Posts Tagged ‘the girl with the dragon tattoo’

Three Dragons, Three Tattoos: a review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Part 2 of 2)


The following article contains spoilers for both the novel and filmed versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It contains discussions of adult material contained in both. Reader discretion is advised.

This is the second part of a two-part article.

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Casting and Characterization

The two main characters in the film are Mikael Blomkvist, a 40-something disgraced journalist convicted of slandering a major financier, and Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old genius with a dark history and a major problem relating to people.

In the Swedish version, Mikael is played very seriously by Michael Nyqvist. He really looks like a journalist — he’s not glamorous and he doesn’t dress well. He exercises, he cooks with his nieces, and he has some genuinely amusing lines in the film. To me, he seems a full, well-rounded character.

In the American version, Daniel Craig — best known to American audiences as James Bond — portrays Blomkvist. Because Craig is… well, let’s be honest here… pretty darn studly, it’s up to both the actor and the director to make him appear more like the Blomkvist of the novels. As such, Craig affects mannerisms that Nyqvist didn’t have to — he wears his glasses around one ear when not using them, and he rather ostentatiously uses what looks like a Moleskine notebook.

I’d have to give the edge to Nyqvist in the case of Mikael’s character — because he gets the look down, he doesn’t have to affect mannerisms. Also, when he celebrates, he looks much happier about it than Craig; I don’t think I’ve ever really seen Daniel Craig look happy when he’s acting.

As for the other main character, Noomi Rapace (Swedish version) runs away with it. Rapace is small, skinny-but-muscular, and very expressive. Even when her face is shut down to emotion, it’s still quite clear what Lisbeth Salander is feeling. In all ways I found her more believable than Rooney Mara.

Mara, who was until this film probably best known as the sister of Kate Mara (American Horror Story), gets the look down pretty well, although a lot of that has to do with costuming and makeup. I think, unfortunately, Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth suffers from writing and directorial issues. In the novel, Lisbeth has had a tough life, but she still has emotions; in the American film, Lisbeth only has anger and diffidence (and, at the end, sadness).

I think the biggest difference in their characters is the way they play the “holy crap, Martin’s the killer” scene: Mara’s Salander does rush to save Mikael, but Rapace’s really makes me think she cares about him. Again, writing and direction — even during the sex scene, Mara seems disconnected, whereas it’s very clear (via acting) that Rapace’s Salander enjoys the hell out of sex. (Mara does have a great line late in the American version during another sex scene, but even then it’s more like she’s using Blomkvist than they’re sharing something.)

One portrayal I want to also pay additional attention to is that of the adult Harriet Vanger (hey, I told you the articles had spoilers). Although in both cases she only had a limited amount of screen time, the reveals the actresses had to… um… reveal… made it important that a talented actress was cast. And, because of changes made to the ending in the American version, they had to look vastly different as well.

In the Swedish version, Ewa Froling had to look like she’d lived for forty years in the Australian outback, and she did — she was still blond, but her face was weathered and tanned. Because of that appearance, I’m sad to say that I couldn’t get over how silly she looked even as she discussed being abused by her father and brother. This is the actual ending from the novel, by the way.

Joely Richardson, portraying Harriet in the American version, was more convincing to me as Harriet. First shown as pretending to be Anita Vanger after the real Anita’s death, Harriet was revealed to be a financier living in London. She looked more like the girl who played 16-year-old Harriet than Froling did in the Swedish version. Again it comes down to writing — and probably the need to not marginalize the role for a well-known actress like Richardson, as well as avoiding expensive location shooting in Australia (or somewhere that looks like it).

Other important actors and characters in the film:

Erika Berger — Mikael’s on-again-off-again lover, played by Lena Endre (Swedish) and Robin Wright (US). My biggest problem with the American version here is that Berger is not supposed to be glamorous — and Wright plays her just as well as Endre did. The issue is with the casting of Craig; he seems too glamorous for the likes of Wright, who is made up to look like your average 45-year-old woman who’s worked all her life at a difficult job (journalism is hard; trust me). I believed Nyqvist and Endre more than Craig and Wright.

Henrik Vanger — Here I give the nod to Christopher Plummer (General Chang in Star Trek VI) over the Swedish actor Sven-Bertil Taube. Plummer simply emoted better than Taube, especially at the ending; Taube’s acting occasionally seemed forced. I will give Taube a slight edge in the beginning because, instead of appealing to Blomkvist’s journalistic instincts, he appealed to his memories: in the book, both occur, but only in the Swedish film is as much attention paid to his connection with the Vangers (as a boy, Harriet and her cousin Anita used to babysit Mikael).

