28 December 2011


Sometimes, there's a single aspect of a movie that you can imagine driving fans absolutely crazy. Although the particular aspect I want to pick out today has yet to get any significant backlash, at least as far as I've seen, it's an important one. And so, along with "surviving a nuclear explosion by climbing in a fridge", "the ebonics-speaking twin robots" and "a werewolf falling in love with a baby", we can reasonably add "Lisbeth Salander buying Happy Meals."

This is one small problem with David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel, but it is part of a larger problem with this second version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The story is, as you might suspect, the same as in the Swedish-language version, but it's now spoken in English. It's still set in Sweden, however, as a scrupulous financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, has his reputation ruined by a very public libel lawsuit. The publicity around this gets Blomkvist involved in the affairs of Henrik Vanger, and his powerful industrialist family, and also brings him onto the same path as a troubled, but brilliant hacker, named Lisbeth Salander.

If you remember Let Me In, the perfectly serviceable but understandably forgettable English language version of Let The Right One In, you might remember how it largely stuck to the same beats as Tomas Alfredson's film, while transplanting the action to a darker version of an 80s Amblin movie, and thus floated itself just above being pointless or unnecessary. David Fincher's spin on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a serious case of the Let-Me-Ins, because it doesn't even bother to relocate the story. It is unerringly faithful to Larsson's novel, even more so than the intentionally televisual Swedish version.

The problem, as I see it, comes down to Steven Zaillian's script. It's an extraordinarily lazy adaptation, and I don't use that word lightly. As I've said before, I know that screenwriting is hard, and it must be particularly difficult to translate a plot as labyrinthine as the first Millennium novel into a functional feature film script. But it doesn't suffice to simply transfer the book into Final Draft, especially in a book that isn't exactly celebrated for its structure, and especially when that book has already been adapted for the screen, very recently. I'm going to use the word again, because it's really very rarely that I feel strongly enough about a film's script to say so- it is lazy.

Fincher, for his part, directs the film as only he can, in the most cinematic way. It's textbook Fincher, in the way that textbook Fincher is still as exciting and visually engaging as most directors' very best efforts. He certainly gets spectacular performances out of Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer, and the film is, on a superficial level, very trim and pacy. But it's also two and a half hours long, and the unwieldy length is not all to do with Zaillian's script. Furthermore, there are some unwelcome Americanisms that creep into the Swedish setting. While I realise how silly it sounds to infer this of Fincher, the man who directed Fight Club, the bigger budget of $90 million (to the earlier film's $13 million) must have had something to do with the curious placement of Coca Cola, McDonalds and Apple products throughout the film.

On a less commercial level, the film just feels too glossy. Fincher's version is best when dramatising Blomkvist's investigations, in much the same way as he made Facebook exciting in The Social Network, but he also opens up the film with a completely incongruous title sequence. It's very reminiscent of a Bond title sequence, and you wonder if it was conceived before or after Craig signed on for top billing. The only one who has completely the right idea is Mara, whose Lisbeth is just as good as, if not quite better than, that of the excellent Noomi Rapace. She completely commits to her role, and her submersion in the character is really quite stunning, and shockingly inscrutable.

Craig makes a more engaging and sympathetic Blomkvist than Michael Nyqvist was, and while I don't remember anything about the Henrik in the Swedish version, I really enjoyed Plummer's soft-spoken portrayal of the character here. But while the new version is more comparable to the book than the Swedish adaptation, it is more of a throwaway effort than either. I got the sense that Fincher must have some spectacular ideas for the two other Millennium movies that he intends to make, and that this one was just the necessary introduction to Lisbeth and Blomkvist, setting up for the meat of our heroine's backstory in part two. Goodness knows that he can't possibly get away with the repetitive and loyal adaptation he gives us here, especially as the Swedish versions went downhill after Niels Arden Oplev's Dragon Tattoo.

Even though it's very well-made and exceptionally performed, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo disappointed me greatly with its script. It doesn't spare us any of the brutality dished out by the source material, but it feels distinctively more pretentious for its combination of a leisurely pace, a gorgeous aesthetic, and troubling content. No film that puts this much effort into being hard work has any right to be this shiny, and finessed. The greatest strength of these stories is their lead characters, so at least Mara and Craig nail Lisbeth and Blomkvist. If Fincher follows through, and makes The Girl Who Played With Fire, I would hope that the script would be more polished and the film itself a little rougher around the edges, instead of the other way around.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, why not share your comments below? I'm especially interested in hearing from anybody else who has read the book, or watched the Swedish adaptations.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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