Interview: Denise Mina On Adapting 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

"I hope it makes the audience feel quite uncomfortable."

Stieg Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy" ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played with Fire," and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest) has been adapted into a blockbuster Swedish trilogy of films, while "Tattoo" got a Hollywood adaptation from director David Fincher (the jury's still out on the U.S. sequels). But now, the super-duper-best-sellers have made their inevitable way to comics thanks to Vertigo, who tapped writer Denise Mina as well artists Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti to take the dense text into the funnybooks. Mina, though mostly known for her work in crime fiction had a run in Vertigo's "Hellblazer" from 2006-2007 and "A Sickness in the Family" for the publisher. I caught up with the friendly writer on the phone to chat about Lisbeth, the titular character's status as a hero, making corporate intrigue exciting in a comic book, depicting brutality and more in the first part of the graphic novel adptation of the first book in Larson's trilogy, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

MTV Geek: Can you start off just telling us how you got involved with this?

Denise Mina: Well my agent sent me a tentative e-mail and said is this something you be interested in at all and I said yeah god I’d love to do that, yeah. He was quite surprised, I think he thought I wouldn’t really be interested in adapting stuff, because it was such a well-known book he didn’t know if it was a particularly good idea but I just want to go through the process.

Geek: It’s such an incredibly popular series of book, were you threatened at all by that?

DM: Oh Heck no, I’m so frightened all the time that it sort of reaches a tipping point and then I just pretend there’s nobody out there. I think with something this well known, you have to kinda assume that if people are reading the comic it's because they want something slightly different and they’re looking for a different form. Maybe people who read the book and wanted more would read it, you have to assume that your audience will be a bit forgiving, ya know?

Geek: Speaking of something different, were you able to put your own stamp on this? Is the comic different?

DM: You know, I kept trying to keep myself out of it because I thought that book lent itself so well to comics and I kept trying to keep myself out of it; reading it over there’s a lot of me in there. There’s lots of my scope of reference that I wish I hadn’t put in. There’s jokes about Hank Williams and Nancy Spungen and I don’t think, you don’t know you’re aware, I took so much out that was me but I did my best and I think that as a writer you’re always trying to take out your opinion and leave a clean story.

Geek: What do you think it is about this series that connected with people all over the world?

DM: You know I think it’s really different for a lot of people. I mean, you read a lot of famous crime fiction or a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction, it’s not that different. But I think these things have a kind of momentum and people read it and say “I read that enjoyed it” they don’t say “I read it and it was good,” they say “I read it and it was fun,” and then they tell their friends and things reach a kind of momentum. I actually know quite a lot of people who bought the book and didn’t read all three of them and I hope they would maybe read the comic because the comics are much shorter. I think that people are reading it for the story and that’s what’s great about it, and that’s the great thing about crime fiction is that the audience really comes with a sense of entitlement and if they’re not enjoying it they just stop reading they don’t feel like they have to plow on until the end so they can see the resolution. But you know like comedy shows sometimes everyone likes one particular comedy show most of the people don’t really think I have a sense of humor. Well a lot of the people who read this book didn’t read traditional crime fiction, thriller, chase books, and so I really reached another audience altogether.

Geek: Do you think it’s Lisbeth as a character who’s really broken through for people, is she what everybody was drawn to?

DM: I think it was her. I think also Blomkvist really is like this sort of engagement character, I mean he is the point of view character and I think he’s a very safe character for people to identify with and then experience her through. I think if she was the central character it wouldn’t work half as well because he’s kinda a tubby, bleak, middle-aged man...who doesn’t want to read about that? I think if he wasn’t there, I mean it’s a real two-hander and in the comic I had to make it much more balanced ‘cause actually in the book a lot of the first half is just him and she really only comes in when she starts dealing with umm, I can’t remember, German, so I had to make it a lot more balance but actually I think he’s really much more central, she’s the fireworks character but he’s the real backbone of the story I think.

Geek: I would imagine that there would be an inclination to make her much more front and center but it seems like you really wanted to concentrate on Blomkvist. In a comic, it seems like it’d be easier to focus on Lisbeth, was it a challenge to hold her back?

