The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review
“Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”(Niels Arden Oplev, director of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)
I’ve been a huge fan of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (aka the Millennium Trilogy) right from the bestselling books to the original Swedish TV adaptations, abridged for theatrical release, but then finally released on Blu-ray in their original, full-length format. I covered each individual theatrical cut Blu-ray release, and then the entire, superior, ‘extended’ edition trilogy in a great amount of detail, and regard it – in its unabridged form – as being a strong contender for the definitive adaptation of the original source novels, with two ninety-minute episodes (i.e. 3 hours in total) dedicated to each book, allowing most of the character development, background detail, and sub-plots to be maintained, rather than lost in translation. The reviews are here:
The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy Extended Editions Blu-ray Review
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Theatrical Cut Blu-ray Review
The Girl Who Played with Fire Theatrical Cut Blu-ray Review
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Theatrical Cut Blu-ray Review
This review is largely culled from my cinema coverage of 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Now, anybody who has ever read more than a couple of my reviews will likely know that I have always been a strong critic of remakes – Hollywood, perhaps more than ever before, appears to be just churning out remakes and “reworkings” as if they have long forgotten what an original idea looks like. The biggest insults appear to be directed towards recent foreign films; however successful they are in their home country, and then in the international market, rather than pick them up and promote them more widely, the studios tend to prefer to just remake them with a more US-friendly cast, in English. Whether it’s Let Me In, The Next Three Daysor The Tourist, Hollywood seems happy to churn out identikit versions of often significantly better originals, just to appease those who can’t be bothered to read subtitles.
Which brings me to the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – originally the first part of a superior Swedish mystery thriller trilogy based on the acclaimed source novels from the late Stieg Larsson. Despite my natural aversion to remakes, particularly those of recent foreign productions, of which this is obviously one, I have to say that I was truly intrigued and unquestionably enticed by revered director David Fincher’s well-advertised reworking of the original Swedish 2009 production, casting Rooney Mara in the lead role (that was so stunningly brought to life by Noomi Rapace), alongside Bond himself, Daniel Craig. But is Fincher just another Hollywood sell-out, remaking what is already an unquestionably great production (albeit stating that he is ‘returning to the source novel to give his own take’), a mere two years after it was released? Should Hollywood have just left the excellent original Swedish production well alone?
Well the short answer is basically yes, to both questions.
The story, if you haven’t already read the book or seen the Swedish adaptation, is about a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who has just lost a massive libel lawsuit instigated by a notorious businessman. Contacted by aging millionaire Henrik Vanger, of the rich and prominent industrialist family, the Vanger Group, he is hired to investigate a missing girl: Henrik’s niece, Harriet, who disappeared some 40 years earlier – aged just 16. Henrik wants to know which of his nasty, backstabbing family members killed the sweet young girl.
Blomkvist’s investigation uncovers some pretty raw truths about the Vanger Group, with elderly (and some dead) family members known to have been Nazi sympathisers and participants, and others: just plain bad people. But 40+ years of family history requires a lot of research. Enter Lisbeth Salander, a striking, aloof, goth-dressed computer hacker with a dark past and a violent temper, who is recommended to Blomkvist because of the background check she did on him on behalf of Henrik in the first place. Discovering a series of horrible murders, with ties to many within the Vanger Group, the unlikely duo will have to rely on the reluctant trust that they slowly form if they are to survive the dark revelations.
If you get a sense of déjà vu when reading the synopsis, that’s because we’ve been down this road before, just a couple of years ago. And, really, very little has changed.
Before I saw Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I read that he had gone to great lengths to return to the original source novel, avoid the Swedish adaptation, and craft the ultimate film version. Certainly Fincher’s adaptation is sleek and stylish, moody – almost monochrome – and relentlessly efficient (at least for the first two hours), trying to cram as much of the dense novel’s plotting into the runtime, whilst also throttling through it at a breakneck pace in a bid to retain viewers’ interest over the long duration. He sticks to the book quite closely, not only introducing some elements which the Swedish theatrical version omitted (but which were included in the original extended Swedish TV version) but also adding a few bits that even the 3 hour Swedish version overlooked or re-jigged.
