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Book vs Film vs Film: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Redux

January 7, 2012 at 12:18 am

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a blog post comparing the Stieg Larsson novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (actually Men Who Hate Women in the original Swedish, from what I understand) to the Swedish film adaptation directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.  I wrote that just for fun, and as an exercise in writing analysis for myself.  In the year and a half since then, that post has brought more random Google searches to my website than any other.  (Hello and welcome, Stieg Larsson fans and haters!)  Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised; the Larsson books are enormous international megabestsellers.   When I peruse my Google Analytics data, I see many queries regarding the book and the film, and confusion about the fate of one of the ancillary characters.  [By the way, dear Internet, that is an example of how one can gracefully hide spoilers beneath a link.  See below.]

Now that the American adaptation of the book has hit theaters, I'm seeing another surge in website traffic.  But now people are probably looking for information about the David Fincher/Daniel Craig/Rooney Mara film.  To anybody who read my previous Dragon Tattoo blog post about the Swedish film thinking I was actually talking about the American version instead, sorry about that.  I'll bet that was a bit confusing.  But we'll laugh about it someday, yes we will. 

I saw the American version, directed by David Fincher, on New Year's Day.  For the most part, I enjoyed it more than I expected to, given that (1) it's almost 3 hours long, (2) I'd already read the book, AND (3) I'd already seen one film adaptation. But Fincher is quite a director, and both leads were quite good in their roles.  (Even if James Bond Daniel Craig exudes more rugged manliness than the Blomqvist character in the book.)

Every film adaptation of a book has to make choices, and this screenplay made different choices from those in the Swedish film.  It makes for an interesting comparison.

From here on out, it's spoiler city: spoilers for the book and both films.  (And by the way, Melinda Snodgrass has already posted her thoughts here.)

So, yeah. The biggest difference between the American and Swedish film adaptations has to do with the ending, and the unraveling of the central mystery surrounding the disappearance of Harriet Vanger.

Ever since the Swedish film adaptation hit the States, a significant amount of the traffic that accidentally arrives at my website (as opposed to, say, friends who drop in to say hello, or people looking for publication dates for my books) have been driven by Google searches along the lines of "Dragon Tattoo was Anita Vanger alive in the book" (which is an actual keyword search that brought somebody here). 

Frankly, I thought this adapation had the best ending.  It's stronger and sleeker than the ending in the book, while not evoking the WTF moment I had at the end of the Swedish version.  In the David Fincher version, the cousin Anita living in London is actually Harriet.  Harriet assumed Anita's identity long, long ago.  This is a very clean and sensible solution to the mystery, and I almost want to say that it's the ending that the book might have wanted to have.  It's, I dunno, more satisfying to me.  It feels more self-contained because the random connection to Australia doesn't come out of freaking nowhere.  When Salander & Co. tap "Anita's" telephone in the Fincher film, she never calls Australia.  She never calls anybody.  Why?  Because there's nobody to notify-- Harriet learned of Martin's death when Blomqvist gave "Anita" the news.  And, unlike the Swedish film, this version didn't take an egregious shortcut by having Salander solve the main mystery off screen.  Instead Blomqvist figures it out. It's a nice twist for people who have already read the book: we get the phone-tapping scene, but then... nothing happens.  Surprise!  It's not what we thought.

(One drawback of this alteration to the story was that it required the film to put "Anita" Vanger on stage early in the story.  [See: Chekhov's gun.]  That meant adding a scene where Blomqvist flies to London to speak with her, to get information about her memories of the family.  It's justified in the film, because he is writing that biography after all.  But having read the book, where Anita doesn't show up until the very end, I noticed the alteration and figured it was significant.  So it sort of tips its own hand in that way.)

One minor difference between the two films, but which has a negligible effect on the actual story, has to do with Henrik Vanger's biography.  In my previous post comparing the Swedish film to the book, I stated that I thought the filmmakers were right to dispense with Blomqvist's biography "cover story".   The information about Vanger's family tree is complicated and convoluted in the book, but condenses wonderfully in a visual medium when we see Blomqvist constructing a family tree on the wall of his cottage.  Well, the Fincher film uses exactly the same visual shorthand to help us keep the relationships straight.  And yet it doesn't dispense with the biography storyline.  So on reflection, I think I was wrong about that.  Or, at very least, I was wrong to conflate the decision to jettison the biography with a very effective visual shorthand for something that spans many pages in the book.  The Fincher film manages to keep the biography cover story without letting it burden the film.

