If you’re looking for a predominantly spoiler-free, non-comparative opinion of David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I suggest you read the review. This particular blog entry is going to focus on the comparisons and contrasts of Stieg Larrson’s original book, Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 adaptation and David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation. This entry will therefore be very spoiler-laden, with conversation meant for those that have either read the original book, seen the respective adaptations or all three. If you haven’t done any of those things, and wish to not have the story ruined for you, I suggest you stop reading now.
If you’re still with me, here we go…
- Mikael Blomkvist
The Blomkvist character fares, not surprisingly, the best in the book. At least given the opportunity to express back story and give you glimpses into his thoughts elevates his character to someone worth paying attention. The 2009 adaptation, with Michael Nyqvist in the Blomkvist role, at least attempts to give the character some of the ethics and morals that are set out in the book, and that work best as a foil to Lisbeth’s more morally questionable, and often illegal, research practices. Unfortunately, often it does so via exposition that seems forced, so it’s not perfect.
The 2011 adaptation, with Daniel Craig as Blomkvist, doesn’t do much to make him interesting at all. He is simply the audience proxy, figuring things out. Shit happens around him and to him, but, eh… he’ll be fine. There is an air of this to him in the books too, and so the overall tone of the character is there but that doesn’t make him that engaging to watch. If you don’t get caught up in the mystery, I can imagine the film could get really boring hanging with him.
- Lisbeth Salander
The Lisbeth Salander of the book is presented as a small woman, looking almost like a teenage boy, who is extremely intelligent but also socially ignorant and/or awkward. Her actions often lead to questions about her being a potential Asberger’s candidate, and she manages to seem weak to those around her in contrast to the strength she hides just below the surface. Her wardrobe aesthetic wanders into cyberpunk realm, with more than a hint of punk, and seems to be the most glaring contrast of all; for someone seemingly so quiet and weak, why does she present herself in such a garishly unique way, considering her surroundings (for example, working at Milton Security)?
Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth in the 2009 film got the brooding and socially awkward silences perfect. She plays the character’s strength a little closer to the surface, though; I would never characterize or see her as “weak,” which is a mistake so many make in the books. You never know what Rapace’s Lisbeth is thinking or what she is capable of doing, and that mystery elevates her character.
Rooney Mara’s portrayal is strong in a different way. She seems to have the small size and the innocent look down; you can better see how someone would think they could mess with her and get away with it, even though they are horribly mistaken. Her demeanor comes across less than social awkward, however, and more often arrogant or condescending. Mara’s Lisbeth doesn’t seem to hide that she’s smarter than most. She’s also, as my wife expressed, “chatty.” Compared to Rapace’s portrayal, she’s extremely talkative.
Of course, when you have a character such as Lisbeth Salander, finding someone who so completely hits what you imagine her to be is always going to be subjective. For me, the best cinematic portrayal would be a combination of Mara and Rapace. Mara’s small size and seeming innocence coupled with Rapace’s brooding strength.
- The Rapes by and eventually of Bjurman
Reading the rape sequences in the book is a brutal experience, as so much of what is hidden in the film (or not even hinted at) is flat-out expressed and explained in the book. In the book, what happens to Salander comes across as barely less than what should have killed her. It is, to understate the obvious, a very unpleasant read.
When I went to watch the 2009 adaptation, my wife wished to watch it with me. Knowing what was in the book, I gave her a warning that there was some intense moments to come in the film, and they were likely not going to make for a fun experience. She listened, but watched anyway.
As we got to the sequence where Bjurman forces Lisbeth to give him a blow job, my wife almost threw the remote at our TV. While both adaptations correctly portray the sleaze of Bjurman, the 2009 adaptation goes one step beyond, as he writes Lisbeth the check for the computer, but for a far lesser amount than she requested. It is, simply, insult to injury and the audience gets, in no uncertain terms, that the man is awful.
When we get to the anal rape sequence, the 2009 version pulls no punches, literally. While the 2011 version seems to make Bjurman just very sly and sneaky with handcuffs, the 2009 film makes him physically intimidating and violently brutal. On top of that, due to Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth as strong and silent, the sudden contrast of seeing her truly victimized hits extremely hard. If you detested Bjurman before, now you want him dead, a feeling that only increases when you see a shaken and destroyed Lisbeth review the video footage later on at her apartment; a detached viewer, seemingly removed from her body, even as she manages to express that the gears are rapidly turning on the inside.
