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.