"So there you have it. Much of the take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo depends on what you think of the star. But, when you get down to the brass tacks of filmmaking, David Fincher's Hollywood remake proves the victorious heavyweight."
by Josh Stillman
Stieg Larsson's 2005 novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the unlikeliest bestsellers in literary history. Somehow, in spite of its gruesome content – serial murder, rape, sodomy, incest, torture, Nazis – the book took off and sold 30 million copies worldwide, and that's not including the equally staggering sales of its two sequels. With those kinds of numbers, it was only a matter of time before movie studios clamored to produce a film adaption.
The first, a 2009 Swedish production directed by Niels Arden Oplev, starred Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist. Shot on a relatively modest budget of $13 million, the film went on to gross over $100 million worldwide, made an international star of Rapace, and led to further adaptations of the two sequels. The inevitable Hollywood remake, directed by David Fincher and released in 2011, starred Rooney Mara as Salander and Daniel Craig as Blomkvist. Shot on a decidedly immodest budget of $90 million, Fincher's version grossed a somewhat disappointing $232 million worldwide and left its two sequels in limbo – though it did, like its predecessor, launch its leading lady into the stratosphere (Mara picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance). Now, the question is: which version is better?
Let's start with the obvious: the protagonists. It's safe to say that the performances delivered by Rapace and Mara are very different. And, because Salander is the heart and soul of the franchise, it's likely that a viewer's preference of movie depends on their preference of heroine. I'll go ahead and admit that there's no clear winner here – the two women portray Salander so differently that it's impossible to say that one is "better" than the other. Let's look at Rapace. Her Salander is testy, vulnerable, and occasionally ferocious. The key to her performance is that she is very much a human being; once you get past her appearance – which in this case is a goth-punk rocker aesthetic – she's really just a moody, emotionally distant young girl. She emotes; she expresses interest and disinterest; she opens up and then closes herself off, often in rapid succession. When she resorts to violence or rage, it's like she's a wounded animal, backed into a corner, lashing out against her aggressors.
Mara, on the other hand, takes a totally different approach. Her Lisbeth is an ass-kicking avenging angel. She rarely breaks her intense, focused monotone, reacting more with her eyes than with any perceivable modulation of her voice or face. With few exceptions – the moments she spends with her first caretaker, for instance – she plays everything extremely close to the chest, making her difficult to read; she's more of an enigma. Mara is Lisbeth as a cyber-punk superhero, all fury and charisma. These differences are borne out clearly in two scenes in particular: the assault in the subway station, and the first sexual encounter between Lisbeth and Mikael.
In Oplev's original, Lisbeth is attacked by a group of rowdy young men as she passes through a tunnel. They're bullies, and they're looking to pick a fight. When Salander mistakenly bumps one of them, they turn on her, beating her and forcing her to the ground. She desperately fends them off with a broken beer bottle and a shriek – it's a murky encounter, and it shows that Lisbeth can totally freak out when she's threatened. In Fincher's version, Lisbeth gets robbed by a solitary thief, who makes off with her laptop on an escalator. Lisbeth pursues, grapples with him, slides her laptop down the banister, and deftly catches it at the bottom, slipping onto the metro just as the doors close. There's even an instant, after she seizes her computer back, where it looks like she lunges at his face and screams, as if to intimidate him. The difference here is anything but accidental. Rapace's encounter demonstrates an explosive but frantic reaction to a group of male assailants. Mara's, rather than an act of desperation, is more like a chance to show off, pulling off a slick, seemingly impossible maneuver that showcases a deft athleticism.
The sex scene illustrates another important contrast. When Rapace shows up next to Mikael's bed in the middle of the night, fully nude, and mounts him, it's both tender and awkward. Lisbeth hasn't quite mastered the art of seduction, and she uses their brief moment of intimacy to confront some painful, barely-repressed sexual memories, before bidding her confused partner goodnight. Mara, however – just as before – oozes charisma in her scene. It's evident that she is completely in control of the situation; there's nothing awkward or vulnerable or painful whatsoever. It's actually pretty erotic. She stays in bed with Mikael afterward, sharing a cigarette, doing away completely with the uncomfortable emotional distance of her Swedish counterpart.
These two events, in conjunction with many other smaller details – Rapace's Lisbeth is burdened and pained by her photographic memory; Mara's brandishes it as an asset – make it clear that we're dealing with very different heroines. Again, though, there's no clear winner here. They're simply divergent interpretations. Some people prefer one, some prefer the other. Both Mara and Rapace earned international acclaim for the role, which is a testament both to their talent and to the strength of the source material.
It would be a fool's errand to continue to compare the films actor for actor. Suffice it to say that Nyqvist and Craig are both excellent as Mikael Blomkvist, the beleaguered, crusading journalist and inadvertent lothario (it's not a stretch to assume that Larsson betrays some wish fulfillment here). Craig, of course, was fresh off his performance as James Bond in Quantum of Solace and still boasts an action hero physique, so it's easier to believe that women are throwing themselves at him. Nevertheless, he's equally believable as the rumpled and put-upon Blomkvist – Craig nails the bruised everyman charm. Nyqvist certainly looks the part more than Craig, what with his imperfect skin and dumpy figure, yet wields an endearing, wry charm of his own.