In comparison, the 2011 film, while also brutal in its portrayal, doesn’t make you connect with the brutality in the way the earlier adaptation did. You still hate Bjurman, but for some reason you get a very matter-of-fact feeling about Lisbeth’s eventual revenge on him. Not that she shakes off what happened to her, hardly, but she seems to hide the smolder of hate more. Even my wife, after seeing the 2011 version, felt that the earlier film was far more devastating.
When it comes to tying up and anally raping Bjurman, I always expected the film adaptations to spend more time showing his discomfort and really getting across the revenge. Not in a sadistic way, but if ever was the time to really push the envelope on a revenge moment for an audience, Bjurman’s comeuppance was that opportunity. The 2009 version makes him suffer, but no more or less than Lisbeth (though she does make him watch the whole video while she leaves the room to smoke, making his psychological torment that much greater while he suffers physically; she wants him to know the extent to which his life will be ruined should the video get out). The 2011 version adds some violent glee to the moment (having Lisbeth kick the anal plug repeatedly was a nice touch), but otherwise doesn’t take the opportunity to make the experience that much more awful; she even mutes the video.
Both films, for whatever reason, make the tattoo message shorter than it is in the book, with the 2011 film the shortest of them all. And while Lisbeth is a newbie at giving tattoos, the 2009 version allows for a more rough and seemingly scarred and scraped rendition. Far less clean than the 2011 version.
- Harriet’s Identity
In both the book and the 2009 film, Harriet has been living an entirely new life in Australia, completely removed from her family and that history. She’s built a new, successful life for herself and, save her need to send flowers that she thinks are hints to Henrik that she escaped, to give him comfort, really doesn’t think of her past at all. It is revealing in both the book and film that, upon finding out the torment her flower-sending has caused, Harriet returns to Henrik and apologizes for the misunderstanding.
The 2011 film, however, moves Harriet to London and introduces her into the story earlier by having Blomkvist meet with her (even if she is pretending to be Anita). It is the biggest change to the source material Fincher makes, it shows that Fincher isn’t afraid to alter the book to his liking… but why this change, when so much of the rest of the film is dead-on? Why was this the main narrative departure? Considering even the lead-up from the book, with the phone tapping and hacking, is still in the film, why just change who Harriet is, and what she’s been doing?
For me, it opens a hole in the character, for the Harriet in the book is divorced from the family so completely, living in Australia and running a corporation, that it’s not surprising that she would never grasp that her sending the flowers to her Uncle Henrik every year could be tormenting him. She has no contact with him, knows nothing of what is going on; that he is even still trying to figure out her disappearance.
In the 2011 film, however, she meets Blomkvist and he is obviously very interested in events. Sure his cover is the biography, but you get the feeling she’s grasping that his initial visit is more than that. Being only in London, and now meeting a reporter still wondering about her disappearance 40 years later, and she never considers that maybe, just maybe, her flower-sending actions may be having some unforeseen consequences? And the way she acts to the the disappearance in the same “Oh, Henrik’s obsession” type of dismissive way isn’t in keeping with someone who knows nothing about what’s been going on since she left. Put more simply, moving Harriet to London and introducing her character to the search earlier on removes the ignorance, and makes you question her motives. Plus, where’s the “I’m sorry, Uncle Henrik, for torturing you so much”?
- The Wennerström Affair
Both adaptations manage to do most of the heavy lifting about Blomkvist’s legal issues through TV reports that bookend the films. Blomkvist of the book is seen as a crusader for justice for the little man, and his Millennium magazine is often up against the greedy and corrupt. In the case of Wennerström, Blomkvist moved forward with an attack piece that wound up being built on information falsely fed him in an effort to hide from Wennerström’s real wrongdoing and, in the process, ruins Blomkvist’s credibility (and gets him convicted of libel). In both the book and the 2011 version, Blomkvist’s public embarrassment and need to distance himself to protect his magazine create a burning desire for revenge against Wennerström. In the 2009 adaptation, while he still gets Wennerström in the end, it’s played off less as a motivation for helping Henrik (not even mentioned) and more of a gift from Lisbeth, who was investigating Wennerström on her own anyway. Also, in the book and the 2009 film, Blomkvist does serve jail time for his conviction, something that is dropped for the 2011 film.
- Millennium Magazine
Blomkvist’s magazine gets more of a look in the 2011 adaptation, and the importance of it, and the dynamic of those that work there, is better expressed than in the 2009 film. Additionally, the relationship between Blomkvist and editor Erika Berger, such a consistent plotline through all three of Larsson’s books, was only hinted at in the the 2009 adaptation. The 2011 film restores that dynamic, mainly because it attempts to restore the Lisbeth-Blomkvist relationship that the 2009 film more or less danced around. Additionally, the 2011 film brings in the plotline of the Vanger’s buying in to Millennium in an effort to help Blomkvist out, and protect the magazine while he is otherwise engaged. While it is nice to see more of Blomkvist’s vocation involved, both films fail to touch on how extensive Blomkvist’s revenge on Wennerström is, particularly when Millennium launches the special issue and publishes a book about Wennerström.
