EXCLUSIVE: Denise Mina Modifies "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

In January, DC Entertainment announced the creative team for its prize catch of 2011, the hotly-anticipated graphic novel adaptation of Stieg Larsson's international sensation, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Working closely with Larsson's estate and Hedlund Literary Agency, DC Entertainment's Vertigo Comics imprint placed the surefire hit, expected this November, into the ever-so-capable hands of Scottish crime author Denise Mina and artists Leonardo Manco, Andrea Mutti, and Lee Bermejo. Manco and Mutti are responsible for interiors while Bermejo provides the cover.

No stranger to comic book fans, Bermejo recently wrote and illustrated the New York Times best-seller, "Batman: Noel." Likewise, Manco has a long history drawing Vertigo's "Hellblazer" while Mutti has worked extensively on the imprint's "DMZ."

Mina, on the other hand, may have the least comic book experience of the creative team but international bestselling novels including "The Field of Blood" and "Still Midnight" more than prove she has the writing acumen to transition "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" from prose to graphic novel form.

Having previously written "Hellblazer" and "A Sickness in the Family" for Vertigo, Mina's most recent novel, "The End of Wasp Season" is up for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery/thriller novel against industry heavyweights Stephen King and Eoin Colfer.

In a rare, exclusive interview since being named writer of the highly-publicized project, Mina told CBR News she mines the source material when writing "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" as opposed to re-watching the two film adaptations based on the international publishing juggernaut. Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which includes "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and its two sequels "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest," has sold more than 60 million books worldwide since 2008.

CBR News: You're no stranger to thrillers with your own bestselling Paddy Meehan and Garnethill series, but what was your introduction to Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy?

Denise Mina: Before I read it, the books just started appearing everywhere and people were asking me about it. By the time I read the first one the Swedish movie adaptation was already out.

What was it about the series that captured you as a reader?

[Lisbeth] Salander. She really captured me as a character and also the press story line. I'm less interested in financial journalism than crime reporting but I'm really interested in the notion of forbidden stories.

Along that same thought, what was your introduction to comic books? Was it easy to pick up the latest "Superman" or "Batman" in Glasgow in the 1970s? Or were you more of a fan of "The Broons" and "Oor Wullie?"

Everyone in Scotland got "The Broons" and/or "Oor Wullie" annuals for Christmas every year. They were like socks from your gran. I didn't want them much but you'd be indignant if they weren't there.

My own introduction to comics was quite strange. We were living in Paris and used to go to fairs at the American school and buy comics there. They were all "Archie" comics, which were baffling to me -- "What the f*** is a jalopy?" -- and horror comics, which I loved and still remember very vividly.

Do you still read any comics or graphic novels?

I love "Chew," like everyone else alive, and Jeff Lemire's "Sweet Tooth."

You have a history with Vertigo having previously written "Hellblazer" and "A Sickness in the Family." Was writing the graphic novel adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" something you actively pursued or did Vertigo reach out to you for the assignment?

They asked me through my agent. He was a little tentative because it was an adaptation. He said, "Is this something you'd be interested in at all?" I nearly bit his hand off.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has sold millions of copies around the world and, likewise, its two movie adaptations have been monster box office draws. How do you go about creating something fresh and new with such readily available content or is that not really a concern? Is it about delivering an already incredibly strong story to a different audience through a -- lower case "a" -- alternative medium?

Adaptation is interesting because every filter changes every story. Even through what they chose to leave out or emphasize, each person makes a new story. I think the important thing is to go back to the source material and use that. For example, in the first book Lisbeth gets a tattoo to commemorate being attacked, which I thought was very significant, but it didn't feature at all in either movie adaptation.

Is it safe to say you relied more on the original novel than the Swedish movie adaptation or David Fincher's recent film starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as source material?

Yes. The films were good and I made notes of changes they made but honesty, I don't see comics as a story board for films. I feel that they're a different form, they have a different pace, there's a different speed of reading them and they have different narrative beats. Changes made for films wouldn't really help me write a comic. It was disappointing because I thought I'd be able to steal solutions to some narrative problems but it wouldn't work.

I've heard it said that in film, 90 per cent of the information comes visually, 10 per cent in the text. I think in comics it's about 70 per cent/30 per cent, maybe the ratio is steeper and I'm just biased because I'm a writer but that give you some idea of how different the forms are. Also, long expositions are dull in cinema but you can have visuals to draw the attention away. In comics, because it's static, they work even less well.

Not sure if this would enter spoiler territory but have you made any major -- or subtle -- changes to characters, developments and/or story threads to make the graphic novel adaptation flow better? Maybe the whole thing takes place in Dunblane instead of the fictional Hedestad?

