Adapting great novels into great movies sounds easy — but it isn’t. Filmmakers constantly bump up against the movie our minds produce as we read … and seldom is the film as good. While there are plenty of exceptions, sometimes filmmakers just screw it up, like they did with the recent adaptation of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, which bears only a passing resemblance to the book. And sometimes they get it just right, as they have with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the Swedish book has been made into a Swedish film (though an American version is in the works). In fact, it’s the most successful film in Swedish history.

Oplev’s film is an instant classic, bringing to physical life a character I’d have bet was all but impossible to realize with any real success: Lisbeth Salander, the pierced, tattooed, raped, waif-like creature who drives all three of Stieg Larsson’s wonderful thrillers. As played by Noomi Rapace, Salander is as vulnerable and indestructible as she is in the novel, and the effect is unforgettable. The actress, whose sharp features seem anxious to soften, if only for a moment, embodies the girl with a perfect mix of warmth and ice, making real the photographic memory that embarrasses her and a brilliant mind that sees all the darkness of life but too little of its light.

Mikael Blomkvist, the magazine publisher who becomes a detective, sort of, is played by Michael Nyqvist. The actor’s ragged face and sad eyes don’t hold the fire the character in the book does. In the film, the character seems resigned to his fate, though he doesn’t know what it is. To me, Blomkvist is more of a fighter, a tougher nut. Nyqvist does a good enough job, but in a role that must go head-to-head with Salander, I saw him with a harder edge.

The rest of the cast is perfect — and more important, believable. But the real star of this film is director Oplev. He harnesses the talents, in particular, of the cinematographer and editor to create a terse, tense thriller of the highest order, tightening the plot with every scene. He’s trimmed the dense book down to its essential moments and crafted a film that’s cohesive and compelling. Stuff is missing, sure, but you don’t miss it.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is often a brutal film, violent and cruel-minded and searing. But then, that’s the point. The original title of the novel and the film translates as “men who hate women.” That’s certainly a truthful title, but it’s got no style. Be warned that in the film, as in the book, the violence frames the action; it’s hard to watch, at times, but every disturbing bit of it serves a marvelous story.

Presented in Swedish with English subtitles, the film is playing in limited release. Check your local listings — and don’t miss it.

January’s sister publication, The Rap Sheet, covers the film here.

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