Reflections on the “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” Movies

          By now, pretty much everyone has heard of the international phenomenon that is Girl With a Dragon Tattoo.  It is the first in a trilogy of books entitled the Millennium Trilogy revolving around investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his bizarre research assistant, private investigator Lisbeth Salandar.  Much of the plot towards the beginning is taken up detailing their present personal lives.  But then the story narrows its focus at the meeting of our two protagonists as they begin an investigation to solve the mystery a serial murderer of women.

          What I really loved about the book was how complex and interesting both Mikael and Lisbeth were.  The mystery and murder aspects of the book were engaging enough, but it was in the construction of those two characters that really make the story compelling.  They each have such a rich past that developed them into multidimensional people with faults, guilt, pain, and desire.  It’s for that reason that I have very strong feelings when it comes to the two film versions of the book.

          I’ll come outright and say it: perhaps due to my mildly xenophobic subconscious, I think that David Fincher’s recent American remake is better than the Swedish version adapted by Niels Arden Oplecs in 2009.  Here’s why: As a whole work of art, the Swedish version is wild, untamed, and thrilling; it captures much of what the overall mood of the novel is supposed to be.  It didn’t try to be stylistic or elegant; it went straight to the jugular for nothing but raw grit.  And it defied a lot of conventions of the original story, borrowing the general plot structure while creating something entirely unique.  It’s a respectable thing to do in a book-to-film adaptation, and I’m usually the first person to agree when a movie makes changes to the plot of a book, because certain things just shouldn’t be done in film.  But for me, when I looked at the way Niels Arden Oplecs treated Mikael and Lisbeth – in their casting and in their portrayal – I just felt like he got them all wrong.  So as great as the movie was, I just couldn’t forgive that, because if you’ve read my recent book review of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, it’s the two of them that really makes the book what it is.

          Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth in Oplecs’ version looks her age (24) whereas in the novel she’s said to look as if she’s in her teens, boyish even.  Rapace is certainly edgy enough but there is this pained expression on her face that always makes her look like she’s on the verge of bursting into tears.  She can hardly contain her anguish, and rightfully so.  While Lisbeth does have every right to be depressed by her experiences, that’s not who she is.  What’s supposed to be hidden behind her eyes is an unbridled rage, a cold and calculated loathing for the dark people that have tormented her life.  She isn’t tame by any means, but she’s brilliant and in control.  That’s what makes her so dangerous.  I just didn’t get that from Rapace, who seemed constantly on the verge of breaking down.  Rooney Mara, on the other hand, embodied everything that Lisbeth is supposed to be.  Several male characters in the story (Blomkvist included) remark that for all intents and purposes, Lisbeth is unattractive.  She’s tiny, boyish, with a snarky punkish style that is as peculiar as it is full of piercings and bizarre hairstyles.  And yet…there is something undeniably attractive about her in an unconventional, intriguing way.  It’s this incomprehensible and subtle quality that Mara brings to the table – one of a beauty masked by torment and fury – that Rapace never delivers on.  Yet it’s that which makes Lisbeth, Lisbeth.  She’s got swagger.

          And don’t even get me started on Blomkvist.  The Blomkvist that you read about is an utterly confident and more than competent journalist who is, for lack of a better term, a “player” (or maybe kids these days spell it “playa”?  I have no clue!).  He’s well into his fifties and has a casual sexual relationship with his business partner (who happens to be married).  Then for a period of time in the book, he has a casual sexual relationship with a woman in the Vanger family who is a number of years his senior (also technically married, even though she’s estranged from her husband).  And then, he enters into a somewhat casual sexual relationship with Lisbeth, a girl half his age.  I’m not saying that I respect Blomkvist’s exceedingly liberal sexual moral tendencies, but this behavior does paint a very deliberate picture of him in the book, one that is effectively mutilated in Oplecs’ Swedish depiction of the journalist.  In that film, he looks older than he is, is doughy and out of shape, and Lisbeth is the only sexual relationship he seems to have.  And the way that he treats that one relationship is so boyish.  It’s supposed to be entirely casual to Blomkvist, at least initially.  But in that first movie, he fawns over her and longs to cuddle.  Not a bad thing for lovers, but an inaccurate depiction of our journalist man-whore here.

          But Fincher gets it.  Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig (the newest James Bond), fills in the shoes of this clever ladies man with ease.  He’s lost quite a bit of muscle mass since his most recent foray as 007; he’s thinner, paler, and even appears older.  But the best part about Craig as Blomkvist is the subtle idiosyncrasies that he brings to the character.  He’s not a hump of pizza dough slapped into some slacks and loafers (like that other guy).  He’s always wearing his glasses hanging off one ear and dangling under his chin, which is so ridiculous in a way but oozes of coolness.  He hunches about his cabin like an old man wearing flannel pajama pants and cozy-looking cardigans, and it’s somehow hysterical.  He’s totally lame in a funny kind of way, but he’s confident in who he is and that somehow makes him charming.  That’s how Mikael Blomkvist is supposed to be.

          The chemistry between Mikael and Lisbeth was also pretty well done by Craig and Mara.  In my favorite scene of the movie, Lisbeth is on Mikael’s laptop sifting through some photos taken decades earlier.  She suddenly notices something that he doesn’t.  Overwhelmed by curiosity, he completely neglects personal boundaries and leans over her to gain access to the computer.  He bumbles around on the Macbook for a few moments, mumbling about closing out windows.  Lisbeth stiffens, visibly irritated by his ineptitude at handling a computer (she herself is a master hacker).  But then her entire posture changes, she glances up at Mikael, probably catching a whiff of aftershave, and her expression and body language change.  You realize what’s there, that chemistry, the fact that this hardened and tortured soul of a girl has fallen for the clever but oftentimes bumbling journalist that’s old enough to be her father.

          Ultimately, Fincher was working with a much larger budget and was aiming for an adaptation that, while altogether not daring by any means, was cinematically very well done and superbly casted.  And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Also, be sure to check out my book review of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo here at Snippets Between the Pages!