Book Vs. Film Vs. Film: The Girls With The Dragon Tattoos

WARNING: May contain wall-to-wall spoilers

Lisbeth Salander is a complicated woman. As portrayed in Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millennium Trilogy, she is a gothed-out computer hacker who is as anti-social as she is intelligent. She harbors extreme hostility towards abusive men, which stems from having witnessed her father beat her mother into a vegetative state as a child. After attempting to immolate the man in retaliation, she is declared legally incompetent and placed under psychiatric care. When we are first introduced to her in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she is working for a major security firm and has just completed a background check on a certain well-known magazine publisher.

As if one murderous misfit wasn't handful enough, we now have three to contend with- the Lisbeth Salander of Larsson's novel, the Noomi Rapace iteration, and Rooney Mara's take in the recent Fincher film. Although at the core they are essentially the same woman, there are subtle character nuances that set the three apart. Add to that the narrative differences between the novel and the two films, and things start to get really confusing, really fast.1

Let's start with the book. It's been about a year and a half since I read it, so permit me to quote myself for the sake of accuracy:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo [is] a large scale "locked room" mystery that introduces us to dashing journo, Mikael Blomkvist, and socially awkward heroine, Lisbeth Salander. The unlikely pair join forces to investigate the decades old mystery of a missing girl, uncovering a heinous history of serial murder and sexual abuse in the process.

And here's my initial reaction:

For all the hype, Dragon Tattoo is still a mass market genre novel. A well written one, but a genre novel all the same. Being a genre novel, it is not completely devoid of the associated cliches. The story itself is highly procedural, but to Larsson's credit, it is also immensely readable. For a book its size, the five-hundred plus pages practically turn themselves. The final revelation is a bit of a stretch, and I found the religious angle superfluous at times, but it works well enough given the material. The book doesn't warrant a sequel based on plot, but there are enough unanswered questions regarding the characters, especially Salander, to make the endeavor worthwhile.

One thing I failed to address is that the novel can be quite expositiony, especially early on. The minutia of Sweden's finance laws and political history aren't a vital part of the narrative, and seem to be a stumbling block for many readers. Thankfully, no filmmaker in their right mind, Swedish or American, would dream of cramming all that information into a motion picture. Despite its bloat, I stand by the book's page-turner status, although calling it "well written" leaves me open to accusations of being soft on clunky prose. No clunky prose softener, I!

Even though the novel and I clearly had our issues, I wasn't adverse to seeing Lisbeth's story committed to celluloid. Not-so-great books oftentimes make for great films (The Godfather, anyone?). I saw the Swedish adaptation shortly after I had finished reading Larsson's novel. Maybe I went into it too soon, because I remember feeling... underwhelmed. Noomi Rapace kicked much ass, but other than that, I felt like it dragged. Dragon Tattoo is basically a book about a guy doing research, and I felt the Swedish film wasn’t 100% successful in translating that in an engaging fashion.

So when it was announced that David Fincher would be helming the English language remake, a schoolgirl couldn't have been giddier. If anyone could make all that paper shuffling and keyboard clicking exciting, it was Fincher. He did it with the criminally underrated Zodiac. That movie is three hours of Jake Gyllenhaal looking through books and it is riveting.

I was also excited by the prospect of a changed ending, which I hoped would improve upon the unfulfilling climax of the book. From 'W' Magazine:

The script [...] was written by Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian [...] and it departs rather dramatically from the book. Blomkvist is less promiscuous, Salander is more aggressive, and, most notably, the ending—the resolution of the drama—has been completely changed. This may be sacrilege to some, but Zaillian has improved on Larsson—the script’s ending is more interesting.

Damn, that sounded good. Hire a director who could make drying paint interesting, completely rewrite the ending, and this thing had some serious potential. It didn't hurt that Fincher was fresh off The Social Network and my love for the man was at an all time high, changing all that had gone before (specifically, Forest Gump Part II- I mean, Benjamin Button.)

I was there opening night, feeling feisty. I got into a verbal altercation with some septuagermanian narc because I wouldn't kowtow to the haphazard relocation of the ticket-holders line. "He's a liar! He was hiding!" the man tattled to the usher in his best Werner Herzog. I came this close to calling him a line Nazi. Considering the political leanings of some of the Vanger clan, I think it would have been appropriate.

In the end there were plenty of seats to go around, and all was well once I was in mine. The lights went down and my movie-boner went up.

And then?

