Let’s say this clearly, right upfront: I’m referring here to the original Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime novel, and not to the more recent American version directed by David Fincher.
I took a while to watch this even though it’s been around for a couple of years, mainly because the book was still so fresh in my mind. I needed some space between reading the book and seeing the film, otherwise all I would be doing was comparing the film with the book; it wouldn’t be able to surprise me because I’d remember it too clearly, and that’s a good way to end up feeling underwhelmed and even unfairly bored by the film no matter how good it does its job.
I’m glad I made that decision, and I think I left just enough of a gap in the end: it’s the difference between thinking “Oh, yeah, the next scene is going to be X” to already watching the middle of the scene when you suddenly think “Oh, I remember this bit” – the latter being a much more satisfying experience, while still being able to judge how faithful it’s being to the source material.
And the answer to that question is: very. Whole scenes, characters and settings were reproduced with striking fidelity to the images that I’d had in my head reading the book that it was almost unnerving. The Swedish rural winter settings are beautifully filmed, and despite its reserved, minimal style it still looks like a proper motion picture and not a TV movie that got lucky (which is, actually, somewhat closer to the truth!) It does cut out a lot of the minutiae of the book especially regarding the machinations of the “Millennium” magazine that Mikael Blomkvist works for, and inevitably much of the detail about the longtime city guy adjusting to life on a remote island is not reproducible (although watch for how Blomkvist arrives ill-equipped in a thin leather jacket and two scenes later has acquired the biggest cold-weather quilted coat he could find – a nice way of evoking some of that untold story from the book.)
You can certainly see how a top Hollywood director with a big budget like Fincher could make his own mark on it all and produce something really dazzling, but the question is: does it really need such a treatment? Instead, the atmosphere is not dissimilar to the original The Silence of the Lambs movie which was also low-key, the almost drab and ordinary surface hiding and effectively counterpointing the grisly horror underneath. And make no mistake, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a film with a genuine nasty horror at its heart, as it probes Sweden’s dark Nazi past. The character of the parole officer is one of the most disturbing monsters seen in recent films, as is the killer when finally revealed, and these two chillingly personify the book and film’s original Swedish title (Män som hatar kvinnor – “Men Who Hate Women”.)
This original raison d’être for the story has been overshadowed by the rise in popularity of the character of Lisbeth Salander (the girl with the proverbial) in much the same way as Thomas Harris’ books became engulfed by the character of Hannibal Lector. Lisbeth is a truly original and captivating personality, and in this version she is brilliantly brought to life by Noomi Rapace who transformed herself physically as well as mentally to capture the essence of the role. I’m sure Rooney Mara does a great job in the new US version too, but Noomi entirely nails it for me.
Michael Nyqvist is also very strong in the lead role of Blomkvist who has to carry the audience through a detailed and lengthy investigation that involves mainly trawling through old records, receipts and photographs. It was tough enough to follow in the book (where you can flip back to remind yourself of key facts) and the film does well to make this complexity just about possible to follow thanks to the visual reminders of photographs on the family tree pinned to the wall. In the end, this story becomes more about the process of journalism akin to All The President’s Men, State of Play and Zodiac than it is a pure murder mystery, which makes it right up my street.
There are those who find the story (in both novel and movie form) somewhat of a disappointment, but this seems down to a particular way of doing things common to much of the Scandinavian drama we’ve seen of late such as Wallander and Forbrydelsen. The crime/mystery is a starting point, to be sure: but the Swedes and the Danes seem less obsessed with the final answer and with interminable last-second twists and shocks, as they are in the process of discovery and the journey taken rather than the final destination. Often, the drama or novel expects the audience to be right alongside it, so that the end shouldn’t be a surprise but rather a confirmation of what has come into focus over the preceding two hours; that’s a very subtle but nonetheless difficult difference in cultural approaches to the whodunnit. Personally I find it refreshing: a drama that trusts me to think for myself and not need high doses of artificial stimulants to shock and awe me.
For the reasons outlined at the top of this review, it’s now going to have to be a good couple of years before I’m able to give the Fincher adaptation a fair crack of the whip. (And notice, I’m in the camp that calls his version ‘another adaptation’ and not a merely a trite remake of this Swedish film.) I’m sure it’s very good – I loved his early films such as Se7en, Fight Club and the aforementioned Zodiac – although I’m not so sure that another version was really necessary when this one does such a good job of bringing the novel faithfully and respectfully to the screen without compromising any of its qualities as a motion picture at the same time.
But if you really are looking for a review of the David Fincher version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – feel free to bookmark the site and check back in a couple of years or so!