thriller

Millennium and the Weirdness of Other Cultures – Especially Ones We Think We Know

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

A lot of people on the planet have read the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books so I won’t do a blow-by-blow report regarding my thoughts on the first two books in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Suffice to say that they both center around a young woman named Lisbeth Salander who has enjoyed a truly messed up childhood and emerged scarred and socially inept but brilliant from her trial by fire.  Despite being unable to trust anyone, she manages to team up with the editor of an activist magazine and make life miserable for any number of bad guys.  Her lack of compassion for people she hates makes everything all the more compelling.

The stories themselves are well-paced and good enough to stand on their own (as attested to by their sales numbers), but the truly fascinating stuff is on the fringes.

As I read, I found myself stopping at small, unimportant points in the narrative to shake my head and say “oh, those crazy Swedes.”  In everything from the way people view property, to the way the police act, to the sexual mores of some of the characters (what is considered perfectly normal vs. what causes outrage is interesting), you are reminded that this is not an Anglo-centric worldview, despite being from a Western country not so different from most other Western countries.

There are no truly exotic behaviors in this one, and that’s the fun of the whole thing: the sense that something is just slightly askew from one’s own everyday experience is much richer, in my opinion, than simply reading about the customs of the population of eighteenth century Shanghai (or anywhere else in the eighteenth century, come to think of it!).

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson Cover

We all know that Scandinavian socialism permeates every aspect of life, but perhaps we don’t understand just how deep it runs until you see someone thinking about buying a house or interacting with the police in a Larsson novel–at least I didn’t.

Another interesting thing is that the very center of the series, Millennium magazine, could only really be relevant in a place like Sweden.  Other countries have activist magazines… and they run exposés.  The hard truth of it, however, is that except for the editorial staff and the writers and perhaps their couple of dozen readers (all of whom earnestly believe that what they are doing is both important and relevant), no one cares.  An exposé like the ones Millennium is so good at would basically be shrugged at by the population at large.

It makes for a fun ride, even though, at times, one finds oneself saying “man, am I glad I don’t live in Sweden.”  But then, If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t want to live in most fictional worlds (especially Westeros.  That’s just plain unhealthy).

The kicker, though is that the translators seem to have toned down a bunch of things (as I can’t read Swedish, I can’t attest to that except by secondhand reporting). They definitely changed the titles (the title of the first book was Men Who Hate Women) and also made the dragon tattoo much smaller (in the original it covered Lisbeth’s entire back as opposed to a small item on a shoulder) in order to make it more palatable to Anglicized taste.  I wonder what other fascinating small things they also left out.

So I’d recommend this to Classically Educated readers.  Most of you won’t find yourselves able to generate the moral indignation that someone from Larsson’s background might over the central issues (one of the pillars on which Larsson builds his stories is that corporate greed is something that we should spend all our days in horror of, and that the men behind it are the true monsters of our age…  which seems an odd and trivial thing to get worked up about) but you will still be able to enjoy the stories generated in this world and enjoy the slight moments of “what?  Why?” that pop up out of the blue.

But unless someone can tell me otherwise, I’d recommend against the continuation books.  Those were probably written with the English-speaking population in mind (even though their author is a Swede with a similar background to Larsson), and probably have the quirks dialed back to nearly nothing… killing a good chunk of the fun.

 

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Hitchcock’s Favorite Film

Shadow of a doubt poster

Normally, when we do a review of one of the films on the 1001 Movies list, we attempt to link them to broader social issues; a great case in point is the last one we did, about the Henry Fonda vehicle The Ox-Bow Incident.  Looking further back, it’s a thread that this series of reviews has embraced since even before it moved to Classically Educated.

But sometimes, a movie is so completely timeless that it forces you to take it on its own terms, without really looking into the broader social issues that engendered it.  This could be because the director deliberately strove to keep them out, because the plot was compelling enough to make the viewer ignore them, or because the theme is so timeless that the setting could change in time without affecting it.

Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1944 film Shadow of a Doubt is such a film, mainly for the second and third reasons established above.  This has often been cited as Hitchcock’s favorite film, and the reasons are clear to see – the tension is built brilliantly.

In most films, one of two situations arise: either the viewer is aware of things the characters aren’t, or both the viewers and the characters are equally in the dark, leading to a final reveal.  For this film, Hitchcock chose to twist things around a little, and combine the two.  The viewer has an inkling as to what’s going on, but isn’t quite sure – while the characters remain completely clueless… except for one, except at the very end.

Essentially, the plot revolves around a normal, happy family who gets a visit from a beloved uncle… who has a dark secret, or does he?  One really can’t be sure.

Shadow of a Doubt film still

Another notable thing about this film is that it really could only work effectively as a movie.  If one removes the brilliant withholding of information that the film does by showing some scenes and not others, it would simply be a lineal thriller – and it would be impossible to do this effectively with any kind of novel with a consistent point of view.  And that is what pulls it out of the ranks of the good films and puts it onto this particular list of greats.

It does help that the cast is a good one, with actors in the cast winning (for other projects, not this one) Oscars, Tonys and Emmies.  And Hitchcock’s eye for talent wasn’t bad either – he gave future Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Hume Cronyn his Hollywood debut.

We’re not convinced it’s the man’s best film, as we prefer the earlier British films – but it definitely deserves to be one of the 1001 films.

Edna May Wonacott

Another little tradition we have when watching films that are seventy years old is to give a shout out to the cast members who are still alive.  In this case, our regards go to Edna May Wonacott, who was 12 when she acted in this one!

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