Those who kneel at the altar of David Fincher are determined that his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo exists in a vacuum. These devotees say that to compare Fincher’s film to the earlier Swedish adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel — a film that was an art house hit in 2010 — is unfair and beside the point (at least if the comparison isn’t in Fincher’s favor). They say Fincher’s new version of the same story and not a remake. Well, maybe. The problem is, I’ve read the book and I’ve seen the Swedish film. It’s impossible just to pretend that the earlier film version doesn’t exist, especially since the stories in both versions are virtually identical. Both films tell the story of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in this version) who is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for 40 years by a clever, deeply troubled hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). For me, the Fincher version is ultimately superfluous. I was satisfied with the first one. That leaves this new version appealing largely to those who are subtitle-phobic or have elevated Fincher to directorial demi-god status.
I am not saying that Fincher’s film is bad. I was, in fact, quite pleasantly surprised by how the film held my interest for its entire length despite the fact that I knew everything that was going to happen. In all honesty, I’d expected to be more than a little bored. The material has — in many ways — been Fincherized, which in this case means it looks a bit like Seven (1995). The film is physically dark, the sun never seems to shine and Sweden often looks like Soviet Russia, but it’s effective in its way. (That this visual style doesn’t appeal to me is another matter for another discussion.) The story remains compelling and convoluted, and still has one aspect that’s bugged me from day one, which can only be discussed once you’ve seen either film or read the book.
Both films make departures from the book, of course. It’s the nature of the beast when translating several hundred pages of book to even a two-and-a-half hour film. What’s interesting lies in the respective choices of changes — some of which are difficult to discuss without giving away too much to people encountering the story for the first time. Both alter the ending — or rather different parts of the ending. Oplev’s film alters the manner in which the villain (the main villain) gets his come-uppance in a way that makes Lisbeth somewhat less sympathetic. Interestingly, Fincher’s film adds an exchange between Lisbeth and Mikael that takes both of them into that less sympathetic realm, but then reverts to something more like the book. Fincher’s film retains the book’s bittersweet, quasi-romantic final scene, which Oplev’s film omitted. That’s actually a little strange, since Fincher is hardly the go-to guy for romanticism!
The biggest change lies in an aspect of the solution being left out of the new film, which made that part feel a little abrupt to me — probably only because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I do, however, think Fincher’s film kind of blows the central reunion of the film — at least in terms of emotional punch. Otherwise, I’d say the differences in what was added or left out between the two versions is pretty much a wash. If they’re planning on a sequel, Fincher’s film was probably wise not to include the material about Lisbeth from the second book the way Oplev did, since that choice rendered one of the big revelations in the second film not much a surprise.
Performances are all first rate, though you might find — as I did — that Rooney Mara makes for a somewhat softer title character than Noomi Rapace did in the original. She seems a little more transparent in her emotions and definitely boasts more of an evident sense of humor. There’s a certain uneven quality in the use of accents. Why, for example, does Christopher Plummer affect a vague Swedish accent and Daniel Craig doesn’t? (Accents at all seem a little unnecessary, since, let’s face it, the characters are only speaking English for our benefit anyway.) I was slightly amused by the film having Julian Sands play Plummer’s character in flashbacks. Can we assume that in 40 years Sands will look like Plummer does today?
I’ll be interested to see if such a dark and even unpleasant tale fares well outside of the generally more adventurous art-house realm, but if you aren’t troubled by such, this is certainly worth a look. The new film maintains the basic grotesqueries, but is actually a little tamer in its presentation. (It’s worth remembering that the Swedish film went out unrated and could go further without fear of censorship issues.) That, however doesn’t mean Fincher’s version is for the timid. Rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language.