The US “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”

The actor Michael Nyqvist recently passed away, dying of the same disease that claimed my mother five years ago, lung cancer. He was the star of the hit film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” several years back, playing crusading journalist Mikael Blomqvist in the Swedish version of the classic Stieg Larsson novel. I recently went back and re-watched the US version of “Dragon Tattoo” and came away disappointed.

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Larsson’ s novel (as well as its two sequels) is a sprawling, convoluted, messy, at times frustrating, at times entertaining crime thriller introducing not only Blomqvist but the titular heroine, Lisbeth Salander, arguably one of the most popular and intriguing characters to emerge from recent crime fiction. Blomqvist is an interesting guy, uncompromising and tough, yet also compassionate, a true underdog in a story where there are plenty of powerful players, many of them vicious beyond compare. But as the title suggests, it’s Salander’s story, and she is, indeed, the reason, you keep plugging away through Larsson’s dense and sometimes rather clumsy prose. (I think the English-language translation probably loses a lot of his original style along the way.) Salander is an unorthodox young woman, an orphan, a super-talented computer hacker, a loner with a perverted (yet always dead-on) sense of justice, an enemy of male chauvinist pigs, a victim of the system turned champion of women’s rights, and, most of all, a genius, a prime example of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes her incredibly smart and remarkably difficult to deal with. Her idiosyncrasies are packaged in Goth uniform – spiky hair, chains, tattoos, punk clothing, attitude. Millions of readers have been captivated by Lisbeth, and I am one. She is an amazing literary creation, and her story, as told across three novels by Larsson, constitutes a fascinating ride through rough and scary country. She single-handedly takes on the Swedish government and secret police, a motorcycle gang, Russian gangsters, wife beaters, corrupt cops, a serial killer, a rapist, Nazis, and a giant of a man who can literally feel no pain. She gets beaten, shot, raped, and at one point buried alive. She spends much of the third novel in hospital, recovering from her wounds. She’s then put on a trial and accused by men who want nothing less than to destroy her reputation and send her to prison. That she emerges from all of these scrapes victorious, with her freedom intact, is a testament to her strength, as well as Larsson’s imagination. This is one great character.

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I loved the Swedish adaptations, in which Lisbeth is portrayed, unforgettably, by Noomi Rapace, whose career in Hollywood has since stalled. Rapace is Lisbeth, the same way Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones – you just can’t picture anyone else in the role. She and Nyqvist embodied their famous characters and helped the original films on their way to greatness. Hollywood, however, wasn’t far behind with its own take on Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo,” and in 2011, it was released, with Daniel Craig (007) and Rooney Mara in the lead roles.

Unfortunately, it is a depressing experience.

This film was made to be depressing. The director is David Fincher, a talented filmmaker whose catalog includes “Fight Club,” “Seven,” and “The Social Network.” He has a great visual eye and his films all look like burnished gold with a layer of grime resting atop them. They’re pretty but fussily grungy, as if he just can’t stand for them to look too pretty. You’re never comfortable looking at a Fincher film – lots of shadows, lots of wide, creepy shots – but they invite you to stare, their textures hiding details where evil things might lurk. Even “The Social Network,” which is ostensibly about Facebook, manages to look sinister. (Indeed, its sociopathic subject, Mark Zuckerberg, is one of the creepiest characters Fincher has ever taken on.) His films are edgy and suspenseful and he was, in a sense, the right choice for “Dragon Tattoo.” Sadly, he ruins it.

The film’s tone is dreadful. It’s sad, mournful, violent, filled with negative imagery, and slow as molasses in, well, Stockholm. It looks great, but the cinematography is the only reason to see it. It’s really more an exercise in style and shot structure. You can feel Fincher pouring his heart into every crane shot and camera angle, but there is no joy in this film, no sense of adventure or discovery, only a deep sense of unease and contempt for humanity. The opening credit sequence, for example, might have been exciting, but Fincher gives us a punk-rock version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” played at top volume, set to a James Bond-style montage of computerized figures getting shot, burnt, drowned and eviscerated as black oil emerges from machinery. It’s bizarre and no fun; you can’t imagine seeing this on date night.

The story itself involves the expected mix of sordid family secrets and brutal serial killings, which Blomqvist and Salander join forces to solve (though there’s no rush, the mysteries are 40 years old). I wish I could say Craig and Mara have great chemistry, but they don’t have. Craig is brutish and cold, and Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth, while interesting, can’t hold a candle to Rapace’s. I wanted to like these new, Americanized incarnations, but as with the rest of the film, there’s just nothing to like.

The big question that hangs over the Fincher film is, why was it made? We have the Swedish versions and they’re flawless. Why did Sony Pictures invest in this? The film is set in Sweden; all the other characters are Swedish or otherwise European – why cast an American actress as Lisbeth and have everyone speaking English? This is still a foreign film, only retold through a distinctly US sensibility. What’s the point? It is exactly the same material.

The reason, of course, is money – Larsson’s book sold lots of copies, and books that sell lots of copies make big-budget films. That’s the formula. Sadly, it is a cynical reason to do a needless re-adaptation. To watch Craig and Mara play these two uniquely fascinating characters is to watch two great actors go through the motions for a director who holds the story at all arm’s length – this is a visual and technical exercise for Fincher, not a story he cares about. It has none of the passion of “Fight Club” or the visceral horror of “Seven.” It also lacks the laser wit of “The Social Network” (which itself is just about as perfect as a film can get). I’m puzzled and frustrated by the US “Dragon Tattoo.” It just doesn’t work.

That fact became apparent to just about everyone. Craig won’t be returning to the role of Blomqvist, and Mara is also out as Lisbeth. I understand that a film version will be made of the latest “Lisbeth Salander novel,” titled “The Girl In the Spider’s Web,” which is an acceptable facsimile of the originals (but unavoidably so, as Larsson died before the first book was even published). It will be interesting to see how the stories continue as films, I just hope they’ll find a director who doesn’t hate his audience.

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