Martin Vanger — This one is pretty much down to the writing and usage of the character. In the novel, Martin was relatively low-key until it was revealed that he’s a killer. The Swedish version (Peter Haber) was more faithful to the book in the build-up, whereas in the American one I think more foreshadowing of Martin’s activities gave Stellan Skarsgard more to do. Also, Skarsgard simply got to be more evil in the final sequence than Haber — again, writing. Advantage: Skarsgard.

Beyond those four, I had occasional issues with some of the characters, but overall everyone else was in the background. Christer Malm, Dirch Frode, Cecilia Vanger, and Plague weren’t too big on the stage. It was nice to see Goran Visnjic as Armansky, despite the small role — he’ll have more to do in the sequels. There is, however, one more character worth noting, and I think you know who I’m talking about.

THE Scene. You know the one I mean.

Trigger warning: I am about to discuss the scenes in which Lisbeth Salander is raped. If you wish to skip this part, click here.

In order to really understand why Lisbeth was put in a situation where she could be raped by someone in direct authority over her, people who haven’t read the book need to know the following: when Lisbeth was twelve, she tried to kill her abusive father by lighting him on fire. This led to her being institutionalized, and her mother also ended up in a facility (I believe she had some sort of catatonic disorder). After her release, Lisbeth responded to bullying and violence at school with violence of her own. As a teenager, she committed small crimes and was also seen in the company of older men. She was already under guardianship because she wasn’t an adult, but she remained in that situation even into adulthood because, in Sweden, that’s how the social system is. Once a person has a guardian, that person is legally charged with assisting their ward in whatever way he or she needs.

In the case of Lisbeth, her guardian had been Holger Palmgren — in the American version, this is the person Lisbeth plays chess with, and who she finds on the floor having suffered a stroke. Palmgren, as Bjurman states in his moment of exposition, had let Lisbeth have free reign over her life and her finances (in the novel, it’s explained how Palmgren formed a positive relationship with Lisbeth and that she cares for him… at least as much as she cares for anyone). Bjurman, however, believed that Palmgren had not had Lisbeth — someone whose records indicated a mentally-disturbed and extremely violent individual — on a short enough leash. So far, Bjurman has not done anything wrong, per se — again, as Lisbeth’s legal guardian, he has to do what he believes is best for her.

Bjurman menaces Salander in the Swedish film

The three Bjurmans are very different, though. In the novel, after being forced to perform oral sex, Lisbeth investigates Bjurman and finds that, other than what he did to her, there’s no dirt to dig up. In the Swedish film, Bjurman (Peter Andersson) is a little older, but both Bjurmans are portrayed as good-looking single men. In the American version, since being fat automatically equals being evil, a heavier actor (Yorick van Wageningen) was cast. Also, in the American version, Bjurman has children, whereas in the other two he does not. All three behave the same way once they decide to take advantage of Lisbeth, though, and the oral sex scene is pretty much the same in all three.

When I went to see the film, my friend Will said he’d heard the second rape (the one in Bjurman’s apartment) was more brutal than it was in the Swedish film. I wasn’t quite sure how that could be pulled off, since in both films Lisbeth is beaten, bound, and raped. (I noted with somewhat-clinical distraction that both Mara and Rapace scream more or less the same way.) The novel indicates that Bjurman engages in anal sex with Lisbeth, something not explicitly discussed in the Swedish film (although afterward Lisbeth does limp home — which occurs in all three versions). The American version makes it particularly explicit by having Bjurman actually say what he’s doing.

Yorick van Wageningen as Bjurman in the American film

Lisbeth’s “recovery” from the rape is different when comparing the book and the two films. The book is very clinical — in it, Lisbeth retreats into herself, staying in and taking painkillers and sleeping until she feels capable of fighting back. The Swedish film is similar — the limp home, the pills, the cigarettes. The American film is more explicit, showing Lisbeth breaking down in the shower, washing away the blood from the attack. While more powerful, the final scene shows something we never see Lisbeth do anywhere else in the film, and to me that makes it less consistent with the character — especially given the Asperger’s tendencies Mara (and the writer and director) gave the character. I’m more likely to believe Lisbeth turning inward than expressing her pain via tears.

The revenge scene is also similar across all three presentations, although the kicking of the dildo doesn’t occur directly in the book — she kicks him, but not there. It’s much more threatening in the American version than the Swedish, being metal instead of plastic or whatever as well as much larger. In all three she shows him the video; in all three she makes her threats; in all three she tattoos him.

The threatening scene in the elevator, by the way, is exclusive to the American version.

