In 2009 Niels Arden Oplev directed the Swedish language movie renditions of Stieg Larsson's first book in "The Girl" series - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Two years later David Fincher directed the English language counterpart to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The storyline goes something like this:
Forty years ago an 11 year old girl - Harriat Vanger disappears from a family gathering on an island owned and inhabited by her extended family - the very successful and powerful Vanger family. Her body was never found but once a year a strange gift shows up on her uncle's door - a framed flower - just like Harriat used to give him. Obsessed with finding her killer he hires a recently disgraced journalist - Mikael Blomkvist to see if he can find any clues but before he does he has Mikael checked out by a local security company due to him losing a libel case against another very successful and powerful man. The very strange and standoffish security researcher/hacker assigned to his case is the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Lisbeth Salander. They later join to look for clues together.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of three movies that Stieg Larsson wrote in this series before suffering a heart attack in 2004. The English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was just released and is still in theaters. The point of this review is to compare the original Swedish versions with the newly released English version.
Before I saw the English version I was very skeptical. American audiences look for different things in movies than Europeans audiences. For every American movie with the hero riding off in the sunset you have a European film killing the protagonist to improve the story. For every computer salesman turned action hero in American films you have a Computer salesman that stays vulnerable and awkward in European films. For every European film that makes you think you have an American film that makes you jump.
I was really expecting the English language version to be a watered down action film in the vein of Sherlock Holmes where "Elementary my dear Watson" becomes "Jump! Kick! My dear Watson" but I'm very please to announce that this isn't the result - not in total at least.
Before I get started I held off for quite some time to watch the original series because they were in Swedish. All the stuff I mentioned earlier about European films being deep, making you think and killing off the main characters are a bit of an obstacle if all you want is to be entertained for a few hours thus all three stayed in my Netflix Streaming queue for a month. Then I met someone on the bus reading "Hornet's nest" that talked them up so I sat down and watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When it was done I pondered it. The next day I thought about it some more and I couldn't wait to watch The Girl Who Played with Fire. On the third day I finished with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Then I pondered some more. I found myself contemplating the human condition, the psychological effects of childhood trauma and storytelling. I pondered the process of telling a story and how a great writer tells what is necessary but leaves enough shadows to keep his readers glancing over their shoulders just in case. I thought about a lot of things.
Then the English language version came out and I was excited because now people who won't watch a foreign film will get to experience them. Or will they? That's what we're here to discuss.
The Swedish Lisbeth Salander is a very highly intelligent person with a horrific past. She's not only a researcher but she's a computer hacker and has a photographic memory. You get to see her use her skills more than once and even after her job monitoring Mikael Blomkvis she continues to do so. She's curious. She knows he's innocent but says nothing. When he takes on the case to find out what happened to Harriat she anonymously solves a puzzle that's never been solved in 40 years. She cares. We get glimpses of her past, we see a little girl burning a man and we assume it was her. We don't know why nor are we told. We also see her going through very invasive horrific procedures in restraints. We wonder how a person can survive this and still be normal. We realize that one can't but still wonder if she will break from her shell. We wonder if she can have a relationship or perhaps even learn to trust or appreciate others. She struggles to even say thank you but we know from her actions deep insider she has feelings. She get's mugged and manages to get away by acting crazy. She's tiny and at the worlds mercy.
The English Lisbeth Salander is tough and in control. She's a normal person who's a character in an unfortunate story but doesn't seem to be deeply influenced by it. For all we know she's a Lesbian Punk Rocker from Seattle. We know nothing of her past outside of being a ward of the state. She's intelligent but the movie doesn't dwell. We see her typing in database queries once and she remembers data in a report on first glance once. We also see her stick security cameras on a roof. That's about it. The rest of the time she pages through records the slow way and takes notes of relevant data. She's the secretary that nobody wants. She also gets mugged but fights off her attacker and narrowly escapes into the Metro system. Largely she's a young girl with an odd sense of style living an alternative lifestyle while being the ward of the state.
The Swedish Mikael Blomkvis is a regular man. He's a writer working for a magazine who got a lead and attempted to expose a local tycoon to dirty deeds. The lead was bad and Mikael loses in court and is shamed. His co-workers pressure the magazine to make him take a leave of absence. He's vulnerable. Later when his life is in danger we see he's worried for himself and his co-workers. His co-workers are frantic. They're all regular people with regular people emotions. Lisbeth Salander goes out of her way to give him anonymous hints by hacking into his computer.