Performance-wise, he also provides us with a huge ensemble cast of familiar faces, coaxing from his actors some good contributions which round out the myriad characters and certainly give them an easier familiarity for Western audiences. Daniel Craig temporarily steps out of his Bond shoes to give us a pretty good protagonist in Blomkvist, injecting a couple of much-needed notes of humour into what is a nice against-type role for an actor who generally takes on tougher, more action-orientated roles these days. Rooney Mara (The Social Network) is also extremely good as his research assistant, the co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander, who takes centre-stage with the second and third novels; considering her age, and her relative inexperience in film, she does well to strip down to the bare essentials in this part, bringing to Salander the right amount of anti-social attitude, understandable defensiveness, and unstoppable resilience to the part, whilst also, for good or for bad, giving the character a more vulnerable underbelly, and making her more of a conventional romantic lead.
The supporting players include everybody from Christopher Plummer (The Last Station, The New World) to Steven Berkoff (Beverly Hills Cop, The Tourist), from Robin Wright (Unbreakable, What Just Happened) to Joely Richardson (Event Horizon, The Patriot), with extended cameos for the likes of Goran Visnjic (E.R.), Julian Sands (Arachnophobia, Smallville, 24), Embeth Davidtz (Fallen, Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Elodie Yung (District 13: Ultimatum) – many of whom will likely return for larger roles in the subsequent adaptations. Almost all of them are perfectly cast, Plummer’s on good form as Henrik Vanger, and Berkoff is suitably cautious as Vanger’s lawyer; Robin Wright is good in the limited role of Blomkvist’s on-off girlfriend/co-worker and Davidtz just scratches the surface of the role of his sister. Then there’s Stellan Skarsgard (Ronin, The Hunt for Red October), recently seen in The Avengers, who tries his hardest in the most obvious part for those who are familiar with the material. They are all good, reliable actors, who put in solid, at times noteworthy performances.
The trouble is that, no matter how efficient and smooth this production is, no matter how many little tweaks here and there have been made to provide a better-packaged, faster-edited, more atmospheric film adaptation of the Swedish novels, there is simply nothing here that justifies this movie’s existence. Fincher has set out to produce the best adaptation, but has only really proven that that was achieved two years earlier, and further cemented the Psycho rule of remakes, which can be pretty-much summed-up as: don’t redo what’s already been done before if you don’t have anything new to say. There is nothing new about this film.
In fact, I’m sorry to say it, but the US 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, ultimately, cynical Hollywood filmmaking of the worst kind, akin to the US remake of Let the Right One In (Let Me In) in that it looks good, works well, and remains very watchable and enjoyable, but, at the end of the day, is really quite pointless.
Worse still, there are many aspects of this production which are, in my opinion, not as well-realised as in the original Swedish film. For starters, why is it set in Sweden and yet everybody speaks English? Why are some of the newspapers in Swedish is everybody speaks English? Why are only some of the newspapers and press clippings in Swedish? Why do the cast members occasionally attempt a vague Swedish accent, yet others don’t bother at all? (Craig tries it for his first 2 lines and then gives up and drifts back to Bond mumbling). Also, Craig is never going to be able to pull off lines like “why would you want to be with an old man like me?” when he’s still in Bond shape – it just seems ridiculous. Certainly Swedish actor Michael Nyquist (who was recently in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) was a far better choice in this respect. And Rooney Mara, whilst pulling off an excellent performance, still looks like she’s trying to look different as the stark Goth Lisbeth, where Noomi Rapace felt like she was just different. Mara’s performance feels more like an excellent bit of acting, where Rapace transcends that to simply embodying the character (they initially approached her to reprise her role but she refused to play the character for a further 3 years – instead electing to join the cast of the recent Sherlock Holmes sequel). Rapace also established Lisbeth as one of those rare kick-ass heroines in the vein of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – tough, resourceful and independent – but Mara’s (or Fincher’s) version is far more vulnerable and, frankly, ‘cute’, in the way that Hollywood ultimately requires all love interests to be. And that’s not what Lisbeth was ever about.
