Requisite confession: this is my third experience with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise. First, I saw the much-lauded 2009 film version, made in the story’s native Sweden. From there, I was compelled to dive into Stieg Larsson’s novels. For the third time around, I was looking forward to the master craftsmanship of director David Fincher.
It is both very easy and very difficult to compare the different versions of Dragon Tattoo. Putting aside the novels for the moment, as that is obviously the most comprehensive version of the story, the two film versions are very similar most of the way through. The differences come out in the emphasis placed on the story by the screenwriters, directors, and actors. The Millennium Trilogy, of which Dragon Tattoo is the first third, is largely well-developed and deeply procedural. The main storyline features investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in this version), disgraced after a libel case, hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder of his great-niece Harriet. The title character of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) begins the film in her own side-plot, as an “asocial” computer hacker and ward of the state. Eventually, Salander and Blomkvist join forces and solve the mystery.
Since both versions of the film were mostly shot on location, there is quite a lot of similarity in the geography and overall look of the film. Fincher’s eye for cool blues and deep grays are certainly a natural fit for Swedish winters, and the film’s dark subject matter is certainly not a far cry from his previous work. The Swedish version was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a much less accomplished director, which gave the entire film a raw earnestness. Fincher’s style is much more controlled and confident, which is very evident in Craig’s portrayal of Blomkvist. He is much more self-assured than I usually take the character to be, which isn’t bad, just an interesting choice by Fincher.
Noomi Rapace gained a lot of attention for originating the character of Lisbeth, and her portrayal is what I enjoyed most about the Swedish version. I was worried that Rooney Mara’s Salander would not be able to live up to the quiet charisma of a character that has captured everyone’s attention, but I was greatly surprised. Not only is her performance remarkable, but it is substantially different from Rapace, especially in physicality. The characterization of Salander in the first Swedish film is much more stoic, almost superhero-like in nature. It came as a shock to me how broken she became in the second two Swedish films. It is easier to detect Mara’s vulnerability early on, even beneath the shell she displays to the world. In much of the film she looks like she rarely eats and her eyes are sunken from sleep deprivation. She always seems like she is just minutes from breaking, unless she is mentally occupied. I wouldn’t say that her character has been softened, however, it’s just that we can see her scars more readily in Fincher’s adaptation.
Overall, I found Fincher’s version of Dragon Tattoo extremely well done and there are certainly choices I favor in this version. Whether by design or by accident of language, the Swedish film actually felt more immersive and raw where Fincher’s leaves me colder and more intellectually stimulated than emotionally affected. Neither version is truly better than the other, or more definitive, and watching both is an excellent exercise in exploring this story. And that is extremely satisfying.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens today in Philly-area theaters.