It’s Christmas time, and for some reason Sony Pictures had decided to release its big-budget remake of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Why? Who knows? Maybe they felt that families wanted to enjoy the holiday spirit with a cheerful movie about…um…rape and murder and stuff. This is a movie about two troubled detectives (a disgraced journalist and a hacker with Asperger’s Syndrome or something) hunting down a serial rapist/murderer in a frozen wasteland while ominous music of doom plays throughout.If it was any grittier it’d be sandpaper. Because nothing says holiday family fun like dark and violent R-rated murder mysteries.
Apparently, this Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been underperforming at the boxoffice. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that it’s a dark, gritty and horrifying movie about pain and misery that was released during Christmas-time. The other is that fans of the book may have already seen another Dragon Tattoo movie, one that came out just two years ago.
So now, just because, there are two Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies, one from Sweden, one from the USA. Which is better?
Here’s the breakdown, in which I will examine the strengths and weaknesses of both films.
To start off, let’s talk about the things both films got right. First off, both eponymous girls with the dragon tattoo are rocking awesome. Kudos to Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace. Both Lisbeths are acted to perfection, and choosing one over the other is pretty near impossible. It’s sort of like asking whether pizza is better than pie (assuming you like both pizza and pie. If not, then well, just work with me.). They’re different, in subtle ways. The American one is more distant and introverted, while the Swedish one seems more confident. They’re both surprisingly vulnerable at times. Both actresses manage to infuse the character with the difficult combination of badassery and vulnerability. Noomi Rapace goes from being cold and tough to making you want to give her a hug. Rooney Mara, despite being tiny and lost-looking, cam be genuinely SCARY. If there is one thing these movies have tuaght us, you don’t want to mess with Lisbeth, especially when the scary makeup comes on.
This IS my happy face.
Both films are very atmospheric, though in different ways. The Swedish one is dark, brooding, and emotional, while the American one is ominous, suspeneseful. The former feels slower. Each scene just seems to last longer, and there isn’t the same degree of jumping around that there is in the remake.
When it comes to the story, each film gets certain parts right, and other parts wrong. It’s frustrating, because it means that the perfect dragon tattoo film would be some sort of blend of the two movies, but that, of course, is impossible. At times it feels as though David Fincher (the director of the remake) was trying ot hard to make his owrk distinct from the Swedish original, as if to say “it’s not copying or stealing, honest!” But in doing so, he loses much of what worked in the original. But hte original wasn’t perfect either, and Dincher has made some improvements.
The American remake starts out strong with a dramatic opening that is similar to the opening of the Swedish version, but packs the same emotional punch in half the time. It then launches into one of the most creative and frankly cool opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen.
In all honesty, the first half or so of the American remake is hands-down better than the Swedish version. It’s ahrd to pinpoint exactly why; the cinematography feels more varied and leively, the score seems more driven, and, most importantly, the plot is much easier to follow. The sleuthing was a bit confusing in the Swedish movie; not so here. In this version of the tale we actually get to see the mystery unfold in flashback, which not only sets a creepy tone but also helps us understand what is going on.
I suppose I better speak to the use of flashbacks of both films. Each one contains great use of flashbacks, but the problem is that it’s like looking at a cake (if you’ll excuse another tasty-food-related simile) that was cut the wrong way, horizontally instead of vertically. All the icing is on one piece nad all the fluffy cakey part is on another piece. If the two films could merge like Transformers and something, the result would probably be a perfect movie with all the flashbacks in the right places. Unfortunately, the American remake is missing the flashbacks that illuminate Lisbeth’s and the killer’s backstories while the Swedish version is missing the flashbacks about what exactly happened on the day the mystery all began.
The atmosphere starts of much stronger in the American remake–there is a sense of dread that exists as soon as our journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, begins his investigation ,and this feeling of dread never quite lets up. The cuts between Lisbeth and Blomkvist (who don’t actually join forces until halfway through the film) feel much more natural, while in the Swedish version they felt forced and, often, arbitrary. Blomkvist’s backstory is much better developed here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Blomkvist of the American version is a ore well-defined character overall.
The David Fincher film starts to let down its game in the second act.
SPOILERS IN ITALICS. Minor general spoilers follow.
One problem is that the mystery is never, well, mysterious. It should be obvious to anyone who has seen any mystery movie, ever, who the killer is. The movie admittedly makes halfhearted (and half-hearted is the word) attempts, at various points, to make you suspect this character or that one, but they’re not fooling anyone. The real killer, is, of course, the guy who acts so perfectly un-suspicious that he ends up being the most suspicious suspect of them all. It doesn’t help that he’s the most famous actor on the suspect list. At least the Swedish one actually had you suspecting that one creepy old guy with the gun for a while. This one didn’t even TRY, which is disappointing considering that there actually were more potential suspects who were given names and screen time.
The big reveal feels, somehow, disappointing in the remake, especially when you compare it to the Swedish original. The climactic monologue scene where the killer explains his motivation (arguably the most important scene in the entire film) is just better in the Swedish version. There, the killer comes off as a complex, albeit deranged, individual. In the American version, he’s just another psychotic, over-the-top Hollywood horror villain.
The other way in which the Swedish version surpasses the American is in coherence. The Swedish film feels tighter, especially in its latter half. It does a better job of tying all its many threads together, whereas in the remake those threads are left dangling, and it’s a little awkward. We’ve got the plot thread of Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s romance, the plot thread about Lisbeth’s troubled past and her rape, and of course the main story, which is the murder mystery. Not really connected. It’s a weakness in the novel, too, and so it isn’t really David Fincher or his screenwriter’s fault that this lack of unification exists in the story. They can’t be blamed for it, per se. But the Swedish filmmakers , rather than trating this problem as a fault inherent in the novel and therefore something they didn’t need to deal with, actually took the step of making all the movie’s separate pieces fit together.
In the Swedish version there isa scene towards the end of the film Lisbeth and Blomkvist argue about the best way to deal with a psychotic murderer. Lisbeth, due to her history of abuse, is unwilling to forgive the murderer, arguing that his horrible childhood is no excuse for his actions. She, after all, had a horrible life, and she doesn’t go around murdering people. This contrast between their two viewpoints and, indeed, their entire outlooks on life forms the backbone of the Swedish film. It is a study of the relationship between its two protagonists, and how that relationship is forged and tested by their shared traumatic experiences, as much as it is a murder mystery. The remake just doesn’t have that emotional backbone. It’s more a collection of well-crafted scenes that only partially coalesce in the end.
Because of that, I am going to go ahead and say the Swedish film is actually better. Though, to be fair, I’ve only seen the American one once, and with expectations that were probably a little bit too high. In any case, the margin of difference isn’t all that great. Both movies are great adaptations that put most other adaptations to shame.