DM: Well, actually, you know, I think I gave more space than she has, particularly in the first book, but that was because it’s special, so much of it is special and you have to have a sense of balance there. You can’t concentrate one character and forget about the other, it’s still a two-hander but because the readers' judging so much with their eyes, they’re aware of the fact that they haven’t seen her in a while...does that make sense? Where as you could get away with a much bigger imbalance in prose. So I think she is in it more compared to him but I think it’s a balance between the two of them. The fact that his concerns equate about marketing and he’s worried about money and you know he’s got office politics and he’s such an outsider it’s very important that they were both there, hopefully, its quite well-balanced between them.

Geek: Comic Books are so much more concise than novels, was that a challenge, breaking down this dense material down to a comic?

DM: Actually no, I think it’s such a great story for a comic and I think that the original book wasn’t really aided to that carefully particularly towards the end. I think making it more concise helps the story and it really highlights things like she’s not just a nutcase, she’s a nutcase who’s mom is brain damaged because of domestic abuse which is really what motivates her all the way through and I think it’s easier to highlight things like that in a comic because there’s much less space to get lost, there isn’t that sort of 2/3 way through a novel it’s the second [ring] they call it, where a novel has to be that size so you have a second reason that gives you that depth of experience but a comic doesn’t need to have that. It’s a story that really works when it’s more concise cause it’s the other stuff that’s messing. Like the e-mails at the end. Have you read the original book?

Geek: No, but I’ve seen both movies, both the American and the Swedish versions.

DM: In the actual prose book towards the end there’s a whole chapter of e-mails backwards and forwards between Blomkvist and Berger and it’s a bit of sort of "Lord of the Rings" ending and being able to kinda shave that right down was great actually.

Geek: I was actually just talking about that with my co-worker and we both agree, in the movie too I felt that happened a little bit, it kinda drifts along a little bit.

DM: Yeah and you know need a kinda punch in the face at the end or you don’t get that smack of the lips as a reader, I think. You need all the action near the end, that’s traditional crime fiction form. I think all the threads have to come together to a point or you do get that kinda staggered end. Did you see both movies?

Geek: Yes I have.

DM: Which one did you like the best?

Geek: Umm, I think I like the Swedish one a little bit more and I'm not sure why, because they were very, very similar movies and I feel like David Fincher is such a strong filmmaker and I don’t think this was him functioning at the highest level he could be functioning at.

DM: It looks much nicer definitely though doesn’t it.

Geek: Yeah, that definitely where he can shine but I think the material, he didn’t have a full grasp.

DM: Or no autonomy, because there’s always tons of people involved with those things. It’s always a committee thing.

Geek: At last year’s New York Comic-Con there was a panel that talked about whether or not Lisbeth was a superhero, and now she kinda is, she’s a comic book star. What are your thoughts on that?

DM: I don’t think she is a superhero and I think she has a lot of precursors in famous crime fiction. I think that Larsson was really aware of that whole history and what he was trying to do was do that but make it a bit more sexy so it can appeal to men and women. So I don’t think she is a super hero and once strands are pulled out that she’s so paranoid about anyone raising their hand over her because of her mom that she’s not anorexic or autistic just really defensive and quite mad. Once all those things are pulled out she’s a really understandable character. I know people like her, so I don’t think she is a superhero, the thing with comics is because superheroes, which I not mad keen on I have to say, because they are so dominant in the form we then to think are characters superheroes but for me, you have to have a super power and I don’t think she has super power. I think she just quite brainy. Although I did introduce the, I did change the end of the book. She suddenly develops the capacity to dress up as other people, so I threaded that through the story and the graphic novel to make it something that she does. But I think that’s something that everybody does, dress up as other people or dress down for job interviews. What did everybody else say? Did they say she was a superhero?

Geek: It was pretty much a debate, a lot of people feel the same way you do about it. I think a lot of people are hungry for a strong female character in comic books and they’ll label her as a superhero because of that.

Geek: Can we talk about the art of this, you worked with Leonardo...

DM: I’ve worked with Leo before and basically I really love comics and I just let him do his thing and I don’t interfere. If something is not that clear then say “can you change that to make it more clear” but I’m very aware that as reader what I want is for 60 maybe 70% of the story to be told in the pictures so that is what my script looks like. From this point of view with this lighting so-and-so is there and they say "blah blah" and I just let him do his thing. It’s lovely to work with someone you’ve worked with before because you can kind of anticipate what they’re going to do and it’s not gonna be something you object too. I think there were about four or five panels that I asked him to change but apart from that not at all.

