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A Tale of Two Dragon Tattoos

December 28, 2011

Once again, I broke my long-standing rule against seeing a film adaptation (or in this case two) without first reading the source material. And once again, I regret it despite having been thoroughly entertained. Twice.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first in a trio of crime/mystery novels written by Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson and published after his death in 2004. It is the story of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist recently disgraced thanks to a libel suit brought by corrupt financier Hans-Erik Wennerström. As he licks his proverbial wounds, Mikael is hired by Henrik Vanger, patriarch of a wealthy industrialist family, to investigate the 1968 murder of his neice Harriet. Henrik is convinced that the killer is someone in the Vanger family. Mikael is eventually helped in the investigation by Lisbeth Salander, the titular “girl,” a curt, expressionless hacker/investigator with a violent past and introverted, antisocial tendencies. She first comes into contact with Mikael when she is hired by Vanger’s private attorney to do a background check on him. The novel and its film adaptations follow their painstaking dissection of the lives of the very odd and unpleasant Vanger family, as well as the complicated relationship that develops between Mikael and Lisbeth.

A 2009 film adaptation, by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev, is currently available on Netflix Instant Streaming as well as DVD/Blu-ray. The 2011 film, directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), came to American theaters last weekend bearing the tagline “the feel bad movie of Christmas.” This is definitely not a sunshine & puppy dogs story, and the two films differ in some surprising ways. I’ll not spoil either of the story’s two big reveals, but some of the differences I’m going to mention involve spoilers of relatively minor plot details. You have been warned.

The Swedish film is competently executed. I know that sounds like a non-pliment, but it really isn’t. The film conveys the hostility and detachment of the story’s remote, rural Swedish locale quite convincingly. Having not read the novel, I cannot speak to the film’s adherence to the story. But I can say that nothing felt missing or inadequately explained. It’s a hell of a story and a hell of a mystery, with a couple of well executed red herrings and characters that feel real. Everyone is well cast, especially Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace, currently appearing in the Downey-tastic Sherlock Holmes sequel) whose character is given significant screen time in order to convey her complicated back-story and the difficult life she leads.

Fincher’s version of the story, in true American filmmaking style, is simply . . . more. Of everything. He doesn’t change very much (though what little he does change is changed significantly and, in my opinion, for no discernible reason), but he does turn everything up. To continue my sloppy metaphor, Oplev’s direction is at an 8 and Fincher’s is at a very Spinal Tap-ian 11. Nighttime scenes are darker, daytime scenes in snow-covered rural Sweden are grayer, camera movements are more dramatic, the soundtrack (deftly executed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) is more pulsing and ominous (though sometimes needlessly so), and the sound design is more grating. Even his casting choice for both Mikael (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) are more intense, cranked up versions. I’m not trying to assert that Fincher made this conscious decision to take everything Oplev did and simply do “more.” There is nothing inherently “Hollywood” about Fincher’s film. (In fact, Fincher allegedly passed up opportunities to cast the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart, and Ellen Page as Lisbeth Salander. All of whom would have been spectacularly bad choices. Rooney Mara really nails the role.) Much of this is simply a difference of style. I don’t fault his direction. It works; it really does. And the story is still great. But it’s akin to turning a Bach symphony all the way up; the music is still great, just really loud.

A lot of differences involve Lisbeth’s role in the story. Due to a violent childhood, at 24 Lisbeth remains a ward of the State. Her legal guardian is one of the few people she trusts, but he has a stroke and she is assigned a new guardian. The new guy turns out to be a violent, misogynistic pervert who holds her bank account hostage in exchange for abusive sexual favors culminating in a particularly graphic rape scene (more or less identically conveyed in both films.) In the 2009 film, Lisbeth’s relationship with her old guardian is merely mentioned in passing (via an expression of the new guardian’s distaste for his leniency). In Fincher’s film, the relationship is explored in greater detail, including games of chess, visits to the hospital, and even small gestures of physical affection (a rarity in Lisbeth’s life.) Additionally, in the 2009 film, the audience receives piecemeal glimpses of Lisbeth’s violent past and the events that appear to motivate her actions in the present. In the 2011 film we see none of the past, but Lisbeth’s character is no less explored for it. Her motivations are provided in other ways, some as simple as a well placed bit of dialogue. In either case, the audience understands that Lisbeth reacts violently and remorselessly to abuse of women. (An interesting subtext here is that society views this reaction as “antisocial.” But perhaps these are themes better explored in a separate post.)

In Oplev’s film, Lisbeth continues to hack Mikael’s computer and observe his actions even after submitting her report to Vanger’s attorney. This is how she comes to learn of his investigation into the murder. As she vicariously experiences Mikael’s discoveries she is frustrated by things that she is able to figure out before he does. Ultimately, she decides to help by providing insight into a clue that was baffling Mikael. Thus, she makes the conscious decision to reveal herself and her observations and is soon asked by Mikael to participate. In the Fincher version, the same clue is cracked by a tertiary character (Mikael’s teenage daughter) after which Mikael asks Vanger’s attorney for an assistant and is referred to Lisbeth. Mikael then has to convince Lisbeth to help him, instead of Lisbeth making the first contact. This difference in approach drastically changes Lisbeth’s motivation from one film to the other. Again, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know which is more accurate to the original story but I think Oplev’s approach is clearly superior.

Continuing Fincher’s theme of “more,” his film continues the story for an additional 20 minutes of screen time beyond the climax (where Oplev’s version had pretty much ended.) Oplev’s denouement includes a few brief scenes of Mikael’s return to his life as an investigative journalist as his reputation is restored. The audience’s final glimpse of Lisbeth is a grainy image from a security camera as she embezzles money from Mikael’s nemesis Wennerström and helps expose Wennerström’s corruption. Fincher’s story follows Lisbeth’s entire process of acquiring disguises, a passport, and falsified bank statements. However, she uses some of the money to buy Mikael an expensive and personal gift. She plans to give him the gift and express her feelings for him. Unfortunately, she sees Mikael with his old girlfriend and changes her mind at the last minute. (It is my understanding that this final scene is, in fact, directly out of the book.) This extended sequence really does little for Fincher’s movie beyond a further exhibition of Lisbeth’s talent and resourcefulness, and perhaps a bit more character growth for Lisbeth as she makes an effort to open her life up to another person only to be disappointed.

My “nutshell” comparison of Oplev’s and Fincher’s adaptations is this: Oplev’s movie is about Mikael Blomkvist and Fincher’s is about Lisbeth Salander. In Oplev’s version, Lisbeth’s character grows very little. She has no real arc; just revelations about her past. Blomkvist is the one who struggles; with the investigation, with the frustrating task of bringing on a troublesome partner, with the final conflict of the story as Lisbeth’s violent tendencies ultimately save the day. Fincher’s version explores Lisbeth’s journey of openness as she finally experiences real trust and finds purpose in bringing a kind of justice (as she understands it) to the world. As with 2008’s Let the Right One In and 2010’s Let Me In, a Swedish and an American (respectively) adaptation of a modern vampire story, I am hard pressed to pick a favorite. They both do an excellent job of telling the same tale.

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