The film starts strong, with a monochromatic nightmare set aflame by Karen O's immigrant war cry. The music video ends and we are dropped into familiar territory- snow, pressed flowers, piercings, leather. The redundant is invigorated by Fincher's technical precision. Rooney Mara is an epiphany of damaged goods. You ache to get to know her, to earn her trust like Blomkvist never could. You want to console her, consume her, be dominated by her, all while the pitter-patter of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' white noise fills the background like mood music. Two hours and forty minutes goes by like that (snaps fingers for effect).

Still, I left the theater dissatisfied. Maybe my expectations were too damn high, but I didn't feel that Fincher had righted all the wrongs inherent in the source material. Friends and I tried to pinpoint exactly what didn't work in our post-viewing discussions.

What was immediately apparent was that I had been deceived by promises of a "completely changed ending." I had latched on to the idea in my need, expecting some sort of messianic second coming. But as the credits rolled, I couldn't even figure out exactly what the differences were. So I went home and brushed up on the book. Then I re-watched the Swedish film. A few days later, I went to see the remake again. Then I sat down to write this column before all the disparate details congealed into a big, amorphous lump.

The first thing I realized was that the Swedish film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, was much better than I previously gave it credit for. It contained important details I didn't realize were missing from Fincher's film until I was confronted with them. Like the Plays With Fire foreshadowing. I don't recall whether Lisbeth's attempted patricide is revealed in the first novel (I'm leaning towards no), but we are given brief flashbacks of it in Oplev's film, culminating in a full reveal. In Fincher's film, the only mention this gets is towards the end, where it functions as Lisbeth's warped version of pillow talk. As she and Blomkvist lie in bed, she says something to the effect of, "I tried to kill my father." No why, no how. A missed opportunity in my opinion.

We also get more of Blomkvist the lover in the original film.2 He isn't quite the cocksmith he is in the book, but he isn't Mr. Sensitive like Daniel Craig, either. In the book we are given extensive backstory on Mikael's relationship with Millennium co-owner Erika Birger. So it makes sense when the two pick up where they left off, much to the violent chagrin of Lisbeth. In Fincher's film, the perceived betrayal is almost a suckerpunch, because we are led to believe that the hacker and the journalist are going to live happily ever after like some storybook romance. If we knew how close Mikael and Erika were (and of Mikael's myriad other conquests), we would have seen it coming. Of course, the Swedish film skips Lisbeth's jealousy altogether (so help me, if I'm wrong... I just fast forwarded through the whole thing), opting instead to let the proactive hacker freak out and put some distance between Blomkvist and herself, out of fear.

Another big difference between the book and the two films is how Blomkvist finally gets enough evidence to nail Wennerstrom. In the end, it is Lisbeth who provides this information in all three versions of the story. However, there is an additional detail omitted from the Swedish film. In both the book and Fincher's film, Blomkvist only agrees to help Henrik Vanger after the man promises to give him what he needs to prove Wennerstrom's guilt. But when Blomkvist receives the evidence in question it turns out to be useless, due to the statute of limitations. That's when Lisbeth steps in. In Oplev's film, Henrik never makes that promise.

I didn't really have a problem with this, until someone pointed out that it undermines Blomkvist's motivation for taking the Vanger job in the first place. Sure, it makes Lisbeth that much more awesome, but it also makes Blomkvist seem weaker, as he winds up taking the job just to hide from his problems. A protagonist is supposed to be driven in the pursuit of his goals. A complacent Blomkvist is not as strong, narratively.

Then there's Blomkvist's childhood relationship with Harriet and Anita. It's a small detail, but it adds another welcomed facet to the journalist's motivation. It's in the novel, and is expanded upon in Oplev's film, where the director plays up how much the cousins look alike. This would have been a great addition to the remake, as it would have perfectly foreshadowed the "twist" of the altered ending.

So yeah, the endings. We might as well address those now. There are slight variations across all three concerning how Blomkvist discovers Martin is the killer. In the novel, he finds a picture in which Martin is wearing the same jacket as the mystery man in the blurry parade photo. In the Swedish film, he and Lisbeth come to the conclusion that all the murder victims were Jewish, which leads them to suspect former Nazi Harald Vanger. Blomkvist breaks into Harald's house, where he is almost shot for trespassing, only to be saved by Martin. They go back to Martin's place, where Blomkvist reveals what he has learned. It is at this point that Martin decides Blomkvist has to die. In the Fincher film, Blomkvist and Lisbeth also come to the conclusion that all the victims were Jewish, which leads them to suspect Harald. Blomkvist then goes over and has a nice chat with the Nazi, at which point he sees a picture of Martin wearing the same jacket as the man in the blurry parade photo. He then breaks into Martin's house looking for clues, only to be apprehended by the man. I think the Swedish film wins out here.

