The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Written by Dario Llinares.

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David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is another example of Hollywood’s established penchant for remakes and adaptations. The list of non-English language films that are given the tinsel town treatment, and the speed at which they appear (Fincher’s film comes only two years after its Swedish counterpart), has undoubtedly increased in the digital age of cultural immediacy.

Throughout cinema history too, however, it has always been a staple part of the Hollywood modus operandi to draw upon (copy, steal, homage, parody, pastiche?) ‘original’ works from every corner of the filmmaking world. Similarly, adaptations of best-selling novels regularly provide a root for filmmakers. Of course, some of the best-known and best-loved American films are examples of this cultural appropriation. Equally obviously, there is also an abundance of inferior, even rather pointless Hollywood makeovers, which do not live up to the source material and add nothing new to the cinematic landscape. Criticism from the cynical (of which I am often a member) regularly suggests that remakes are simply evidence of Hollywood’s fundamentally commercial imperative. The removal of subtitles, the injection of higher production values, and the appearance of recognisable stars around a previously successful narrative and thematic formula, enact a process that might be described rather glibly as Hollywood-isation. When assessing films in general one can’t ignore the intertextual reference points through which one comes to a specific text. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is particularly interesting in this regard, however, because it is both a remake and an adaptation and is thus subject to a complex intertextual network of understanding.

Poster for the Swedish version.
Poster for the Swedish version.
Conventional wisdom that suggests Hollywood remakes are necessarily overblown, or adaptations of novels fail to capture the essence or complexity of the source material, comes about through a comparative assessment that relies on a dichotomy between ‘originality’ versus ‘reproduction’. The former is almost always construed as artistically superior than the latter. Such ideas haunt all critical judgements but are seemingly even more pertinent when Hollywood takes on a much-loved novel or a successful European film. When viewing David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I did not want to make a lazy accusation of blatant Hollywood-ising. However, I could not deny my position with regards to the ‘source’ material. Having seen the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev (but not having read the book) I couldn’t ignore what I felt were compromises, particularly in terms of characterisation, which undermined this particular Hollywood revamp.

Fincher’s adaptation can be deemed superior to its Swedish language counterpart on several levels, most obviously in terms of aesthetic flair. The acute visual storytelling is indicative of a director with a honed cinematic sensibility. The cinematography is highly attuned to both the overarching darkness and mystery of the narrative but also the emotional moods of specific characters and situations. In Oplev’s version the tone is much more austere and realist, perhaps betraying its televisual origins, but nonetheless eliciting a bleak atmosphere. Fincher’s obvious intention to amplify the visual impact is typified by the literally and figuratively ‘slick’ opening sequence. This orgy of CGI viscosity is undoubtedly impressive, and should work well to symbolise the murky social and psychological world, however it seemed strangely out of step with the rest of the film - an object lesson in style over substance, I felt. There is also a much more elaborate use of flashbacks to depict disappearance of Harriet Vanger. Again, this is partly a sign of the higher production values, and also perhaps an attempt to add depth and clarity to the exposition. Yet the remake never solves the structural or narrative problems of the original film. A rather unevenly paced edit doesn’t help the procedural aspect of the story, suggesting that perhaps the source novel does not really lend itself to straightforward adaptation.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also does the familiar trick of inserting a star and well-known supporting cast into roles originally played by actors who would be largely unknown to an English-language audience. Even though the cast are generally strong, the simple fact that I had seen the original meant that for me the familiar faces had a distancing effect, making it harder to accept the story. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the distraction of Daniel Craig’s (non) accent (when everyone else was effecting a kind of generic pseudo Scandinavian inflection).

For me however, the plot was never the interesting part of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What made that film worthwhile was the representation of the character Lisbeth Salander as an uncompromisingly extreme anti-heroine who challenges many of the norms of mainstream cinema, particularly in terms of gender and violence. It is in this aspect where I felt the compromises of Hollywoodisation are most acutely felt in the remake.

