Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire is, in my opinion, a rare case of a sequel that equals if not exceeds the standards set by its predecessor. Whereas The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo mostly centered on journalist Mikael Blomkvist as its protagonist, Fire shifts its focus to Lisbeth Salander and is much stronger for it. Lisbeth made such a strong impression in Tattoo, both as the mysterious heroine of Larsson's prose and in the beguiling performance by Noomi Rapace, and in Fire, she's twice as compelling.
The Girl Who Played With Fire revives the conflict between Lisbeth and her abusive legal guardian Nils Bjurman. Their last encounter saw Lisbeth turn Bjurman’s sadistic habits back on him and branding him as a rapist. In Fire, Bjurman wants revenge on Lisbeth and enlists some shady characters to help track her down.
The second installment also continues the efforts of Mikael Blomkvist, who is now back working at Millennium full time. Mikael’s latest scoop is a story/book deal from a journalist, Dag, and his girlfriend, Mia, who are exposing Sweden’s sex-trafficking crimes, as well as many top officials who neglect their responsibilities to enjoy the exploitative services.
Mikael and Lisbeth cross paths once again when Dag and Mia are brutally murdered. Evidence at the scene connects Lisbeth to the murders and she is soon the prime suspect in a nationwide manhunt. Mikael, however, doubts Lisbeth’s guilt because he remembers the strong moral centre that she displayed while helping him solve the Harriet Vanger mystery in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; however, he also remembers the steely violent streak that Lisbeth exhibited when she saved his life. Mikael thus begins his own investigation when the police refuse to believe that Lisbeth’s character differs from that of the profile of the Social Services records.
Much of The Girl Who Played With Fire is fueled by the ambiguity of Lisbeth’s past. Like Tattoo, Fire opens with a prologue that foreshadows the events to come. However, the opening sequence of Fire is much more than exposition. It’s a startling and hypnotic sequence that offers some back-story of the trauma that made Lisbeth such a troubled character. The events reappear throughout the novel and build towards a clear explanation, so The Girl Who Played With Fire has a strong underlying conflict that was somewhat absent from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Additionally, Larsson develops his portrayal of Lisbeth as both a victim and an aggressor. Fire explores how Lisbeth was failed by the Swedish social system that sought to protect her since her teenage years, but it also furthers Lisbeth’s sense of vigilante justice against men who hate women. What makes Lisbeth such a fascinating character in Fire is how well she embodies the roles of both prey and predator.
Nonetheless, The Girl Who Played With Fire is far more substantive and readable than general “popular” fiction by the likes of John Grisham. At the very least, the return of the superb Noomi Rapace should delight fans. Michael Nyqvist also returns as Mikael Blomkvist. New to the Millennium series is director Daniel Alfredson – and no, it’s not the hockey player. Alfredson has few credits to his resume, but he also made the third film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, as well as the Swedish TV miniseries, so one can assume that he does justice to Larsson’s enigmatic heroine and leaves moviegoers anticipating Hornet’s Nest just as eagerly as the novel.The Girl Who Played With Fire opens July 9, 2010.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is now available on DVD.
(Note: both films are playing back to back at The Bytowne on July 10th and 11th, for anyone who has yet to meet the girl with the dragon tattoo.)