'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' Rears Her Head

The American reboot of Stieg Larsson's bestseller is a fascinating thriller, if not as engaging as its Swedish counterpart.

Lisbeth Salander is one of the most fascinating characters of the 21st century. The fierce Goth hacker is what drew me to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” when I first saw the Swedish film in 2009. It is hard for a movie in this day in age to surprise me, especially one is that is essentially a crime procedural. I’ve seen way too many movies, way too many episodes of “Law and Order: SVU,” so it is unusual for me to be caught off guard by a film.

That one caught me off guard completely. I left that theater breathless and pretty darn speechless. And for those who know me, that’s a feat.

I was not prepared for its stark characters, its brutally explicit depictions of sexual violence, its firecracker energy. The 2009 “Tattoo” is a film that sparkles with a kind of manic intensity that keeps burning hotter and hotter until the screen was practically ablaze.

I say that, but really this review is about the 2011 American reboot. While I always try to view any given film based on its own merit, not previous reviews or source material, I can’t do that with “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” The Swedish film is too ingrained in my mind and the two adaptations, both based on Stieg Larsson’s massive bestseller (which I have yet to read), are too close in plot and characterization to keep them separated in my head.

A Familiar Story

Both films essentially tell the same story: disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in this 2011 version) is invited to the large, isolated estate of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, bringing the same weary regality he employed in “”). Many years ago, Vanger’s teenage niece went missing and no one could figure out her disappearance. Complicating matters is the birthday gift, a framed dried flower, his niece Harriet sent him every year which keeps showing up year after year.

While Blomkvist starts his investigation, we also follow Lisbeth Salander (the girl in the title, played by Rooney Mara), the freelance hacker who was hired by Vanger to dig up all the dirt on Blomkvist. She doesn’t find any, but it does eventually connect the two storylines about an hour into the film. While this sounds on paper like Blomkvist’s movie, the most captivating story belongs to the deeply wounded Salander, whose life has been full of neglect and abuse at the hands of her parents and, then, her court appointed ward. The worst is Mr. Bjurman (Yorrick Van Wageningen), a sadistic sleazeball who picks the wrong person to mess with.

Eventually the two come together to unravel the mystery of Harriet’s disappearances and sort through the complicated family history of the fractured Vangers. How they meet and what happens when they do however would take up the rest of this review. This is not a movie short on plot.

Since the story is, beat-by-beat, fairly similar, the differences come down to style, both from masterful director David Fincher and the cast.

The Swedish film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, was a rapid-fire action film, with Lisbeth’s brutal early scenes overlapping, and then spilling into, Blomkvist’s investigation. There was no time to pick up subtle clues along the way, no time to put the puzzle together. Once one question is answered, we are already two steps ahead.

New vs. Old

The American version, which many say is truer to the details in the book, takes a different approach. It slows it down, letting the characters breath and giving the audience time to solve the mystery along with the leads. Of course this comes from someone who knew the ending before the film started, but there were far more little subtle clues than its Swedish counterpoint. If you ignore the intimate piercings and mopeds, this could be a Sherlock Holmes story (well, the old Sherlock Holmes, not the newer one that knows how to use nunchucks).

Speaking of those intimate piercings and mopeds, let’s also take a moment and compare Salander (played by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish and Rooney Mara in the American). In perhaps the most interesting difference, both actresses attack the role feverishly but do so in very different ways. Mara’s Lisbeth is like a small, wounded animal; kicked so many times it becomes withdrawn and bitter. She’s disappointed or abused by almost in her life (except for a few nerdy friends), leaving her hardened and headstrong. Repace’s Lisbeth is more antisocial, more volatile, a feral beast devoid of almost any caring or attachment.(Spoiler Alert:) But when her and Blomkvist finally have sex, it is not caused by Lisbeth’s warped sense of comfort or connection (like it was in the 2011 version), you get the idea it is just purely psychical. Salander could have been doing it with a chair. With Rooney a smile, albeit a small one, is a big breakthrough. For Repace, it would have been an otherworldly miracle.

Salander is one element softened a bit for the 2011 version, but many other characters are rounded out a bit more too. The inclusion of little elements, like Blomkvist’s daughter and the father-daughter-like relationship between Salander and her old ward, as well as some lines given to the more villainous characters, the characters just seem more human and less like characters in a dime-store paperback crime novel.

Other things are not so softened. The original, translated title of the book was “Men Who Hate Women” and the theme of violence against women is strong and shown with stark explicitly. I was particularly glad that they didn’t keep the moments of violence behind closed doors, even in the American film. Some complain that the material is exploitive, but I disagree. How can we really comprehend sexual assault without actually seeing it? Even the nudity, which is plentiful, is never used for salacious means, only to heighten the character's vulnerability. 

All that is fine and dandy, but I know what you’re thinking: OK Noah, get to the point. Which movie should I see? That question is surprisingly hard to answer. Overall, I enjoyed the Swedish film more. It’s frenetic energy and slightly less polished direction drew me in immediately. But I also cannot underestimate the surprise factor in that ruling. I surmise that if you see the American first, and the story is a complete surprise, it’ll still feel as fresh and fascinating as the Swedish was for me when I saw it.

What I'd See This Week

  • For some dramedy —  “"
  • For some adventure – “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” / “Tintin”
  • For some whimsy — ""
  • For the family — ""
Dr. Alfred C. Whitehead December 24, 2011 at 06:08 PM
How does the movie compare to the book on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest)?
CitizenVoice December 25, 2011 at 02:30 AM
I read all three books in the trilogy. The movie kept very close to the book despite the fact the book had so many intricacies of plots and subplots, it would have taken hours of screen time to cover them all. I'm hoping they will do the other two movies as I found this one to be a cut above the rest of what's out there in the theaters. It was 2+ hours well spent.


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