Geek: Since this is visual, there is material in this book that’s kinda tough, particularly the rape scene and the revenge for the rape scene...can you talk about writing that to be visual and sort of either holding back or going in deeper into as a writer.

DM: That was one of the reason I really wanted to write this actually. One of the things that came to disturb me about the representation of sexual assault in both films was I felt like they used a lot of special conventions of pornography on her. So in the script, I said what we’re gonna do here is use the visual language of pornography but only relate it to him so at no point is she naked. At no point does she do any of the sort of traditional porn poses. The close up of the face, with the face in agony or ecstasy, you can’t quite tell. No kind of beaver shots. No shots of her kinda writhing about on the bed and her tits flipping about. All the visuals of her are basically just of a physical assault and then the porn conventional visuals are all used on him, which is kind of objectifying, and the audience is quite discombobulated, I hope it makes the audience feel quite uncomfortable. That he’s objectified and has experiences and that his experience is ambivalent in a way that hers isn’t. Another really powerful thing is showing her walking home after that rape and what that is actually like. There’s big kind of thing about anal sex that everybody loves anal sex but that’s not really true, it’s just this sort of porn convention and because people are so familiar with pornography these things become truisms in the culture. That it’s painless and that is doesn’t rip your sphincter and I think it’s really important to show that and it’s something that you don’t really see.

Geek: What I also find interesting is when she gets revenge on him. I don’t feel like it’s played necessarily as a revenge fantasy it’s equally as ugly. Do agree with that? Was it intentional?

DM: I really hoped that would come over it’s not well that’s all that in the past then and you know that should put an end to that but that’s very comfortable for that sort of narrative bracket. Someone bashes the crap out of you and you do it back and then you feel great, well actually you don’t. But what she’s doing is she’s trying to take responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen to somebody else. Which is exactly what the Berger family didn’t do with Wennerstrom, they sort of covered up they didn’t want to be involved with it. It’s about her taking personal responsibility 'cause she doesn’t trust the authorities to do anything about it, there would be no point in going to the authority, he is the authority.

Geek: Are you doing the next two books as well?

DM: Well I'm contracted to yes, so hopefully that will happen.

Geek: It’s just based on how these do?

DM: Oh, I don’t know actually. Maybe not, I don’t really understand the finance. Maybe if it just dies a death I still get to do them, which would be great.

Geek: You’re not typically accustomed to doing these for hire types of jobs, it’s primarily original stuff?

DM: Well I did “Hellblazer” for a year but that was for fun. Mostly I do my own stuff, and adaptations are slightly looked down on as sort of job of work but I’m delighted to do them. I’m not really that kinda of snobby about work. If it's stimulating, I want to do it. That’s really what it’s about, I’m a novelist and that the main thing I do and anything else I do, like I write plays, I’ve written epic poems for performance, I do lots of stuff and it’s all interesting stuff and this is great. Really sitting down with a book with a great narrative arc and pulling it apart and seeing why it works, it’s fascinating.

Geek: What else are you working on?

DM: I’m doing a novel right now called "The Red Road" and I just had a novel come out two months ago. I think it’s coming out in January in The States, it’s called "Gods and Beasts," which is from a quote by Aristotle which is “ those who live outside the city gates and are self sufficient are either gods or beasts.” I just made a film of my family on my iPhone, you can get these special lenses for iPhone but all my family can and we filmed them watching themselves and we’re gonna cut it together, it’s me and my cousins who made it and we’re gonna cut it together and hopefully put it into a few film festivals.

Geek: Oh that’s interesting what’s that called?

DM: It’s called “Mortem Impartial,” which is a Latin saying which means "much and little." It’s just interesting that all the epic stories are never about small things, like families that are functional…enough. They all grew up in a tiny council house, there were 15 kids and they grew up in a tiny council house with three bedrooms and they had lots of visitors all the time. They has Chinese priest staying with them who couldn’t go home because of the Cultural Revolution and stuff like that.

Geek: Thank you very much for taking the time to do this.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" available Wednesday November 14.

Movie & TV Awards 2018