Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

          A Return Ticket to the Dark Night of the Soul
                  Review by Ken Burke
Nothing essentially new in plot or character revelation in this remake of the Swedish version, but Fincher and Mara are worth whatever comparisons you’d like to make.  
            “Adaptation is a profound process,” says John Laroche (Chris Cooper) in Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002).  He was talking about plants and their accommodation to their natural environments, but when the topic is fictional narratives the adaptation discussion is often about fidelity to the original text or comparison of the merits of the versions to be found in various media.  (If you want to explore these concepts in depth, I suggest starting with Desmond and Hawks, Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature [I verify I get no compensation whatsoever from any sales of this book], but there’s a lot more where that came from; if you want an extensive bibliography please send me an e-mail inquiry directly to  

            A recent focus on the adaptation process brings us to the internationally-known narrative The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where we have several versions to consider:  the original Stieg Larsson novel in Swedish (for those of you who can read it in this form), its translation into English (and other languages, which I also don’t read; what’d ya expect?  I’m an American!), its adaptation into a mini-series for Swedish TV (not seen yet by me but available for purchase if you’re interested; I don’t get any kickbacks for that either—in case you haven’t figured it out yet, you don’t write blogs in order to pay your rent), the compression of that long form to a stand-alone film 
and now another adaption of the foundational novel into another film directed by David Fincher.  Trying to determine which of these options is “the best” is like trying to pair a certain cheese, entrée, or dessert with the perfect wine: it all depends on not only the taste(buds) of the beholder but also on what’s available to that beholder in trying to make a decision between comparable options.

             In the case of The Girl … trilogy one of the considerations is how much reading and viewing a person wants to do in trying to decide on “the best,” but the primary focus for many viewers keeps coming back to the depiction of Lisbeth Salander on screen.  Who you gonna call:  Noomi Rapace in the 2009 film or Rooney Mara in the current one? (Photos of each below.)

Noomi Rapace
             My answer, sure to be dismissed by Lisbeth herself as a wimpy copout, is they work equally well in their respective perspectives and both deserve the praise given them for bringing this vivid character to life on screen.  Certainly there are differences in the portrayals, with Rapace’s Lisbeth as a bit more tough and confident in her dealings with those around her and Mara’s Lisbeth as a bit more withdrawn but she still has the fierce sense of self-protection so vital to this character as evidenced by the determined chase and bodily harm she inflicts on her would-be computer thief in the Stockholm subway scene.  I wouldn’t want to antagonize either version of Lisbeth, although I realize that some viewers will see more of what they respond to in one embodiment or the other, as we all operate from varying aesthetics. 
Rooney Mara
            One place where concrete differences arise is in the choices made by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev for the 2009 adaptation and David Fincher for the current one.  I don’t think anything essential is missing in Fincher’s edition, but some might disagree with me there as well.  As for minor plot points that change, which somewhat reduces Lisbeth’s secret command of her various situations, I’ll focus on these:  (1) in the original film Lisbeth hacks into any computer she’s interested in so she’s online stalking Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig—here and for the rest of the review the actors cited are from the current film) before they ever meet (and not just in her background check of him as shown in Fincher’s version) so she presents more of an interest in his existence than is implied in the new tale; (2) Lisbeth cracks the Leviticus code by herself in the first film, then they investigate together the deaths of women noted in Harriet’s diary whereas in the new one the discoveries are done through mutual inquiry but Lisbeth goes solo on probing the death circumstances so Mikael’s implied as lead detective; (3) when Harriet is located in Oplev’s film she’s working at an Australian Outback ranch rather than as a banker in metropolitan London (probably because this film just didn’t have time to establish and travel to another location, but this is a neutral change regarding the dynamics between Mikael and Lisbeth); and (4) the ending of the first version quickly deals with confident but duplicitous industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström’s (Ulf Friberg) suicide and Lisbeth’s cleaning out of his accounts while the current film gives us not only a detailed view of her final scheme but also the abrupt end of her budding attraction to Mikael when she sees him continuing his liaison with Erika Berger (Robin Wright), the editor-in-chief of Blomkvist’s Millennium magazine (a sexual connection known and condoned by her husband).  Most of Fincher’s changes take us further from the novel, except the last one which is an important connection to the original Larsson story regarding the negotiated alliance of our protagonists and a clue as to how each director is positioning which of them the films really focus on (and for me, it's Mikael in both cases despite the obvious assumptions about Lisbeth).
          Along with the differences noted above, but more significant in its implication, is that in the earlier visualization there’s a bit more at the beginning about Blomkvist’s conviction for libel against Wennerström.  We also get reminders that Blomkvist has a six-month window before he must start serving his sentence and toward the end of the Oplev version we actually see him in jail for a brief time (where he’s visited by Lisbeth, who brings him the evidence he needs to clear himself), all of which gives us a sense of Mikael’s willingness to accept his punishment—even if unjustified—for the sake of not harming his investigative magazine, so we’re given reason to respect his ethics.  Fincher initially acknowledges the conviction but virtually ignores it after that, implying the miscarriage of justice and lack of needed penalty for such.