The English Mikael Blomkvis is played by Daniel Craig - the current James Bond. He's also tough and in control. He's shot at and handles it. He takes a voluntary leave of absence from the Magazine because he's the man. He also decides he wants Lisbeth to help him because he's in charge and goes to her apartment and enlists her. There's not much more to say about him - he's 3/4 James Bond and 1/4 Clark Kent.
In both of these cases the David Fincher has decided to lean more toward what American audiences expect - heros save the day. This doesn't mean the English version is bad, it's just an observation but leaves a feeling of well, simple in my mind. I never doubt that the English Lisbeth and Mikael can save the day - I only wonder how. I don't have the same level of optimism for the Swedish duo though, but this keeps me on the edge of my seat. I know that Europeans will kill the lead characters if they feel like it so I don't assume anything.
Another difference between the two movies is the amount of time I thought about them after the films were over. I've spent weeks with the Swedish Lisbeth in my head after the credits rolled. I feel sad that Stieg Larsson died because I know I'll never get to know her better, I'll never know if she overcame her past. With the English Lisbeth I don't think that's an issue. Her past just made her tougher, nothing more.
There are two ways of not divulging too much information - be ambiguous or hide the data in more data. The Swedish version takes the former and the English the latter. In the Swedish version there are lots of open questions, we wonder about the characters in the story, we wonder why the little girl burned the man, we wonder why Lisbeth was tortured, we wonder a lot of things - things that the answers are only hinted at. This builds intrigue.
The English version masks the relevant data with irrelevant data. During the course of the film a lot of alternate paths are chosen in solving the mystery, most of them abandoned. The data just hangs in the air. Sometimes I found myself wondering why we just spent 10 minutes learning about some event that had very little to do with anything, outside of keeping the film from ending too soon. While briefing the Swedish Mikael is told that they searched the whole island and Harriat's body was never found afterwhich the movie moves onto something else. In the English version we spend 10 minutes watching teams search the whole island and find nothing. I'm sure everyone in the theater already knew Harriat wasn't going to be found otherwise Mikael wouldn't have been hired. We experience this again later when Lisbeth is very patiently going through old records.... forever. She spars with the records keeper, gets a snack, looks through more books, acts tough, looks through more books, writes a few things down and then after hours of searching finds her answer. I wondered the whole time why I was being entertained by someone looking through books. The Swedish Lisbeth uses her intellect and hacker skills to gather data.
It may feel like I'm thrashing on the the English Dragon Tattoo but it is NOT a bad film. It is also not nearly as Americanized as I thought it would be. Speaking of which there's quite a lot of nudity in either. I was sure that would be cut from the English one considering our fear of seeing anyone naked but this is not the case. The English Dragon Tattoo actually turns the heat up a notch. If they showed anymore you'd have to pay by the month to watch it. Even 5 years ago this would be considered full fledged porn. I'm not one to jump behind the shower curtain if I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror nor am I effected by seeing other humans sans clothes. Putting them in situations that are both natural and normal doesn't get much of a reaction out of me either but I was quite surprised at HOW far they went here. Enough so that I looked around the theater to see if anyone was squirming. What I'm saying is don't take your 4 year old if you're sensitive to this sort of thing.
What it feels like is the director of the Swedish film did a movie about people, who have problems, some of which effect their actions. This process takes time and the movie ends 2 hrs and 30 minutes after it starts. The director of the English film also takes a long time to tell the story but a lot of it either seems like filler or he's in the trenches and doesn't come out to get some perspective about what's important and what isn't. Perhaps the Swedish director is just more talented.
Also missing from the English language film is my emotional and cerebral connection to the film after it ended. I wanted to experience the Swedish Dragon Tattoo without having to read. I wanted to have the same experience and I didn't. When the English version was over, I threw my empty popcorn bag away and exited the theater. I did however keep on thinking about Lisbeth and Mikael... the Swedish ones.
I'm not saying avoid the English Dragon Tattoo because it is an entertaining and intense film and you don't have to read subtitles. However, if I were to only watch one Dragon Tatoo - I'd watch the original. When I got that done I'd watch The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest one after the other without having to wait for the other two to come out.
English Dragon Tattoo: 4 stars
Swedish Dragon Tattoo: 5 stars