Comparing the Swedish and US versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

News Ryan Lambie 18 Dec 2011 - 19:34

David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo arrives in the UK soon, but how does it measure against the Swedish film? Ryan finds out…

When it was announced that David Fincher was about to embark on an English-language version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, reactions from devotees of Stieg Larsson’s hit novels and Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish film adaptation were mixed. Was this to be just another unnecessary Hollywood remake, a cynical attempt to hook in audiences who couldn’t be bothered to read the original adaptation’s subtitles?

Admittedly, my own reaction to Fincher’s involvement with the US Dragon Tattoo was almost as cynical. Fincher’s well-known as a maker of stylish films, yet the Swedish movie was itself stylishly shot and often extremely pretty to look at; surely, bringing Fincher in was an attempt to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place?

So what has Fincher brought to his version of Larsson’s first Millennium novel? The answer: all his skills as both a storyteller and a visual stylist.

Seven proved that Fincher was a great director of thrillers. Fight Club showed that he could make an unusual and mordent satire within the Hollywood system. Zodiac showed that he could direct an intricate and technically tricky procedural drama. While not necessarily as good as those earlier movies, Dragon Tattoo brings all of those skills to Larsson’s story.

Well directed and acted though the Swedish Dragon Tattoo is (and there’s no denying the power of Noomi Rapace’s career-making performance), I’d argue that Fincher’s movie is the better adaptation. Not simply because it’s got a bigger budget ($100m versus the first’s $13m) or because it looks and sounds better, but because, beneath its aggressive styling, it’s a more human film. Its characters are better drawn and more likeable. Not everyone will agree, but I never quite bought the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth in the Swedish version. He was too lumpy, too much of a buffoon. She was too spiky, too stern. How would these mutual exclusives ever end up in bed together?

The dynamics that Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig bring to their roles changes this. There’s a vulnerability beneath Lisbeth’s spiky exterior in Fincher’s film. Craig, meanwhile, is far more relatable - funny, even - as Mikael. Old though he is, at least compared to the 23-year-old Lisbeth, we can understand why a strange kind of attraction should exist between them.

The amount of gruesome detail in the story requires a believable, human edge - some light as well as shade. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig bring this in their great performances.

Mara will rightly get a lot of attention for a brave performance that couldn’t have been easy to pull off. As the extraordinarily intelligent yet troubled Lisbeth, she balances strength and anger with the perfect touch of vulnerability - she’s strong, incisive and capable, and occasionally her actions border on the sociopathic, but underneath she’s alone and desperate for human contact.

Craig is almost as good. His character is necessarily less magnetic than the force-of-nature Lisbeth, but there’s a warmth to Mikael that I felt was absent in Michael Nyqvist’s performance. Look, for example, at the way Craig reacts after he receives a glancing blow across the forehead from a bullet - having had his graze stitched back up by Lisbeth, he sits around afterwards, whining about how much it hurts. It’s easy to forget that Craig is also James Bond - and that’s the sign of a great actor.

In the source novel, I’d argue that the characters are far more interesting than the story itself, which, beneath all the sex and violence, is a fairly standard whodunit. The identity of the killer isn’t difficult to guess, even if you don’t necessarily follow every development of the Vanger family’s complex history.

Fincher, though, is adept at building suspense and directing intimate character moments. Even after seeing the Swedish version, and knowing roughly what would happen next, I still found myself on the edge of my seat during the US Dragon Tattoo. Fincher has an aggressive way of cutting certain scenes right down to the bone, so that certain events appear to be happening slightly faster than we can register them.

This brisk approach to telling the story is necessary when there’s this much plot to pack in, and it’s a miracle that Fincher manages to fit in slightly more of the novel than the Swedish film managed, all within a little under two-and-a-half hours. Nevertheless, the denouement drags on for rather too long; what you might expect to be a few minutes’ falling tension is spun out for what feels like half an hour.

Fincher, and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, take their time with this section, and spin out the threads rather than hurriedly pulling them into a little bow. This makes their Dragon Tattoo slightly more punishing on the posterior, and more unevenly paced, but at least avoids the rather abrupt conclusion of its predecessor.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, then, is a rare example of a hugely popular novel that has spawned not one but two well-made adaptations. And yet, as good as Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film was, it’s Fincher’s film, with its driving pace, perfect casting and its witheringly aggressive music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, that captures all the chill and fleeting warmth of Larsson’s literary source.

You can read our review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo here.

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I really didn't know what I was getting into until it was too a late. This movie is dark and disturbing in many ways. Once scene for me would be where Martin Vanger is holding up Daniel Craig in that room with there ceramic bathroom tiles, the easy to clean ones.

Another disturbing thing about the movie is when, after showing a scene where Lisabeth had to give her new guardian (Nils Erik Bjurman) 'something' in return for money (which showed very little of anything really) they then show a very graphic rape scene in Bjurman's bedroom when Lisabeth asks for more money(the next day).  

I have to disagree on this one.  I think some of the casting was better in the American version, but after reading the book again, the screenplay was very uneven.  The beginning seemed incredibly rushed.  Of course a novel and a film are two separate entities, but things that made sense in the book, were excluded from Fincher's film, and scenes that took place in the past, or weren't highlighted in the book were added instead. One added scene' not in the book really spoils a bit of the mystery.  You don't truly get a good picture of the Vanger family in either film, but you get even less of a idea of them with the American version. I  will say that the ending of the Swedish version made no sense (if you were planning on doing the subsequent books, and Fincher at least got that part right.

The first thing Fincher does in his version is give all the major players strong motivations and intentions for doing what they do and being who they are. It does work wonders for getting the movie rolling but after awhile it gets a bit tiresome. Everything has to be rapped in a neat little package this isn't always interesting nor good. On the other hand, Niels Arden Oplev version doesn't always try to explain every motive, every intention, which then lets you interact with the characters a little more freely. Both versions are good as mentioned and while I do agree that Fincher's version is better it's only slightly. Fincher's film feels a bit to rushed at the beginning, then settles in once on the island. It also has too much Robin Wright imo, but has the daughter role interjected, thankfully. The atmosphere is easily more defined and uncomfortable which plays better with this type of material. Performance wise Fincher also takes the cake here, although I wouldn't say Niels Arden Oplev version has bad acting. I didn't particularly enjoy Fincher's way of ending the film nor did I thoroughly enjoy Niels Arden Oplev ending, but it felt a bit more realistic and fitting in places. I almost wished I was able to get a mix of both endings, both having truly good things that works and don't.

Sir: What you are expounding here is a male viewpoint. i wonder if you are aware of that? Even the New York Times critic A.O. Scott led his review of the Fincher film by noting that Fincher had demonstrated graphic sexual exploitation of women to supposedly support a theme of denouncing the sexual exploitation of women; he specifically referred to the rape scene. In other words Fincher went for the tool that would bring him the most success. Perhaps Fincher's brutal viewpoint of women is conscious, perhaps not. This separatist viewpoint is presented numerous times in the American version. Please remember that almost every film you see is directed by a man[ in other words, as a population we are saturated & conditioned with one particular viewpoint as if it were objective reality & truth, therefore any visual etc that is in sync with that viewpoint will be considered "better" or more "powerful." I found Fincher's viewpoint, among other things, lascivious. Take a look, if you like, at the way that rape scene was handled by the 2 different cultures. Really take a good look at it, understanding that everything--everything--in that scene was a choice, a perspective. If you clear your palate & open your mind & feelings, I think you might be shocked. If you look at the 2 versions, American & Swedish, of the vampire film, Let Me In, I think you will find he same contrast.

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