In many ways, the two films are quite similar.  For instance, both have Lisbeth watch Martin Vanger die in a fire (after an auto accident), presumably to echo events in The Girl Who Played With Fire.  In the book, if I recall correctly, he dies in the wreck, but not in a gasoline-fueled fireball.  And as I said, they both use a sleek visual shorthand regarding the Vanger family tree, too. 

Like the Swedish original, this film doesn't shy away from depicting the darker elements of the story.  I read one review that suggested it was almost too faithful, going so far as to say that getting a dark director like Fincher attached to this dark story was akin to taking coal to Newcastle.  I suppose that might be the case.  I have thought about it a bit and tend to waver on the question of whether the Bjurman/Salander rape scene [I did warn you about spoilers] was necessary for either film.  Having read the books, I know that it pays off later in the trilogy.  But considered as a standalone film (or the book, for that matter), does the scene earn its place?  I'm thinking it does, because it makes Blomqvist's quest to catch a killer of women that much more personal for Salander.  It also shows us that she's a badass.  Having said that, I'm not sure we needed to see the rape scene in that much detail, but I'm not a filmmaker and I sure as hell don't know as much about films as David Fincher.

As in the original Swedish adaptation, this film tried to streamline things where possible, such as by sidestepping Blomqvist's affair with Cecilia Vanger.  While that minor plot thread leads to a nice piece of character interaction in the book (a noteworthy grace note, given how clunky some of the characterization is) it really doesn't add anything crucial.  Eliminating it from both films strikes me as a smart and sensible choice. Likewise, Michael Blomqvist's relatioship with the married Erika Berger has a reduced role in this film, too.  It's important (well, sort of) in the later books, but doesn't deserve much more than the passing mention it gets in this film.  I think it was played down in the Swedish adaptation, too, but it's been over a year and a half since I saw that.

Another place where this version attempted to streamline things:  Blomqvist is out for a run when he gets shot at in the book; in this version it's a little cleaner because they combine the shooting incident with his decision to go investigate an abandoned cabin on the island.  The book is a little bloated in my not very humble opinion, and could have used some trimming.  The films, for instance, don't make a big deal of the fact that Blomqvist's health improves while on Hedeby island after he takes up running.  Nor should they.

But there are also places where the Fincher film is actually MORE faithful to the book than the Swedish adaptation.  Or, at least, more faitfhul than the cut of the Swedish version that I saw. 

For one thing, in the Swedish film Henrik Vanger doesn't promise Blomqvist information about Wennerstrom.  Which makes the opening scenes regarding Blomqvist's trial, fall, and disgrace less tightly connected to the bulk of the film than they could be.  (Except, of course, the end, when Lisbeth Salander cleans shit up.)   The Fincher film plays the Wennerstrom information front and center, which, to my mind, helps hold the entire film together better.  (Especially at the end, when Lisbeth Salander cleans shit up.)

Another place where the new film is more faithful to the book: in this version, Salander doesn't crack the clue regarding the Bible verses.  It comes from Blomqvist's daughter, as in the book.  In my previous post I discussed why I thought the streamlined approach actually served to weaken the characters rather than strengthen them.  True, it makes it pretty obvious that Blomqvist's daughter exists in the film to provide that plot point, but that's pretty much the case in the book, too.  And at well over 2 hours long, there really wasn't a place to expand the daughter's character beyond what we see in the book.

Also unlike the Swedish film, but true to the book, in the American version Blomqvist doesn't break into Harald Vanger's house.  He does go in to meet with Harald, but he doesn't break in.  (Does he speak with Harald Vanger in the book?  I can't remember now.  It's been too long.)

Oh, and one final personal observation.  I've never been a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, but the score by Trent Reznor is really, really good.  It's striking and unsettling, yet it absolutely fits, from the opening credit sequence on.  It stuck with me, whereas I don't remember anything of the score from the original film.