It is perhaps obvious to suggest that a translation of form from book to film will have the most severe implications in terms of character definition. Film, as a visual medium, sets a much more rigid framework as to how any viewer can ‘see’ a protagonist. Whatever the specifics of Stieg Larsson’s intention when writing Lisbeth Salander, the realisation of her on screen has a potent defining effect. The goth/punk style infused with a muscularly androgynous body projects a striking visual presence. Not only does this image not conform to a cinematic stereotype of feminine beauty and strength, but there is an edge to the character that is deliberately confrontational. Her overt alienation, expressed through her cold yet direct interaction with others, coupled with her expertise in the shadowy world of computer hacking and surveillance, bespeak a highly skilled and active autonomy, antithetical to the passivity of too many mainstream female roles. This is augmented by the narrative’s handling of her (bi)sexuality, which also sees her strongly in control. All these elements construct an identity at odds with a patriarchal society.

Various critics have read Salander from a feminist perspective - a character that rejects the conformities of gender identity, who has been abused by men but who refuses to be victimised by them. Indeed, the original title of Larsson’s novel - Men Who Hate Women - should give an idea as to the core themes at play in the series. My overwhelming response to the Swedish film was that Oplev was showing the violence that lurks beneath the surface of ‘normal’ society both in an institutional and individual context. It is the acute complexity of Lisbeth Salander, and what she represents, which I felt was the fundamental focus of interest in a film which otherwise could have been a rather clunky and mundane procedural drama. Coming to the Fincher version, then, I could not help but filter my reading through that characterisation of Lisbeth Salander. The difference between the two actors playing the role is the primary point of note in this regard. Rooney Mara cuts a much more delicate, waif-like figure than the more muscular Noomi Rapace. Mara thus exudes a greater vulnerability and acute sense of psychological trauma, whereas Rapace embodies an aura of self-determination and strength. Certain scenes reinforced this difference. Both films contain a moment when Salander is attacked on the underground. In Fincher’s version there is one assailant whom Mara fights off and the scene has a feeling of staged contrivance. In Oplev’s film there are several attackers, the mugging is much more brutal, yet Rapace’s ‘crazed’ and violent self-defence is utterly compelling and believable.

The difference in characterisation is not solely indicative of the look and approach of the actors, but is a product of a contrasting directorial tone. This is arguably most evident in the scenes of sexual violence. These scenes are equally graphic in both films as the audience forced to witness the brutality of rape but also confront the revenge that Salander takes on her ‘guardian’. Indeed it is revenge, rape and blackmail that contextualise Salander’s identity and allow the viewer to understand her traumatised antagonism to a society in which ‘normal’ is a matter of perspective. In the Swedish film there is a cold, calculating matter-of-factness to the depiction. Fincher, however, opts for a baroque stylisation achieved through strident colouring, forceful camera movement and framing, and a particularly stark close-up of Mara’s ghoulish face that deliberately (and unsettlingly) puts the audience in the point of view of the rapist. But rather than adding to the shock, this explicit aestheticisation, for me, filtered out the raw vituperative emotion that the original film possessed in its equivalent scene.

The most affecting disparity with regards to characterisation was the change in the relationship dynamic between Salander and Blomkvist. Interestingly, this shift is foreshadowed if one compares the advertising posters for each film. In Oplev’s version Salander is a solitary figure, kneeling and looking up menacingly into the camera. Blomkvist is not in the shot. In the Fincher version the protective arm of Daniel Craig envelops Rooney Mara’s naked upper body, immediately sexualising the image and insinuating a rather conventionally romantic connection. In both films Salander does have sex with Blomqvist, but in the Swedish film she appears much more distant, instigating and controlling the sex on her own terms, and leaving him alone as soon as it is over. Perhaps because of the star status of Daniel Craig, the remake follows hetero-normative convention more closely, with Mara all-too-easily (almost passively) fitting the mode of sexual partner to the leading man (this irritatingly almost smacks of Bond-esque conversion of the fallen women back to the side of virtue). The final scene of an obviously jealous Salander watching Blomkvist walking away arm in arm with co-worker and lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright) really undermined the sense of autonomous strength that seemed central to this character.

Watching Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was thus an unsatisfying experience. However I absolutely concede that my prior viewing of the Oplev film shaped this reaction. In that sense, I am actually not suggesting that the original is ‘better’ than the remake here. There are many aspects of the American production that are superior, particularly in terms of its visual style. Indeed, colleagues of mine who have read the English translations of the book suggest that the characterisation in the American film is closer to Stieg Larsson’s novel. But this further proves the assertion that the line between what is original and what is derivative is a diffuse one, and is largely dependent on our own position within the intertextual landscape.

This Alternate Take was published on January 28, 2012.