Therefore, while the focus is different on what we see about Mikael’s life in each film the accumulation of details shows that he is truly the main character despite the title which emphasizes Lisbeth, as well as the advertising images that either concentrate on her (Oplev’s film, shown to the right here) or present a seeming balance between the two (Fincher’s, shown toward the beginning of the review)Given how Lisbeth avenges herself on her “guardian,” Advokat Nils Erik Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), after he brutally rapes her, how she concretely puts the evidence together that identifies Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård) as the killer they seek then rescues Mikael from Martin’s torture chamber after he intuitively but inadvertently stumbles onto the monster’s lair, and how she delivers the goods on Wennerström so that Mikael can take him down journalistically before she ruins him financially, you’d think that this narrative is mostly about “the girl” (even if Larsson hadn’t suffered his tragic sudden death just as these novels were becoming huge best-sellers, I sometimes wonder if he wouldn’t have received some retribution from an embodied manifestation of 24 year-old Lisbeth, holding him accountable for using that moniker to describe her).  Yet, for all of her skills, resiliency, and self-control she’s the one who continues to live in the shadows of Mikael’s accomplishments and restored public image, who recognizes in him a potential companion that she longs for but cannot explore because of his prior commitment to Erika, and who must satisfy her need for control of the world that has constantly abused and rejected her by clandestinely bringing down social parasites in a hidden, illegal manner.  In contrast, Mikael is a social crusader so that everything about him is public knowledge, more than he cared for it to be during his trail and eventual incarceration in the Wennerström scandal but he’s finally vindicated for it all and suffers no lasting consequences (even his affair with Erika is essentially accepted public knowledge for the people to whom it matters most) while Lisbeth remains an outlaw off the radar. 

The most significant inclusion in the first film that ultimately gives Mikael more prominence in this story is the fact that when he was a young boy Mikael actually knew Harriet Vanger as a babysitter because his father worked for the Vanger corporation—a partial reason why Henrik Vanger recruited Blomkvist to help find his missing niece—although Mikael had forgotten that relationship in the many intervening years but we get to see glimpses of it in flashback shots (our narrative is set in roughly present day but Harriet disappeared in 1966).  Thus, Mikael recalls his fond connection with Harriet, giving him an actual reason to be so concerned about her disappearance and possible death, the driving element of this narrative.  Even Oplev’s decision to briefly include a reference to Kalle Blomkvist, a fictional boy detective (from actual Swedish novels by Astrid Lindgren) whose name is facetiously connected to Mikael by this story’s journalists, hints at more attention to Mikael than to Lisbeth, for those who know or wish to pursue this narrative in more detail in the novel.  Mikael’s disgust at the reference (used at times by Lisbeth to irritate him) is something that recurs in the book, just as we have considerably more details there about Wennerström, his actual crimes, and how he set up Mikael for the libel arrest.  We’d learn little more about Lisbeth by reading the print narrative than what either Oplev or Fincher has shown about her because all of her pertinent details have been included in at least one of the films—although two primary ones oddly not shown by Fincher are the brief flashback of her setting her cruel father on fire when she was a child, then the visit to her mother in a mental institution while on the Harriet-disappearance case with Blomkvist. 