Then there is the issue of Martin's fiery demise. In Larsson's novel, he intentionally veers his car into oncoming traffic, resulting in a head-on collision with a truck. In the Swedish film, Martin loses control and careens off the side of the road. Lisbeth has the opportunity to save him, but instead chooses to let him burn to death. In Fincher's version, Martin also loses control and crashes. But before Lisbeth can reach him, leaking gasoline ignites, consuming the car.

The clear cut winner here is the ending of the Swedish film, because it is the most morally complex. In the book, as she leaves to pursue Martin, Lisbeth tells Blomkvist, "I'm going to take him." Presumably, she means to kill the man, but she is never put to the test. We have not been told that she tried to kill her father, so we don't know if she is actually capable of murder. In Fincher's film, she is less ambiguous about her intentions when she asks Blomkvist, "May I kill him?" Again, she is never put to the test, although she chambers a round with steely resolve as she advances on Martin's crashed car. We are led to believe she will kill him, but the explosion saves her from becoming an actual murderer. In the Swedish film, she actually gets to make a decision. She stands there as Martin pleads for help, thinking of her father. She doesn't shoot him, but she doesn't help him, either. Her inactivity makes her complicit in his death, making her a much more morally ambiguous heroine.

Finally, we come to the "twist." In both the novel and the Swedish film, Harriet is alive and kicking in Australia. In the book Blomkvist discovers this by tapping Anita Vanger's phone. In the Swedish film, Salander Super Hacker once again provides him with the information. In the Fincher film, they tap Anita's phone, expecting her to call Harriet, which she never does. Blomkvist then figures the only other option is that Anita IS Harriet, so he goes to confront her. Yes, that's the big twist. Anita is Harriet. And it is a realization Blomkvist just happens upon. Anita helped Harriet escape, and when she died, Harriet thanked her by assuming her identity. Or something like that. If Blomkvist had confused the cousins for one another early on, like he did in the Swedish film, it would have made this twist seem less arbitrary. You'd be able to rewatch the film and go, "I should have realized!"

That being said, I don't necessarily prefer one ending over the other. I find this change to be more of a cosmetic one, which does nothing to improve upon the cumbersome religious-killings-turned-vanilla-because-it was-both-the-father-and-the-son ending. As I said previously, I thought the religious angle felt kind of tacked on when I initially read the book. By the time I saw Oplev's film, I had come to accept it as part of the story. But for those who haven't read or seen its predecessors, I feel the Fincher film is light on the details of why the killings went from religious to not. We know it was a father/son tag team, but Martin doesn't spell out the differences in their MO's as directly. I'd be interested in hearing how people who have only seen Fincher's film feel.

And that, as they say, is that. Only it's not.

A novel can be indulged its post-denouement meanderings. A narrative film, however, is less forgiving of such self-indulgence (take the endings of The Lord of the Rings, book vs. film). The epilogue of both the Swedish and American films are long, but the ending of the American version feels so much more so. In Oplev's film, we don't have to sit through Mission: Impossible, starring Lisbeth Salander. All we need is a glimpse of her on the news in a blonde wig, "aiding" Wennerstrom in emptying his bank accounts. To spend that much time on something so late in the game really bogs a film down. You've got to pull the chute before you hit the ground. Next time, save it for the bonus features, Dave.

Alright, this time we're really done.

So is there a clear cut winner here? Not really. All three have their merits, and all three have their flaws. I still think there is a perfect version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in there, somewhere, if you were to Frankenstein everything together. But once you assembled all the necessary parts, you'd still need to shock the thing to life. And I think that might be the problem. Dragon Tattoo has great characters, a cool locale, some thrills, some chills- but it's not that great a story. When it comes down to it, it's just a generic serial killer plot. It doesn't matter how you dress it up. And the book is so sprawling that the "locked room" aspect doesn't really translate to film. There aren't enough red herrings in either adaptation. At no point did I think, oh, maybe she did it, or no, maybe it was him! The films just follow through to their conclusions, at which point the audience goes, oh, it was that guy. I guess it had to be someone.