Nothing major so far, it's actually incredibly faithful in terms of the story beats and events. A couple of things could never work in the graphic form, while they do in prose because it has to be very spare and there isn't room for a sudden back story or internal monologue explaining things. For example, in the books Lisbeth makes a mistake by going to Bjurman's house without a weapon because she has a plan. In the comic we can't go into how she makes this bad decision so it has to be that she does have a weapon but can't get to it.

Reading the novels and watching the movies, the Swedish setting has a very distinct feel to it. Do you equate the small towns visited in the Millennium Trilogy to any of the locales you might find north of Glasgow in, say, the Scottish Highlands? And if so, did you use any of these references when describing settings for artists Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti?

One of the things I love about the books is the Swedish setting and actually, I've been to Stockholm and lived in Norway for a few years so it feels very culturally specific to me.

Swedish people have a very strong identity, not at all Scottish, very different history. I think one of the reasons the books are so popular is that they are so specifically Swedish. Somehow being very specific can make things more universal than trying to make them universal.

I read the books as a clash between old, rural Gothic Sweden with Hedestad and the Vangars and modern, urban Sweden with Stockholm, Salander and Blomkvist.

For me, Scotland is inherently quite funny so a transposition wouldn't work.

Lisbeth Salander, considered in some circles to be a female Batman, is in my mind a character very much in your wheel house. What is it about her as a character that you feel resonates so much with readers? And now, having worked with her, were there any surprises in terms of where you have been able to go with her as a character?

To get boringly technical, I think she is a female character who is oblivious to the male gaze. That is, she doesn't perceive herself as being seen. She doesn't worry about the size of her arse or being popular or any of that shit. I have a hundred girlfriends like that but they are so rarely portrayed in popular culture that she is incredibly fresh to the public. "Sex and the City" is the polar opposite of that construct -- women who imagine themselves being seen all the time and behave as if there is a terrible shortage of men. I like that show but they behave as if it's 1919 and all the men were wiped out in the war and from flu.

I also think Salander is pretty realistic, actually, though she does have superpowers [so] we have to make them credible. For example, something that didn't come out in the films is that her mother has been battered so badly by her father that she is brain damaged. That's what motivates her to half kill Bjurman. She can't be vulnerable. It comes from a position of powerlessness, not because she's Batman.

Likewise, Mikael Blomkvist is a character that I would imagine you could really crawl into and get lost inside, especially considering your years writing about the inner workings of "The Daily News." For my dollar, Michael Nyqvist's portrayal of the character was more closely aligned to how I envisioned him than Daniel Craig -- although I did like his take, as well. How can you best describe your take on your leading man and how do you go about creating another unique interpretation?

For me, here is the problem with Blomkvist: every woman he meets wants to have sex with him. Nyqvist not so much. Maybe. Daniel Craig. Not twice. Maybe. But Blomvist? What does he need for that to feel true? I think as well as being an embattled hero fighting the good fight he needs to be a little bit loveable, to have a sense of the ridiculous.

I think in casting Daniel Craig, the producers hoped to address that problem. In Nyqvist they understood that there is nothing more melancholy or erotically charged for most women than a chubby smoker going jogging in an old track suit.

Your own creation, Paddy Meehan, using very broad strokes, reminds me somewhat of an amalgam of Salander and Blomkvist. Do you see any major similarities or differences as well, and if so, did you tap into Paddy at all to further explore Salander and Blomkvist?

Actually, though they inhabit the same sort of world I think Paddy is a lot more flawed than they are. I think she'd hate Blomkvist. She'd be jealous of his success and hate him for taking himself so seriously. In Britain, crime reporters really look down on financial journalists. They're very technical and tend to come from a posher background.

Assuming "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a huge success for you and Vertigo, would you be game for adapting the sequels, too?

I'd love to. I think they'd be harder to do than the first one but less familiar to an audience so more interesting. It's so stimulating to be writing comics again, especially without the fizzy panic of not really knowing what I'm doing or where it's all going.

Any chance we will see you doing some more work with John Constantine? Are there any other comic book characters you would like to explore?

No plans but I would never rule anything out.

What else are you working on these days, in terms of novels, plays, films or television?

Just finished a novel called, "Gods and Beasts," which will be out in July in the UK.

I'm writing a series of short films called "I," which are real diary entries from people like Samuel Pepys, Slash and Mita Karaka re-written in contemporary language and delivered by actors and my aunties. I'm also making a short film called "We Three" for film festivals.

Doing a lot of touring as well. I'm in New Zealand this week for the Art Festival and coming to L.A. in April because "End of the Wasp Season" is up for the L.A. Times crime novel of the year, so I'll be at the festival there.

I've got an essay on Scottish Independence, too, for a collection out in September and another short story to write for a collection. Then I'm starting a new novel.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," written by Denise Mina with art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti and a cover by Lee Bermejo, is slated for November.

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