DMS January 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm
Excellent timing. We just watched the Swedish version last night. Hopefully I will remember this post is here after I get around to watching the new film (I just opted to close my eyes and scroll down for today).
Ian January 7, 2012 at 4:25 pm
I can't take credit for the timing. My new patrons in the Illuminati may have had something to do with it. THEY'RE EVERYWHERE. The web traffic I get from "Dragon Tattoo"-related Google searches really is incredible. I can actually see when the American version went into wide release here in the States, plus or minus a couple of days, just based on the raw number of hits to my site. Weird. I suppose that if I were smart I'd be posting critical plot analyses of "Bridesmaids" and just about everything by Pixar.
Steve Halter January 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm
We watched the new movie last week. I liked it quite a lot. It seemed to stick very closely to the book as far as I could recall. I agree that placing Harriet in London worked better than Australia.
Melinda January 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm
Great analysis. Far better and more detailed than mine. And yes, Blomqvist does visit with the old Nazi Harald in his house in the book, and it's nice because it's not at all what you expect. I also like the fact they used the old patriarch's illness very well in the Fincher version.
Alex Brown January 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm
I saw the first 2 Swedish movies and after 20 minutes I figured out the Shyamalan-esque twists and had to spend the remaining 2 hours and 40 minutes waiting for everyone else to figure it out. Then I read the first book when my mom forced me to so she could have someone to talk to about it and hated every gorram page. The writing style and the story itself were nothing but shock that was high on its own self-import. At least half of it was fat that should've been trimmed by a better editor. Hell, the whole story ends and then there's another 100 pages of the world's most unimportant and action-less denouement. Larsson was little more than the Swedish Dan Brown, and thank Zeus he never foisted the other 7 books in his series on the world. As much as I like Fincher and am madly in love with Reznor, I don't have any interest in seeing this version, mostly because of this: I have serious problems with sexualizing heroines for no other purpose than to make them male-reliant.
Ian January 9, 2012 at 11:05 am
My memory is so poor that even though it's only been about 2 years since I read it, I just couldn't remember if he interacts with Harald. Maybe the elder Vanger's illness works better in the Fincher version because there's more at stake for Blomqvist? (The dirt on Wennerstrom.) Although, catching a serial killer seems pretty important, too... Alex, totally agreed that Larsson could have used some editing. The books read to me like first drafts from a writer who didn't have a lot of experience writing fiction novels. I say that because there are things in those books that remind me strongly of my own mistakes. They really break all the rules of thumb, particularly telling vs. showing and head-hopping. In Dragon Tattoo, we get pages and pages of information about Salander -- from the PoV of a guy whose head we're going to drop and ignore from the rest of the book -- before she appears in person. Also agreed that there's no reason to sexualize her. And I wrestle with whether it was necessary to portray the graphic nature of her assault in such detail in either film. I suppose the event itself is important (although it doesn't really pay off if the movie is considered a standalong story) but I'm not sure we needed to see so much of it.
Tom C May 7, 2012 at 2:01 pm
So you say Harriet took on Anita's identity? Where did the real Anita go? And who's identity does she live under? And also, how does Martin not realize that this 'so called' Anita is actually his very own sister Harriet? My friend and I are very lost on how they tried to explain all of this. Help us understand!
Ian May 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm
Hi, Tom, I'm unclear on the Anita stuff in the new movie, too! It was just 4 months ago when I saw it, but the half-life of my memory is too short. I do remember feeling like the questions you raise (which are pretty straightforward questions) weren't addressed very clearly. Inquiring minds... But hey, if you ever figure it out, let me know! Thanks for stopping by!
Alex W March 23, 2015 at 4:43 am

"But there are also places where the Fincher film is actually MORE faithful to the book than the Swedish adaptation.  Or, at least, more faitfhul than the cut of the Swedish version that I saw." 

That's what I kept saying. Though some seemed incredulous that the Hollywood version could be closer to the book than the Swedish version, or that Hollywood didn't ruin it.

I'm very thankful for the Hollywood version: I read the Millennium trilogy as a direct result of seeing it (helped by the first book being a £3 e-book at the time - didn't realise how long it was ;) ). I may never have done so otherwise.

I agree at how disturbing the rape scene was, even more so if you didn't see it coming having not read the book. The film was on TV last night and it wasn't too bad, but in the cinema I looked away a few times.

Ian March 23, 2015 at 7:30 am
Wow, I can't imagine that film on TV.  They must have chopped it down quite a bit. 

But it's nice to hear that somebody agrees with me!
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