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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, European Cinema, Hollywood

‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (2009, 2011, Re-evaluated): Lessons in Narrative Adaptation Across Media

Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev [1], David Fincher [2] || Produced by: Søren Stærmose [1, 2], Scott Rudin, Ole Søndberg, Ceán Chaffin [2]

Screenplay by: Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg [1], Steven Zaillian [2] || Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Ingvar Hirdwall, Björn Granath, Lena Endre, Ewa Fröling, Marika Lagercrantz [1], Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson [2]

Music by: Jacob Groth [1], Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross [2] || Cinematography: Eric Kress, Jens Fischer [1], Jeff Cronenweth [2] || Editing by: Anne Østerud [1], Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall [2] || Country: Sweden [1], United States [2] || Language: Swedish [1], English [2]

Running Time: 152 minutes [1], 158 minutes [2] || 1 = 2009 Swedish Original, 2 = 2011 U. S. Remake

A controversial example of both Hollywood remakes and translating stories across media are the dual feature-film adaptations of the first installment in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium (2005, 2006, 2009) novel series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original Swedish title: Men Who Hate Women); one is in the now deceased author’s native Swedish language, produced in 2009 by Niels Arden Oplev, and the other, a big-budget, English-language Hollywood take by visionary filmmaker David Fincher in 2011. Larsson’s Millennium novels, dark, brooding criminal mysteries about the collaboration between a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist in the 2009 Swedish film, Daniel Craig in the 2011 American film), and a sort of prototypical “female-James Bond,” the computer hacking social delinquent, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara in the 2009 and 2011 films, respectively), to track down a killer of women, invite a comparison of its first entry’s double-adaptations.

Rooney Mara (left) stars as a veritable “Jane Bond” in an ironic relationship with Daniel Craig’s investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist (right), in David Fincher’s 2011 film.

Dragon Tattoo’s principle narrative arc is mostly intact across both movies; the main plot about a mystery serial-killer and rapist lurking somewhere in a reclusive, aristocratic Swedish family that gave birth to, among other things, multiple Nazis, is chilling, as is the plot’s general commentary on violence against women. Dragon Tattoo, in many ways, feels like the novel or film version of a Nine Inch Nails album, which would later make it fitting when Trent Reznor collaborated with Fincher for the American remake’s soundtrack (see below). The disturbing central plot is the best attribute about either Dragon Tattoo adaptation, each with creepy settings that build mood flawlessly.

However, things seem to have gotten lost in the 2009 movie’s translation from script to the big screen. This case-study with the 2009 Swedish Dragon Tattoo vs. the 2011 American Dragon Tattoo showcases a rare exception to the common inverse relationship between film budgets and film quality. Usually, when the production values of films soar, the quality of the final cut tends to suffer because the filmmakers are less creative due to the fact they have so many resources at their command. That rule does not apply in this scenario, however, not one bit. The 2009 Swedish film version of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo looks, sounds, and feels so lazily slapped together that its cheap production-values almost ruined the narrative experience for me. Everything from the set-design to the cinematography to the laughably cheap look of the film are amateur to the point I thought I was watching a made-for-TV-movie from the 1990s. The cast’s performances deserve special criticism given how their melodramatic, theatrical styles clash with the ostensibly dark, serious narrative. While Rapace holds her own in the lead role when she isn’t yelling her emotions, everyone else, including venerable actor and co-lead Nyqvist, feel like soap opera actors.

David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation, on the other hand, takes the source material’s crime drama far more seriously and makes great use of its much higher production values. I argue the bigger budget, the screen presence of Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, and Stellan Skarsgård, and particularly David Fincher’s auteur direction, do a far better job of bringing the dark mood and foreboding tone of Stieg Larsson’s narrative to life. It baffles me how so many people think otherwise.

Fincher’s trademark direction, camerawork, and use of music are as effective as ever here, and they emphasize the bleak atmosphere of the story’s northern Sweden setting. His steadfast reliance on motion-controlled camera movements, static wide-shots, and tasteful computer generated tracking shots add to the ominous tone of the narrative. Further contributing to this narrative personality is the soundtrack composed by now long-time collaborators of Fincher, Nine Inch Nails frontmen Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose music ranges from an industrial rock cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” to brooding electronica; their music does wonders for the film given how it complements yet never distracts from cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s visuals, not to mention how its synthetic undertones mirror Lisbeth’s tortured character.

Though both talented actors, Rapace’s performance in the title role (top, right) and Mikael Nyqvist’s performance (top, left and bottom, right) as the investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, in the 2009 movie are melodramatic and disinterested, respectively.

To be fair, Fincher’s rendition of Dragon Tattoo has its weakness as well. The most glaring mistake is the film’s massive length, whereby the plot’s main conflict is resolved about 125 minutes into the movie’s engorged 158-minute runtime. There is little justification for the movie’s extended epilogue, save for a couple brief plot-points that portray slavish dedication to the source material. Then again, this overindulgent narrative detail is also present in the 2009 film, which clocks at 152 minutes.

Multiple peers of mine have argued how heretical it is that Hollywood decided to “remake (re-adapt?)” Stieg Larsson’s work a mere two years after the 2009 Swedish original. Given the product on display, I’m not sure what the big deal is with remaking a substandard film like this. Niels Arden Oplev’s original adaptation may be based on a great story, but by no means is the 2009 Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a good movie. Just because a movie is labeled as “foreign” or “artistic” or “independent” does not in any way, shape, or form, ensure quality. I hate pervasive, mass-produced Hollywood schlock like Transformers (2007-2017) and Adam Sandler movies as much as the next snob, but I also dislike bad movies in general, regardless of where they are made. By contrast, David Fincher’s 2011 Dragon Tattoo, funded with major studio dollars, populated with name brand actors, and embellished with a variety of special FX and charismatic music from the minds behind Nine Inch Nails, is the superior version.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may be a great story and Niels Oplev’s rendition does contain the novel’s actual native language, but those features alone cannot override the 2009 film’s terrible, cheap-looking sets and sloppy direction. The acting, minus Rapace’s performance, is distractingly bad and removes nearly every shred of tension from the visceral plot.

David Fincher, on the other hand, is in his element here dealing with serial killers, torture, creepy vibes, and cloak-and-daggers mystery. Rooney Mara is a “strong female character” that deserves to shed those quotation marks, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross prove they are film score-composers to be reckoned with.

However… Stieg Larsson’s effective mystery plot shines through even the 2009 movie’s amateurish portrayal of its characters, while both adaptations suffer from overindulgent storytelling that forgets less is often more, especially in a visual medium like filmmaking.

—> Niels Oplev’s Dragon Tattoo is NOT RECOMMENDED, while I RECOMMEND David Fincher’s take on the material despite its longwinded epilogue.

? The remake could’ve avoided much of the contrarian whataboutism from fans of the original had the movie been set in an English-speaking country with an arctic climate (e.g. Canada).

About The Celtic Predator

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