(If you skipped the discussion of the rape scenes, here’s where the article continues.)

Final Analysis

Should you go see the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I’d say yes: it’s a well-made film with decent acting and a coherent mystery plot. But I think that, to really get the full impact, you need to sit down and read the novel first (or, failing that, right after). The novel is tough to read — it’s very clinical and dry in many places, but it’s not boring. At least, not after the first hundred pages or so.

I also think you should see the Swedish version of the film, if for no other reason than Noomi Rapace’s excellent portrayal of Lisbeth. Once you see the Swedish film, you’ll probably want to watch the second and third ones, and read the second and third books in the series as well. (For my money, the second book is probably the best of them, only slightly edging out Dragon Tattoo.)

Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist

Given how much money the American Dragon Tattoo made ($76 million — the budget was $90 mil, and I expect it to hit that number soon enough), and (more importantly) how much buzz it received, I’d be extremely surprised if there aren’t adaptations of The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest in the next year or three.

I just hope they’re a little more faithful to Lisbeth’s character in future adaptations. With the American version of the film, Fincher, Zaillian (the screenwriter), and Mara have pretty much locked us into a certain portrayal of our hero. Unfortunately, that portrayal isn’t quite as accurate as what Stieg Larsson intended when he wrote the book. He didn’t want Lisbeth to be an emotionless machine who sometimes gets angry; he wanted her to be a fully-rounded character. In the Swedish film, she is so much more than what Mara played her to be. Maybe we’ll get that the next time out.

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Note to Parents: These films — and the book — contain graphic violence, explicit language, explicit sex, and rape. I usually say you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children, but I hope that, in this case, I don’t have to.

Three Dragons, Three Tattoos: a review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Part 1 of 2)


The following article contains spoilers for both the novel and filmed versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It contains discussions of adult material contained in both. Reader discretion is advised.

This is the first part of a two-part article.

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I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Stieg Larsson’s novel of murder, intrigue, history, and hacking, Men Who Hate Women (published in the U.S. as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), became a nationwide best-seller.

Well, okay, I know how it happened. It’s a good, interesting book. But compared to other popular American authors — Grisham, Roberts, Connelly, Reichs, and so on — Larsson’s style of writing doesn’t really fit. The first hundred pages are a combination of dry-as-dust infodumps about Swedish financial journalism interspersed with a somewhat-clinical account of an intelligent young woman trapped in the Swedish social work system. Readers have to deal with dozens of characters, many with names they’re not used to reading. The setting is probably unfamiliar. The characters’ motivations are often unexpected.

Still, for whatever reason, Dragon Tattoo became a sensation in the U.S. It was only a matter of time until someone made a film of it.

The thing is, someone already did. And that someone is Niels Arden Oplev, a Swedish director. [NB: He’s actually Danish. Sorry about the mix-up.] The cast? Swedish. The setting? Sweden. The language? You guessed it: Swedish.

I first saw this film in 2011, after I first read Dragon Tattoo and its sequels (I’ve since seen all three Swedish Millennium movies*). I thought it was pretty darn good, and that it was a decent interpretation of the novel.

And then it was announced that David Fincher, an American director probably best known for Fight Club and Se7en, would be helming an English-language version of the film.

Now that I’ve seen both versions of the film, I can actually say that they’re both good adaptations, although both have their downfalls.

The Script**

Let’s start by comparing the American film to the novel, because the movie is an adaptation of the book, not of the Swedish film. And, just in case you didn’t catch it before, here there be spoilers.

I think, for starters, my biggest problem is the way Lisbeth was characterized in the movie. I just finished reading the book for the second time, right after I saw both versions of the film, and in the American version of the film I was quite surprised at just how heavily they played up a throwaway line in the book, about how Blomkvist muses that Salander might have some form of Asperger’s syndrome. Maybe she does; maybe she doesn’t. But in the book, after the climax — Salander saving Blomkvist from Martin — there’s another hundred pages or so of the two of them getting closer. They spend several weeks together piecing together Wennerstrom’s evildoings — the stuff Vanger just hands over to Mikael in the film is actually pretty well-researched by Lisbeth in the book — and it’s clear that Lisbeth cares for him. In fact, she actually admits to herself that she thinks she’s in love with him.

