It should come as no surprise that award-winning crime novelist Denise Mina was selected by DC to adapt Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a graphic novel, even though when she first received a call from DC (to write a Hellblazer arc), it was a complete shock.
Mina was already a well-established author of crime fiction, having won the British Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger award for her debut novel, Garnethill, in 1998. (She also won Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for her newest book, The End of Wasp Season, released earlier this year.) Although Mina was a comics reader, she had no reason to expect a call from DC.
“My old flatmate had trained as a Web site designer,” Mina recalls, speaking from her home in Glasgow, Scotland. “And he said, ‘You need a Web site. I can make you one.’ And the day after he put it up, DC wrote to me and asked me if I’d like to write Hellblazer, a comic book series starring the character John Constantine and focused on the paranormal. It was quite peculiar. I thought it was a windup [a tease]. I didn’t think it was real.”
The fact that she had recently become a fan of Hellblazer—after her partner repeatedly foisted it on her, saying, “This is something you’d really love”—was all the more reason for Mina to believe herself the victim of “a windup.”
But her run on Hellblazer was well-received, and it led to DC publishing a pair of Mina originals. The adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson’s sprawling family melodrama, revenge story, and conspiracy thriller, is based on the first half of the first title in the trilogy. It marks the first time Mina has adapted another writer’s work.
“My agents were kind of lukewarm about it, because adapting someone else’s work is less prestigious than writing your own stuff,” Mina says. “I was really interested in the process—how much gets left out and how a comic would tell that story. So much of the original story is internal monologue. The characters arrive at their conclusions on the basis of realization—which you can’t have in a comic, because you have to show everything.”
Dragon Tattoo finds Mina reuniting with her Hellblazer collaborator, Leonardo Manco, on pencils (with inks by Andrea Mutti). In adapting what is by now an almost universally familiar story—thanks to the trilogy of novels, the three Swedish films, and the American film of Dragon Tattoo—Mina’s guiding logic was to retain plot points that background the characters’ motivations.
“There are lots of things left out of the films,” Mina says. “All the stuff about corporate fraud you couldn’t really get into a film. It needs documentation or back narrative. [Salander’s] mother isn’t even in the American film. And, for me, that’s what’s most interesting: her mother is brain damaged after being beaten, which I think perfectly explains why [Lisbeth] goes bananas when somebody rapes her. Because she conflates being attacked with that brain damage.”
Mina was also careful to give equal weight to Salander and Blomkvist’s story throughout the comic, whereas Larsson’s novel favors Blomkvist’s point of view during its first half.
“If you have two narrative arcs, it’s much harder in a comic to have them be imbalanced,” Mina explains. “You have [two characters’] stories running in parallel, and they don’t meet until the second volume. So the tension has to be, ‘When are these two important characters going to meet?’ Rather than, ‘Oh, there’s someone interesting in the background.’ ”
In one important respect, Mina’s treatment of the Salander character differs from earlier depictions; in fact, certain parallels to Hellblazer’s John Constantine are brought closer to the surface. In the novel and both films, as Mina puts it, “there is a suggestion that [Salander’s] got some mental disorder—that she’s not quite right. And I think she’s perfectly right. She makes perfect sense to me as a character. In comics, readers are used to having characters with superpowers, and her superpower is that she’s very, very angry.”
Casey Burchby is a freelance writer in San Francisco who frequently writes about comics for PW.