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.