculty member, discusses the American film adaptation of the popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series from Sweden. The full interview is posted below, or is available here

Editor’s note: Turning a book into a movie means making a film that satisfies not only the readers who already know the plot nuances, but also the popcorn crowd, who go to the movies expecting to be entertained. These two hurdles are especially high for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” based on Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s worldwide bestseller. The movie opens Dec. 21. Professor Anna Westerstahl Stenport directs the Scandinavian studies program at the University of Illinois, and teaches courses in media, cinema and theater. Her current research includes contemporary media culture in the Nordic region. Stenport was interviewed by News Bureau arts and humanities editor Dusty Rhodes.

Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy has sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. What makes it so popular?

First, it’s a captivating page-turner! It combines a traditional locked-room murder mystery with a corporate thriller and foregrounds a Swedish setting, which is both interesting and exotic to many in the world. Second, Lisbeth Salander is a compelling protagonist whose competing personality traits readers seem to identify with. She is strong and vulnerable, victim and perpetrator, smart and challenged, ruthless and passive. As many readers attest, both male and female, they want to be her. Third, the books interlace the private with the public. They investigate trust and betrayal in families and between sexual partners and expose the underside of a rich, democratic welfare state, revealing its shortcomings.

How do you think it ranks as literature? For example, how commonly are Larsson’s novels taught as college curriculum?

Crime writing is one of the most popular literary genres in the world. Yes, it is often formulaic and pulpy; on the other hand, it is an accessible literary form where critical issues on social and gender equality, human rights, and political corruption, for example, can be directly addressed and reach large readerships. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has been a staple of book clubs around the world – it is probably one of the most readily available sources of information about 21st century Sweden today. This novel and others by Scandinavian crime writers such as Henning Mankell and Jo Nesboe are often taught in crime-writing college classes and are used in a Scandinavian studies curriculum for critical analyses of contemporary Swedish society.

It’s usually a dicey problem to make a film from a beloved book. What have you heard about how American director David Fincher’s interpretation will compare to the novel, and to the Swedish film?

Fincher chose to spend a total of 14 weeks shooting in Sweden, even though it is expensive to film there. I think he wants to convey an authentic sense of location and maintain the socio-cultural specificity of the novel. The Hollywood version of the film seems to accent the distinctiveness of the Swedish landscape. Sequences remind me of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s dedication to the play of light and darkness characteristic of a northern location. Bergman’s films from the 1950s and ‘60s also helped present the allure of Swedish (sexual) sin to the world. Trailers I have seen present two different stories – one a murder mystery where the relationship between Daniel Craig’s and Mara Rooney’s characters is foregrounded; another a dark and mysterious suspense film with the tag-line “the feel-bad movie of Christmas.” In combination with possible Bergman influences, I think it will be interesting.

How do Swedes feel about an American director taking on a story so grounded in Sweden?

Swedes generally and the Swedish media in particular seem enthusiastic. I believe people are happy to know the film is shot extensively in Sweden. The film industry is global in so many ways these days, and Swedish actors and directors work extensively in Hollywood and elsewhere around the world. The sense of film as a national product, or as representative of one national culture, is diminishing. Fincher’s adaptation of the book and the design of the U.S. film is a further testament to those changes.

For Americans who may not have read any of the books, or seen the Swedish films, what do you hope this movie will show them?

Sweden is known as one of the richest, safest, least corrupt, and most democratic and equitable of all countries in the world. Yet, in the novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the state fails those who need its protection most – Salander included. Similarly, in this novel, none of the many atrocious crimes committed against women – trafficking, forced prostitution, and murder – are ever brought to trial. Instead crimes are hushed up to protect corporations big and small, including a supposedly radical journal critical of the system. And this in a country that regularly lands a top spot on global gender equality lists and prides itself on impartiality in the mass media! I hope Fincher’s film preserves some of this critical edge and this irony.

Editor’s note: To contact Anna Westerstahl Stenport,
call 217-721-5697; email aws@illinois.edu.

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