Other than that, there wasn’t a ton left out from the book, and anything that was wasn’t necessary. The film starts after Blomkvist has been convicted and sentenced — in the book, he has a three-month jail sentence, but I didn’t mind so much missing that, especially since we would’ve needed an infodump on the Swedish criminal justice system (which we’re going to get anyway in the third film, should it be made). Some shortcuts were taken in the film vis a vis Greger Vanger, and Mikael’s relationship with Cecilia wasn’t included but it also wasn’t truly necessary except to cement Mikael’s position as a ladies man. Also, the book spends much more time on hacking, and how important Plague is to Lisbeth’s activities as the hacker “Wasp”, but I can understand why that was left out of the film — too complicated.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

Oh, one other interesting small note: in the book, it’s noted that Lisbeth is a redhead with dyed-black hair. In the American film, we can see Lisbeth’s light eyebrows — the actress has light hair, so it works. (In the Swedish film, the actress has dark hair, and I guess it wasn’t important enough to lighten her eyebrows. Or anything else.)

The ending was substantially changed, as I’ll discuss again when I compare and contrast the two Harriet Vangers. I wasn’t unhappy about it, and it did make sense.

Now, to compare the two films; that’s a horse of a different color. A lot of it is contained in characterization and writing, but I’ll be saving the characterization for later. The most notable differences (other than the scene, which I’ll talk about at the end of the article) include:

  • The broken laptop — In the Swedish film, Lisbeth is so self-absorbed that she bumps into the guy who leads his friends in beating her up in the subway station. However, in the American version, she’s simply robbed and fights back. Both have the same outcome, however. Interestingly, in the Swedish version, Bjurman only gives her 7,000 kronor, which he says is “enough” to buy a decent computer; in the American one, he gives her everything she asked for.
  • Mikael’s family — In the Swedish version, Mikael is made more human by spending time with his family. However, later in the film he doesn’t meet up with his daughter (which happens in both the book and the American film). Instead, in the Swedish film, Lisbeth figures out that the numbers in Harriet’s diary are Bible quotes and e-mails the information to Mikael.
  • Mikael (Daniel Craig) confronts Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) in her apartment. He brings her breakfast and coffee as well.
  • The confrontation between Lisbeth and Mikael — I think this is handled best in the book, the way Mikael just barges into her apartment and offers her breakfast. In both films, Mimmi is present, having just spent the night with Lisbeth; however, in the films Mikael is more severe about confronting her. The American film is more accurate in that he finds her out by way of an unpublished press release, while the Swedish one is related to the Biblical revelation. I think the Swedish film handled it a bit ham-handedly, though it was consistent with the Mikael character that had been established to that point.
  • Lisbeth and Mikael’s road trip — Until I reread the book, I’d forgotten that the road trip in the Swedish version of the film wasn’t actually there. They did go somewhere (I forget where at the moment), but it wasn’t a journey around Sweden to learn more about the murders noted in Harriet’s diary. The American film shows Lisbeth doing the investigating on her own.
  • Sex in the cabin — The American film used Mikael’s being grazed by the bullet to build the rapport between him and Lisbeth, and also to get Mikael out of his clothes. Lisbeth seems particularly Asperger-like in the scene where she undresses in front of him. In the Swedish version, she’s simply forward — not at all detached. She also sleeps with him more than once, and we see Mikael becoming more interested in her past and actually starting to care.
  • Who’s on top? — I don’t remember the sexual mechanics of Mikael and Lisbeth’s first time together as recorded in the book, but the two films handled it a bit differently. The Swedish one lets Lisbeth stay on top the entire time, lets her stay in control; I believe this was done to further cement her need to be in control of every aspect of her life (underscoring what was taken away from her by Bjurman). In the American film, Daniel Craig does “the move”, the one seen in so many films but so rarely in actual bedrooms — the “pick up the girl and turn her over without losing the connection” move. It looks romantic and sexy… but even if Lisbeth trusts Mikael enough at that point to sleep with him, she’s still close to what happened with Bjurman and I don’t know if I believe that her character would’ve allowed Mikael to do that move. I do think some of this is related to the time aspect in the book — between the Bjurman scene and Lisbeth sleeping with Mikael, Mikael spends three months in jail. The Swedish film puts the jail term at the end, but it’s still clear that at least some time has passed. The American one compresses time even further — not really a problem overall, but in this case, it made the Lisbeth character behave in a less-believable way.
  • Sex in London — This happens in the book and the American film, but not in the Swedish film. The American film plays it off really amusingly (Mara delivers the “just a minute” line brilliantly), but at that point I’m not sure why they were having sex at all. By that point in the book, Lisbeth and Mikael were comfortable enough together to have sex when the mood took them, but in the American film there just wasn’t enough for me to believe it happened organically.
  • Lisbeth’s mother — I think it was a foregone conclusion that there would be three Swedish films, which is why we spent so much time on Lisbeth’s mother and father. As I said, in the book her mother dies at the end, but in the Swedish film she’s still alive. She’s not even mentioned in the American version, which really skims over Lisbeth’s past — far too much, I think.