On the one hand, this relative de-emphasis on her backstory furthers my argument that both directors ultimately want us to retain more about the reserved Mikael than the fierce Lisbeth, but it could also be that Fincher knows that many of us are aware of LIsbeth’s stormy past from the previous books and films so he’s saving an emphasis on her until the upcoming sequels in which her past and present travails will properly take center stage.  It’s also likely that Fincher chose to eliminate the Mikael-Kalle Blomkvist joke noted by Oplev because that would take too much explaining to an American audience while a Swedish one would get the reference even without returning to it as Larsson did, but why Fincher eliminated the Mikael-Harriet connection isn’t immediately clear to me.  Still, when we see how passionate Blomkvist is in Fincher’s film to solve her mysterious disappearance as well as find the killer that Harriet has referenced in her diary we’re given reason to admire Mikael’s quest for justice, which may be a bit more abstractly humanitarian than Lisbeth’s angry desire to simply locate and punish yet another crazed brutalizer of women.  (As indicated by her hacker name, Wasp [noted only in Oplev’s version], whose sting proves deadly when given the chance to strike—even in a semi-comic fashion in the Fincher film when she asks Blomkvist if it’s OK that she kills Martin, although fate leaves him instead killed by an oncoming truck as he tries to elude her pursuit.  There's no comic relief at all in the older film where Martin is burned to death in the car accident but she might have been able to pull him out before the fireball explosion; whatever her options, she makes no attempt to save this murderous beast, which clearly troubles Mikael’s moral sensibilities despite Martin’s plan to kill him, again showing Mikael’s structured perception for the audience as occupying the slightly higher moral ground in both films than the justified but retaliatory Lisbeth.)

While I hope you’ve found all of these adaptation/comparison discussions useful in considering the larger context of this immense narrative in its many manifestations, I also need to put attention just to what we encounter in Fincher’s film, because even if someone were to see it with only the vaguest awareness of its predecessors I think it’s still a powerful experience that warrants a high rating, consideration as one of the best films of the year, and some analysis of what it presents about something being rotten in another part of Scandinavia than Denmark (things are pretty rotten there as well, at least in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—reviewed elsewhere in this blog—but that’s more the fault of the impartial cosmos than punishment for the sins of the characters as we get in our sad story of personal debasement in Sweden).  Fincher’s visual power is on display from the first in this film, as we would expect from the director of Expressionistic, noir-ish triumphs such as Alien3 (1992), Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002), and even some aspects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)—although these films remind us that he’s also effective at conjuring up engaging yet flawed characters as we see in these and less assaultive works such as Zodiac (2007) and The Social Network (2010), the latter where we first briefly met Rooney Mara as the girlfriend who would dare to break up with Mark Zuckerberg and thereby lead to the creation of Facebook as his vengeful anger snowballed long past his unappreciated student life at Harvard.
Compared to the generally more high-key lighting used by Oplev, at least in exterior images of the Swedish countryside and the area around the Vanger compound in Hedestad, even Fincher’s snow scenes in the opening shots are in overcast light, throwing a grey pall over the winter not-so-wonderful land (Mikael’s later relocation to this north country will find him in similar desaturated hues, as if the life has gone out of the Vanger territory, which we’ll learn it has in many disturbing ways).  From there we get into Fincher’s discomforting opening credits where the predominant tone is black and the visual contents are a constantly-moving collage of liquids, mysterious techno elements, and body parts seeming to struggle for escape from the ooze that surrounds them.  As we move into the film, it flows through consistently excellent cinematography, an evocative but often purposefully disturbing soundtrack, and an energetic pace from start to finish (Wait, I thought this was supposed to be Swedish!  Sorry, one of my usual bad puns, but I thought we were due for some relief from all this calculated heaviness).  The editing consistently intertwines the lifelines of Mikael and Lisbeth until they meet and form their tentative partnership, but even then we continue with the juxtaposition of their separate investigative missions.  We also get immediately useful visual characterizations of both of them:  Mikael in his suit in the courtroom, somber at the unjustified verdict; Lisbeth in urban grunge, seemingly surviving on a diet of Coke, ramen noodles, and cigarettes.