If I absolutely had to choose, I'd make a non-choice and say that the script from the Swedish film (with some adjustments), directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara would be my ideal version of Dragon Tattoo. I'd also want Fincher to take note of certain scenes in Oplev's film (assuming it still existed in this theoretical situation). Because for all of the P&A positioning Fincher's remake as the ultimate dark n' nasty, I think there are actually moments where the Swedish film trumps it. The attack in the subway, for instance. It's dirtier, more visceral. Lisbeth's laptop doesn't get broken when a thief tries to snatch it, it gets broken when she is brutally assaulted by a group of drunk men. The altercation ends with Lisbeth foaming at the mouth like a rabid animal, brandishing a broken bottle. Even her mistreatment at the hands of Advokat Bjurman is (initially) more intense in Oplev's film. And when that mistreatment escalates... I'm not going to argue the finer points of which rape scene is more hard-hitting, so let's just say they are both horrific.3

Like I said in the beginning, Lisbeth Salander is a complicated woman. No man can tame her. Not Blomkvist, not Larsson, not Oplev and not Fincher. She is unruly, impulsive and full of flaws. Maybe that's why we like her so much. Personally, I'm not ready to give up on our relationship yet. The next part of the story, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is my favorite of Larrson's novels and my favorite installment of the Swedish films. It abandons Dragon Tattoo's serial killer trappings and gives us what we want- more Lisbeth. It greatly expands her backstory and gives us a much more interesting conspiracy plot that spills over into the final part of the trilogy. Here's hoping Fincher will take it on and give us something great.


1. To make things even more confusing, a three hour director's cut of the Swedish film (and its two sequels) has just been released on Blu-ray.

2. We also get more of the sedentary stereotype known as 'Plague.' He is completely wasted in Fincher's film, relegated to a self-referential wink wearing a Nine Inch Nails shirt.

3. I feel compelled to mention, taken outside the context of rape, Rooney Mara's ass is glorious. But don't worry ladies, so is Craig's, as fleeting a glimpse as you get.

Image of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Price:
Publisher: Vintage (2008)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 644 pages
Image of Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition [Blu-ray]
Director: Niels Arden Oplev, Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre
Rating: Unrated
Image of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Manufacturer: THE NULL CORPORATION
Part Number: 766929996021
Price: $19.98

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Comments

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 9, 2012 - 9:49pm

I felt like the Asperger's Syndrome symptoms that Lisbeth seems to have in the books are really missed in the Swedish movie.  She doesn't seem half as incapable of making certain human connections in the film.  In the book, she doesn't understand other people's motivations when they try to help her.  I loved that and wanted to see it in film.

Is it in the Fincher fim?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Flicker January 9, 2012 - 10:23pm

Not really, no.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 10, 2012 - 1:04am

Damn it.  I really want to see that on film.  She's in her own reality in the books - and she's a badass because of it.  She overcomes trauma because of her distance and her strength.  She's one of the strongest female characters I've ever read.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 January 10, 2012 - 3:31pm

Great piece Josh.

@bryanhowle: While Josh is right that the Asperger's symptoms are certainly not as present in the movie as the book, I did think they were there much more in the Fincher version.  Not enough, but more. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Flicker January 10, 2012 - 5:07pm

Thanks, Kelly. You'll notice our conversation on Saturday influenced my final edit.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Something Wicked This Way Comes AND Spent January 11, 2012 - 2:42am

Thanks for all of this. I just saw the Fincher version and liked it a lot, but didn't LOVE it. Based on your article here, I can see why. Here's hoping #2 is better. I'll put off reading the book for now, as well.

Utah's picture
Moderator
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry January 11, 2012 - 7:37pm

I always find #2 to be far more satisfying...

mville's picture
mville January 12, 2012 - 7:16am

I, too, have reread the book, reseen the Swedish film and have  seen Fincher's version 3x.

One of Zaillian's major changes is aligning the stories of Blomkvist parade
picture reveal with Salander's revenge scene. The change it gives the
characters, who are now at the same time taking control of their
situations, a dramatically propels the characters toward their second act. 

The added dimension I think Fincher brings to this story has to be pointed out especially the  psychology of his frame.

For example: The office rape sequence contains an unusual high angle shot where a character appears upside down vertically. This shot that happens only one other time in the film but within the same visual passage and forms a visual melody.

Fincher had a choice to plant the camera anywhere in that room — behind either of the characters, on the side, in the corner, etc. The choice brings a deeper psychology to the character in the event creating the effect that they are lying down and the act is happening willingly from a perspective of the perpetrator.
Another high angle shot soon follows with first reveal of the dragon tattoo — one of the characters own self scars perpetrated on herself.

Kubrick once said, "How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover." Nothing is written on the bottom of the film. In that way, visuals like the close up of the semi circular earring in Bjurman's office scene to the circular tumbling of one down the drain in the film's final act bring a poetry that only moving pictures can bring.
 

 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Flicker January 12, 2012 - 11:45am

@mville: Interesting points. I was saving my framing alaysis for American Cinematographer :)

You're right, Fincher and Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth really know what they're doing. But it still doesn't compensate for what I view as narrative flaws.