I do want to go back to the bit about Mimmi: in the book, enough explanation is provided for us to understand that Lisbeth isn’t gay, although in both films the fact that she’s with Mimmi so relatively-soon after the Bjurman atrocity makes the viewer think she is, thereby making viewers even more sympathetic. However, in the book the situation is clearly explained and also sets the stage for future books by establishing Lisbeth’s friendship with a group of like-minded rocker girls. It also makes her night spent with Mimmi much more sensible; in the Swedish film, she just slept with a girl, no explanation, and in the American one we see her hit a club but we have no idea that she has any history with this person. In short, what was a well-established scene becomes nothing more than shock value.

Finally, the ending: in the book, Martin simply crashes his car into a logging truck and is killed on impact. Unfortunately for filmed audiences, this wasn’t enough. In the Swedish film, Lisbeth sees Martin’s car go over an embankment and then she watches as it catches fire. She later admits she would’ve been able to save him, but chose not to.

The American version, though, I think suffered from the need for American audiences to have a hero who kills the bad guy. After Martin runs, Lisbeth takes his gun and chases him. He crashes his car in front of the convenience store in Hedestad, and that’s where Lisbeth finds him. She cocks the gun, is ready to shoot… and then the car catches fire and explodes. Lisbeth, therefore, doesn’t actually get to do it, although she does witness it (as with the Swedish film). Before she takes the gun, though, she asks Mikael’s permission to kill him. Clearly he deserves it — he’s a multiple murderer — but the line felt kind of lame to me, as if we needed to have a quip to lighten the mood.

The mood didn’t deserve what was done to it.

Music

If you’ve been reading the EP blog for a while, you know I notice music in films. The Swedish film had pretty much just incidental music — nothing really special — but for the American version the producers hired Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and they did not disappoint. A combination of traditional and modern soundtracks, both hard rock and symphonic. I was a little surprised by the remake of the Bryan Ferry song “Is Your Love Strong Enough?”, which I first heard in the Threesome soundtrack (one of my all-time favorites), playing over the credits, but I guess it made sense given the ending.

Location

Clearly Fincher had a lot more money to work with than Oplev, and he put it to use. Although both films take place in Sweden, and both were filmed at least partially there, the Fincher version is darker, grittier, and more realistic. It had a Fight Club vibe to it. The Swedish version, to me, felt more like a movie than an actual place, even though I’m fairly certain that Oplev did a lot more location shooting simply because he is from the region (he happens to be from Denmark). IMDB indicates that, with the exception of the ending sequence, all of the Swedish version was filmed in that country, while the U.S. version was filmed primarily in Sweden but also partly in the U.S.

The most obvious use of non-location shooting I observed was the scene in which Frode talks to Blomkvist in the cabin; if you look carefully at the wall behind Frode (I believe the refrigerator is to his left, our right), it moves in an odd way, suggesting to me that it wasn’t really there. Perhaps the cabin was at a movie studio in Sweden, but it wasn’t a real cabin.

The Dragon Tattoo

The film — and translated book — is named The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for a reason: Lisbeth Salander has a dragon tattoo. In the book, it definitely plays a part; in the Swedish film, it’s a massive thing on her back that goes all the way down one leg and we see it every time we see her with her clothes off.

Noomi Rapace's dragon tattoo

But where is it in the American film? When Lisbeth was in the shower, or having sex with Mikael, I can barely remember seeing it. It’s the name of the movie; shouldn’t we get a good look at the thing? And when we did, it seemed so much smaller than it should have been.

Rooney Mara's dragon tattoo

I think, perhaps, that was what most disappointed me about the American version — it was more about the core idea of the book (Men Who Hate Women, its original Swedish title) than the tattoo itself. However, no one would’ve understood if the film was called Men Who Hate Women; the book phenom is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so calling the movie something different would’ve been an epic failure to capitalize on its popularity — something definitely necessary, given how hard it is for R-rated films to make as much money as PG-13 ones.

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Part two will cover casting, characterization, and the scene. You know the one.

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Note to Parents: These films — and the book — contain graphic violence, explicit language, explicit sex, and rape. I usually say you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children, but I hope that, in this case, I don’t have to.

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* Millennium is the name of the magazine where the main character, Blomkvist, is a writer. The entire series is sometimes referred to as the “Millennium Trilogy”.

** Since I wrote the various parts of the article out-of-order, I apologize in advance if some of it seems a bit repetitive later on.