Fincher proves masterful in streamlining this story, which for me proved harder to follow in both the novel and Oplev’s adaptation.  Possibly it’s just because it was my  third time through this material, but for once I didn’t have to rely on a genealogy chart (Larsson provides two of them in the book to help us keep the extended Vanger family straight, because even Mikael admits there are so many relevant relatives that they get quickly confusing).  Fincher is skillful at reducing unnecessary detail in what is a content-packed but still long film (158 min.).  He successfully limits the screen time—or even appearances—of most of the Vangers, he creates effective compressions of action such as the efficient scene where LIsbeth relates to Mikael the information she’s found on the women murdered (by Martin’ father, as it turns out), and he uses the seeming cinematic movements of a series of still photos on Blomkvist’s computer exploring Harriet’s last known day with her family in a manner that energizes this progression of images differently from the famous Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) style of successive photos shown singularly in accumulation toward revelation as seen in Oplev’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Fincher also uses more known—the current James Bond (Craig) and the always powerful, often menacing Skarsgård—and in some cases more photogenic faces for his characters, including Christopher Plummer (patriarch Henrik Vanger) and Joely Richardson (key Vanger niece Anita).

What seems very Fincheresque to me, although it comes from Larsson, is the whole demented killing spree of “undesirable” women perpetuated by Martin Vanger’s father and justified by the citations from the Biblical/Torah book of Leviticus.  These harsh prescriptions of punishment for sinners from ancient Israelite tradition are based on concepts of uncleanliness and necessary purification of the offender's community to regain the favor of God.  Martin and his father desecrate anything holy about the intentions of these punishments of sinners by taking it upon themselves to determine who is unclean in our world; further, with Martin’s decision to continue his father’s homicidal lifestyle by “disappearing” a good number of his version of the “condemned” (immigrants, vagrants, etc.) he also continues the embrace of Nazism that has cursed many of the Vanger family.  This kind of vengeful “cleansing” is very reminiscent of Fincher’s Se7en where Kevin Spacey’s unhinged “John Doe” not only kills his victims in the name of the Seven Deadly Sins but also sinks to a greater level of twisted religiosity by bringing his wrath upon himself for the sin of envy of Detective David Mills’ (Brad Pitt) potentially happy life with a wife and expected child by goading Mills to kill him at the film’s conclusion, leaving the cop culpable for murder.  Martin Vanger would never see himself as a sinner, yet Fincher simply allows him to be destroyed by an oncoming truck in his attempted escape from LIsbeth’s pursuit, as if he’s so despicable that he’s not worthy of the revenge she’d love to dish out to him (but he’s directly following Larsson's plot structure here rather than Oplev's). 

This is about the only anticipated horror that Fincher doesn’t explore in this film, but even with all of its perverse darkness it still is worthy of viewing, even if you’re already familiar with its antecedents, because of the marvelous command of characterization and disturbing cinematic talents on display.  It’s certainly not a film for the squeamish, as none of The Girl… books and films are, but you likely knew that already, so while the buyer should beware I do encourage you to buy (despite any lack of commission for me if you do, damn it).

Given her determination to cut the chase on everything, I’ll finish this review with Lisbeth’s likely response to me about her not truly being the central focus of the story (as announced on one of her T-shirts in the film [not shown below, but how could I resist using this as a parting image?]):

                                     F*** You, You F***ing F***

            (The film is rated R; I’m trying to keep my reviews in the PG zone, although it seems that I’m drawn to analyzing mostly R films.  I guess I need some Spielberg in my diet.)

            If you’d like to explore the new version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in more depth here are some recommended links:

            If you’d like to refresh yourself a bit on the first version of this film try this:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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