Anyway, other than Lisbeth Salander, the primary differences between the films come from two sources: the director and the score. All due respect to Oplev, but in this contest, he never stood a chance. David Fincher is one of the most gifted directors in Hollywood, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is just the kind of grim, mysterious, violent material out of which Fincher has forged a legendary career. Never mind the budget, which is nearly ten times that of the original – Fincher is simply a master of the craft, and that mastery is visible at every turn.
Working from a taut, crackling screenplay by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler's List and has three other nominations), Fincher packs his film full of smart, subtle details, such as: the stray cat at Blomkvist's cottage; the references to gabardine, first by Lisbeth's sadistic new guardian Nils Bjurman and then, ironically, by Lisbeth herself; Bjurman's laundry list of specific, graphic crimes on Lisbeth's record; Lisbeth getting a painful tattoo on her ankle; the decision to make Blomkvist's sweet, religious daughter a more prominent character. These are the minor touches that may go unnoticed by many but, to those who are looking closely, create a movie of great depth.
He also finds many opportunities for humor. When Henrik Vanger, played here by Christopher Plummer, explains the various feuds and squabbles between the family members on the island, it's a real moment of levity – there is something funny about the fact that these crazy, fascist Swedes are as petty and ridiculous as any other family. Then there's the clever understatement of the exchange between Lisbeth and Mikael the morning after they first have sex: "I like working with you," Lisbeth says dryly from her perch on the kitchen counter, to which Mikael quickly responds, "I like working with you, too." Oplev, in his attempt to make a straight-ahead potboiler, fails to capitalize on such potential. His film is somber throughout, rarely pausing to have any fun (one notable exception is Mikael and Lisbeth's first car ride together, when they wordlessly spar over the music on the radio). That's not to say it's not a competent thriller; it's just that it's nothing more than that.
Then, there's the matter of atmosphere. Fincher practically wrote the book on dark, gloomy ambiance (see: Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Panic Room, this year's Gone Girl). With that pedigree, it's no surprise that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is similarly bleak. He revels in the uninviting prospect of northern Sweden in the winter. Everything is dim, grey, covered in ice and shadow. The sense of isolation is palpable. Oplev, in contrast, may as well have been shooting in June – in his film, the remote island of Hedestad looks downright pleasant.
Finally, there's the score. Jacob Groth, who composed the music for the Swedish original, apparently felt the need to utterly abandon subtlety, choosing instead to batter audiences over the head with dread and portent. His music is loud, literal, and intrusive; it is so obvious and pervasive as to be distracting. Fincher, however, teamed up for the second time with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The pair won an Oscar for their work on 2010's The Social Network, and they should have won for this film as well (the score won a Grammy and received a Golden Globe nomination). It's an eerie, ambient mélange of bells and synthesizers, flutes and droning guitars – in other words, it's very unusual, very discomfiting, and serves as the perfect complement to Fincher's aesthetic. Reznor and Ross prove that bombast is not a prerequisite for tension and urgency.
Before I conclude, I need to address two scenes that highlight key differences in the directors' approach. The first is the interaction between Martin and Mikael, when Martin has captured Mikael in his cellar and elaborates his homicidal behavior. This scene, in the original, is rather perfunctory. As with everything else in the movie, it contains the necessary information and nothing more. The delivery is effective but rote. Fincher, instead, chooses to relish this moment. Martin – played by a superbly creepy Stellan Skarsgard – toys with his prey, examines him slowly, approaches him with clinical, almost gleeful malice. Plus, the scene enters the canon of sick weirdness through its bizarre and hilarious and awful use of Enya's "Oronico Flow." This, again, is one of the myriad small details that contribute to the richness of Fincher's film.
The second scene is Lisbeth's theft of the Wennerstrom fortune. This one's more of a toss-up. Oplev largely dismisses this subplot, revealing only in the final shot that Lisbeth has assumed the guise of a blonde businesswoman and disappeared into the tropics with a huge sum of stolen money. Personally, I found this difficult to swallow, as Lisbeth Salander never struck me as the kind of heroine who would be content with waltzing off into the sunset to count her riches. She seems to operate under a different code, one that would preclude such a traditional finale. Fincher, rather than dismiss this portion, turns it into its own extended coda. We watch Salander as she transforms herself physically and gallivants across the globe to single-handedly topple Wennerstrom's financial empire. It's a continuation of the film's Lisbeth-as-superhero theme, except now it's on a grander international scale. A common, and not altogether unfounded, critique is that this section is unnecessary and breaks from the tone of the rest of the story. That may be true. And I'll concede that it requires some suspension of disbelief to buy Lisbeth as a shape shifter as adroit as Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. But I'm also one of the people who was so transfixed by Mara's performance that it didn't matter. I was just happy to watch the chameleon-like waif do anything.
So there you have it. Much of the take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo depends on what you think of the star. But, when you get down to the brass tacks of filmmaking, David Fincher's Hollywood remake proves the victorious heavyweight. The Swedish original is good, but against such a titan, it's simply outclassed.