Perhaps the most damaging disadvantages of this adaptation, however, come in the central story’s closing chapter, and the extended Lord of the Rings-style epilogue ending. Not only is the basement scene much better in the original Swedish adaptation – far more brutal and scary, particularly where he offers his victim a glass of water – but the ensuing rounding-out of the multiple story-arcs is better achieved there too, whereas Fincher’s conclusion gives us the impression that he was too busy trying to start a whole new story and forgot to end this one. Surveillance, infiltration and deception montages pad out the final half-hour to such an extent that you can’t help but start clock-watching (something which those who are familiar with the story will probably have started long before), and are totally at odds with the final shot, which abruptly stops the proceedings and sees the credits roll without even a hint of satisfaction for all the investment the audience has put into this feature. And for such an, initially, breakneck-paced film, Fincher feels like he has sacrificed the soul of the story, just so he can cram as much plotting in as possible.
It’s impossible for me to say how this film will go down from the perspective of a fresh viewer who has no knowledge of the original Swedish adaptations, or even of the original Swedish novels. I dare say it will prove to be a solid, effective, occasionally surprising, and largely enjoyable thriller. But, even when compared just to Fincher’s other dark thrillers, this one does not stand up. The director, whose earlier work earned him his highly acclaimed reputation: everything from The Game to Fight Club to Seven (and even the underrated Alien 3 – watch the original ‘director’s cut’ to see the best version – and Panic Room are pretty good), feels like he has sold out. Zodiac was bleak and dark, but still quite good, but since then he’s done The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an awful movie (Oscar nominated!) which is simply not worth your time, and The Social Network, another critically-acclaimed effort which is enjoyable but also, to a certain extent, lacks soul. If anything, it’s the fast-paced relentless efficiency of The Social Network which earned him the right to do The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but Fincher fans should be wary of the fact that this isn’t David ‘Seven’ Fincher that we are dealing with here: this isn’t The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the style of Seven, it’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the style of The Social Network. Efficient, stylish and well-paced, a nice package for the studios to promote (with an undeniably excellent score from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose, at their high point doing a reworking of Led Zepplin’s Immigrant Song during the imaginative opening titles sequence), Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo bears few of the director’s long-forgotten trademarks, and, at times, does not even feel like a David Fincher film.
At the end of the day it’s hard to score or rate or even review this movie as it is an utterly redundant bit of Hollywood cynicism/plagiarism; they can’t be bothered to come up with new, original ideas, so they just buy the rights to other people’s ideas and, rather than give the original works the proper promotion that they deserve, they just churn out an utterly pointless remake which is purely designed to be more audience-friendly in the West. It’s still basically all about reading subtitles and accepting the fact that non-A-list-Hollywood stars can also act – something which, at least through the eyes of Hollywood, the American movie-going public are too ignorant to do.
If you’ve seen the original Swedish films then there really is no point in rushing out to see this remake (sorry, did I offend those who don’t class it as a ‘remake’ – well, it is: there’s no way that Fincher’s vision wasn’t at least informed by Oplev’s original). That said, on Blu-ray, fans of the author’s work will have an opportunity to compare and contrast both versions for mere rental prices rather than prohibitively expensive cinema ticket prices. I’d just check out the original Swedish films first rather than playing down to Hollywood’s cynical moneymaking expectations. Who knows, you may find merit in both, but it just smacks of being insulting if you ignore a foreign movie that’s less than 3 years old in favour of a polished identikit copy churned out by Hollywood’s remake machine. I’m sure that if Fincher’s was the first adaptation of the books, and there was no Swedish original, then it would go down as a worthy, acclaimed thriller, but there’s no way that it can avoid being overshadowed by following on in the footsteps of such a recent, excellent original.
I’ll leave you once more with the words of Niels Arden Oplev, the director of the original 2009 Swedish film adaptation, who offered the following when asked about Fincher’s adaptation: “Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”