For me, when it comes to film adaptations of books, there is an internal debate that rages about whether to read the original source material prior to seeing the film. This doesn’t always work out, sometimes I don’t have the time or the interest (I didn’t need to read Julie and Julia, for example), and often it’s more for me than for the purpose of writing a film review. The upside is that you usually get more than the film can offer as far as background info, but the downside, particularly with thrillers, is that you don’t get the fun of experiencing and unraveling the onscreen mystery as cleanly as someone with no knowledge of the original story.
I’m also a firm believer that one should not need to read the book in order to understand the movie. When that happens, I see it as a failure of the film. Both can expand upon each other, but they should stand alone on their own merit, and make sense as such. In this particular instance, I read all three of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy prior to seeing the original adaptations, which I also saw prior to watching this new version. This may not have been wise.
The fact is that my mind is a glut of comparison and contrast right now of all three projects: the book, 2009 adaptation and the 2011 adaptation. I naturally want to discuss how this did that better than that, or that was better than this and so on. Unfortunately I cannot divorce my mind from those thoughts, but I don’t think it is fair to view this film entirely through that lens. Again, this should stand on its own, and should be reviewed as such, which is what I’m going to do. I will do my best to stay away from the compare and contrast mindset, and I ask for your patience ahead of time, should I accidentally drift in those waters for too long. Here goes…
David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a tense thriller that unfolds with all the twists and turns one could hope to have. At times the plot starts to seem overly convoluted but, to its credit, the film manages to walk that tightrope of being thorough with details and character arcs and agendas without getting the audience lost. At the screening I attended, I knew how the man sitting behind me was getting along with the story, as he grunted an “ahhh” every time an important detail or revelation was presented.
For the basic story, and I mean very basic, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a disgraced journalist after he gets convicted of libel. A detriment to the reputation of the magazine he co-owns and runs, he accepts a freelance gig to write the biography of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and his extended family. Or at least that’s the cover Henrik is using so as to not raise suspicion about Blomkvist’s real assignment: to find out what happened to Henrik’s niece, Harriet, who vanished 40 years ago. The mystery has plagued Henrik’s life, and as his days are winding down due to frail health and old age, he seeks closure once and for all, hoping Blomkvist can give fresh eyes to case material long ago felt exhausted.
At the same time, hacker and private researcher Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has found herself in a horrible mess. A ward of the state due to tragic events that occurred in her youth, the intelligent though socially standoffish Salander is dealt the worst deck of cards ever when her current guardian gets a stroke, and she is reassigned to a man named Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). Bjurman is a sadistic, perverted bastard who uses his status of power over Salander’s life (he controls her finances and has the power, through his own paperwork and reports, to possibly have her committed) to abuse and torment her. He thinks he’s taking advantage of a weakling but soon learns that messing with Salander is easily the worst decision he’s ever made.
The film plays out the parallel storylines of Blomkvist and Salander until events in the Harriet investigation bring the two together into a grander mystery. It is, again, on the edge of confusing, but only just so. While things don’t have the expository failure of trying to explain the various points to the audience in painfully obvious ways, the film still manages to keeps things relatively straightforward. Additional credit goes towards keeping this story cinematic; it would be easy to stick with the exposition, but the film definitely shows as much as it tells. An obvious solution, sure, but you’d be amazed how many films forget that they’re a visual medium.
Speaking of the visuals, the film takes place in a frozen wasteland in Sweden, and the general tone is appropriately frigid and gloomy. While the subject matter, including some severe sexual abuse, is dark and dirty, Fincher’s visual interpretation of matters seems less grimey that what he’s delivered in the past with Se7en and Fight Club. It’s still dark but, at times, almost antiseptic. You feel the cold through the screen, which may also lead to a bit of emotional detachment.
Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is competent as a stand-in for an audience trying to figure things out, but his character is not particularly interesting. Again, he’s the conduit for the mystery, but not the most engaging part of it. To that end is Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl with the dragon tattoo. Mara’s Salander is diminutive in size and almost invisible, despite the fact that she has taken a very unique and loud look, seemingly in contrast. She goes back and forth from silent indignation to arrogant disdain to violent avenger, and Mara pulls the character off quite well. While this particular tale may spend a lot of time with Blomkvist’s endeavors, it’s obvious that the real powerhouse of the story always was Salander, something that becomes all the more clear by the film’s end.
Which is when this gets harder, because I want to talk about how the Salander in the book compares to Mara’s interpretation, and that can’t be addressed without bringing in Noomi Rapace’s portrayal in the previous Millennium adaptations. Perhaps that’s a blog entry, and I’ll leave it that the characters, as portrayed in Fincher’s adaptation, work brilliantly for his interpretation. Whether they work overall for me in the context of all available adaptations and material is a different conversation.
The musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is more than up to the task of charting the emotional journey and tone of the piece, and at times a character in its own right; do it justice by seeing the film in a theater with a quality sound setup and proper projection management. The theater I saw the film in seemed to err on the side of straightforward stereo sound and you lose much of the layers and immersive quality of the audio that way. Worst case, watch the movie and then go home and listen to the score with some quality headphones and the experience becomes even stronger; the right mushrooms make for a powerful listening time too.
The film does suffer from the casting curse that can oftentimes occur with cinematic mysteries and thrillers; usually the actors you recognize best have a larger role in the overall plot. So if you’ve got a bunch of suspects, for example, and four out of five of them are actors you don’t recognize, and one of them is, chances are that one recognizable actor will be intimately involved by the end. Some films know this and purposefully throw the wrench in (Hitchcock’s Psycho took advantage of such an idea to shock audiences right off the bat), but more often than not a guess, based on casting, can lead to a massive part of the mystery.
In the end, Fincher has delivered a power adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that is (and here comes a comparison) the most complete rendering of the book to screen that I’ve seen. This can be a weakness at times, as it feels like it’s putting too much in that doesn’t seem to pay off while, at the same time, changing some aspects for reasons that didn’t make the most sense to me BUT, in the context of this film with no relation to anything else, each choice works. If you don’t know what’s different, or what you’re missing, it doesn’t take away from the film. It probably improves the experience, and I wish I could wipe my mind to experience the film fresh.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for me. If you’re one of the people who like to read reviews before you see a film (despite the possibility of spoilers and other potentially diminishing information), and you haven’t read any of the books or seen the other adaptations, I think you’re in for an incredible treat.