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on thin ice

movie review :: the girl with the dragon tattoo

i'm not normally a consumer of popular literature. i haven't read "50 shades of grey" and i've never managed to slog through a stephen king novel [shorter works, yes, but i just haven't been able to stick it out through the longer ones], but i do occasionally dip my toes in the popular pool when it comes to a decent mystery. i gave into temptation and read "the davinci code" only to be left feeling like i'd just had my intelligence insulted. so it's been a while since i've given best-sellers a chance.

that's probably why i came to stieg larsson's "the girl with the dragon tattoo" by way of the original swedish made-for-television film. [in sweden, made-for-television doesn't have the same stigma that it does here. think of it as you would a showtime or hbo original.] having seen it and having guessed that there was detail in the book that didn't get captured in the film, i decided to give the book a try and also to watch- with some trepidation- the american version of the film that was released last year. ostensibly, that's what i'm reviewing, although i hope you'll indulge me if i talk about all three variants as i do.

although american remakes of films from other countries tend to make me nervous, i am a huge fan of director david fincher. he's created some of my favourite films of the last twenty years and the fact that he was at the helm gave me some hope that he'd treat the original with the respect it deserves. i was also happy to find out that although this version was being made by americans, the story itself wasn't being "americanized"; it kept its swedish setting. so there are definitely things to recommend it.

unfortunately, as soon as the film started, my trepidations returned in force. the credit sequence looks like the audition tape of an aspiring cg artist, all flash for its own sake, set to a cheesy cover of led zeppelin's "immigrant song". that musical choice is especially poor, since it immediately pushes thoughts of lame copies right to the surface. even more unfortunately, it's quite apt.



now, i get the fact that films and novels are very different. stieg larsson's book is almost nine hundred pages long and the central mystery actually occupies less than half of those. the bulk of the action around the mystery actually takes place over only about two hundred and fifty pages. there's a lot going on, a lot of plots and subplots and in order to come up with a film that's watchable, editorial choices need to be made. the storyline needs to be clearly focused so that it can be adequately resolved within the viewing time of the picture.

the swedish original certainly made editorial choices, cutting out most of the intrigue surrounding the central character, journalist mikael blomqvist and his magazine "millennium", so that the story is truly about the mysterious disappearance of harriet vanger, niece and presumed heir of wealthy industrialist henrik vanger, in the mid-sixties. the american version makes very similar editorial choices, but it seems to cut even deeper. often, it unfolds like a "coles notes" version not of the book, but of the swedish movie, copying some of the plot devices that were altered from the book because they made the story more exciting. while that might improve the pacing, it makes the mystery a little anemic. by cutting back on the peripheral characters in the eccentric, sometimes detestable vanger clan and speeding up the process by which clues are found, the mystery becomes a lot less mysterious.

the writers also make some editorial choices regarding the characters, particularly the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo, hacker and problem child lisabeth salander. in the book, she borders on unlikeable- overly rigid and judgmental [she calls a molestation victim a "fucking bitch" for not taking a stand against her attacker] and completely self-involved [albeit for reasons not entirely within her control]. she's difficult. the swedish film retains a great deal of this, but alters the ending to make her appear to be more remote and in control of herself.

the american film stays true to the ending, but it also takes care to soften salander's character. whereas in the book, she is a perplexing mix of angry young woman with body issues, a mathematical genius and a traditional hero, rescuing her lover and taking care of him. in the american movie, while she retains a punk edge, she is inexplicably softened, asking for direction/ permission where the original story has her taking command. rooney mara certainly turns in a solid performance, but she doesn't hold a candle to swedish actress noomi rapace in the first film version. the lack of affect that everyone notices about salander is simply not there in her american interpretation. she seems much too... normal.

daniel craig is solid in the role of mikael blomqvist. christopher plummer and stellan skarsgard are solid in supporting roles as the co-heads of the fading vanger empire. but it's not for nothing that the book was retitled- it's original name was "men who hate women". lisabeth salander earned her place as the focus of attention and the story sinks or soars with her character. in this case, it simply becomes stuck. the plot is not given enough flesh to really maintain suspense, but the characterisation isn't developed enough to make up for it.

in its defence, the film looks stunning. all of david fincher's films look stunning. the difference is that most of them have a much more to recommend them than just their looks.

the strange thing is that i can't pinpoint exactly how the film ends up stalling. fincher can certainly handle a complicated story- witness "zodiac". he can handle a strong, non-traditional female role- witness "alien 3". he can handle a tense mystery- witness "seven". but somehow, this one just can't get its motor running and i found myself waiting for the magical "fincher-ness" to kick in. it never really does.

the book, while not a classic of western literature, is a fun read. the 2009 swedish film is an excellent interpretation. and the american version is "lite".

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