- Giving Away Too Much
Both film adaptations utilize information about the characters that doesn’t come out until later books. In the 2011 version, for example, Lisbeth not only explains how she became a ward of the state, but also that she even is one. In the books, Blomkvist, and most who know her, are pretty much ignorant of this information and the “how” is one of the bigger mysteries of the second book. It’s part of what makes her character so interesting; no one seems to know everything, making her, and the books, seemingly unpredictable (even when it turns out that they really aren’t). By having the 2011 film openly address these aspects, it lessens the impact. Sure, it adds audience sympathy, but the last thing the Lisbeth character wants is anyone’s sympathy.
The 2009 film is more subtle about it, and even when it reveals information, it tends to reveal it to the audience but not the other characters in the movie. In this way, we know what’s going on even when others don’t. Similar to reading a novel.
- Overall Tone and Spirit of the Source Material
The book is a suspense thriller that also dances with the crime genre. As such, it has to reveal things in a manner that makes you want to turn the page. At times, it is a maddening experience; the book has a nasty habit of leading you to a clue and then abruptly changing the narrative to a different character to keep you waiting for the resolution to the previous narrative segment. This is best employed in the first of the Millennium trilogy and only gets more obnoxious as the books get longer (and the plot gets leaner). In other words, as far as suspense goes, this is the best of the three books.
When it comes to adaptations, I think the 2011 version is the most true to that suspenseful tone, mainly because it walks the audience through in a way that is not too confusing while maintaining the mystery of it all. It does so cleanly, and without leaving much out of the story. The 2009 film, on the other hand, is a victim of some severe edits where, all of a sudden, you’re hopping from main point to main point, but some of the subtlety is lost. In my opinion, more of a Cliff’s Notes approach that really only works as well as it does because of Noomi Rapace’s portrayal. There is an extended edition of the 2009 version that adds another 30 minutes, and I haven’t seen it, so maybe the abrupt edits are corrected within it, but the 2011 film proves that you don’t need another 30 minutes to stay true to the tone and spirit of the book.
- Overall Faithfulness to the Source Material
Of the two adaptations, Fincher’s stays the closest to the source material (except for the instances expressed above where he strays from it seemingly for little reason; he’s faithful about 95% of the time). Again, I have not seen the extended edition of the 2009 adaptation, so I do not know if that fills in all the gaps the film, as originally released, has in it. Regardless, the 2009 and 2011 adaptations are roughly the same length, and the 2011 one manages to fit it all in. Where the 2009 narrative can feel disjointed and jumbled at times, the 2011 never does. The flow is better, the overall story is more faithful and complete. While I like both, the 2011 film is by far the more user-friendly.
Having said that, it also has similar flaws to the Chris Columbus adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is that it is so complete and faithful to the source that it can be a detriment to the narrative cohesion of the standalone film. Sure, we get it all, but does that mean we should? At times, the Columbus Harry Potter adaptation felt like it was going page by page, which is great for the fan looking for such loyalty to the material, but it also felt very dry and matter-of-fact. The 2011 …Dragon Tattoo doesn’t suffer too much from the dryness, but the isolation of the main setting coupled with that feeling of cold that comes through the screen, already detaches the audience somewhat from what is going on. I guess it just feels that, more often, decisions were made in the 2011 version to be the most faithful adaptation of the book, but not necessarily the best film that could’ve come from the source material, if that makes sense.
For example, the relationship aspect between Lisbeth and Blomkvist felt forced in the book, and the 2009 adaptation kept their physical relationship in tact but removed the emotional context. It was a more blunt way to adapt the material, but it also worked best within the context of that film. With the 2011 film including the relationship, even to the ending scene of the film, it felt just as forced as in the book. Again, it’s faithful, but does it work? For me, the liberties taken with the 2009 adaptation make that film easier to connect with, even if the 2011 film is easier to understand. Then again, for all its faithfulness, the 2011 film does flub the Harriet reveal, as expressed above.
There you go. Those were the aspects I desperately wanted to discuss while writing the review of Fincher’s film, but that I felt had no real bearing on the effort as a standalone film devoid of the compare-and-contrast context. Maybe some of what I said will make sense, or not, but hopefully a conversation can begin.