Sweden vs England: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Print to Screen.

A brief introduction.

Welcome to my first print to screen post. I’ve been wanting to do one of these for ages. It’s a running pet peev of bookworms when screenwriters/actors and/or directors take a book we’ve loved and turn it into a movie disaster, or likewise, it’s a lovely surprise when they do the inverse. So this series of posts is dedicated at looking at that transition and how well the material survives.

This blog is primarily about books. I feel this important to point out before we begin. Yes, this is a dual movie review but it is done very much in the light of them being interpretations of a novel. Where I am negative, I am negative not of it as a film, but as an adaptation of written work. In my opinion, you can watch movies based on books in two ways – either as movies or as renditions. I watch them as both but here talk about them mostly as the latter.

Swedish version. Director: Oplev

The theme of Oplev’s rendition of this book seems to be gritty realism. His cast are, on the whole, far rougher around the edges, his style of filming more cut up and his basic plot format  (thanks to screenwriters Arcel and Heisterberg) is very no-nonsense.

Mikael Blomkvist is not a pleasure for the eyes. While this is purely taste, I could rather have done without seeing Mr Nyqvist with his shirt off. In my head, I certainly saw Blomkvist as more attractive simply because he is cast as a womaniser but I can appreciate Oplev’s emphasis of the other side of Blomkvist, and while it may not have been to my taste, can appreciate it in its cinema-graphic effect. For me, Nyqvists interpretation is very hit and miss. In some places, particularly towards the end, he encapsulates Blomkvist brilliantly but in others I find him melodramatic (particularly in action sequences) and far more ‘trigger happy’  shall we say than in the novel. In the novel, despite all his various character flaws, Blomkvist always bases his actions on information, in the movie he is rather prone to making careless assumptions.

Lisbeth Salander and I have a love hate relationship in this movie. Rapace is perfect for this character. Her rendition is actually uncanny in places and for this, I have the upmost respect for her. As an actress, and from an acting point of view, I can point to very few flaws. However, I found the scripting of her bizarre. Lisbeth in the book is a character who hoards information and yet, very often, it is Blomkvist and not her that makes the breakthroughs, contrary to the book. I did not like the handling of her mother. Agneta is the one person who Lisbeth truly loves. To have written that she has not visited her in years takes away the soft, vulnerability that Larsson uses this relationship to highlight in Lisbeth. And considerably diminishes her justification for trying to kill her father. And herein is my biggest problem with this adaptation. In the movie, Salander is about revenge. It is how her backstory is constructed and highlighted in her treatment of Martin. Yes, in the book Salander does seek vengeance  particularly from Bjurman, but as Blomkvist points out several times, she has her own moral code. In the book, Salander never murders. To quote “analysis of consequences”. I do not like how the ending with Martin was handled. It takes away from the core of the character. While she might, having faced that situation in the book, have done exactly the same thing and walked away, in the book Larsson had the room to explain her and her reasoning. In the film, she just came across as cold-blooded and blood-lusting.

My final contention with her is her image. In most of the promotion she is described as ‘punk’. Salander is not punk, she is slob – an observation Blomkvist picks up on at the beginning of the court case in book three. The first shots of Salander in the office I thought turned her into something she isn’t. By the end, her look calms and moves much more in line with the book, which begs the question why Oplev felt the need to dress her as a gothic punk in that opening sequence.

The handling of Blomkvist and Salander’s personal relationship was masterful both by script, director but particularly actors. I bought into their relationship and Rapace in particular really gave that sense of reluctance and almost confusion that Salander feels in the book over him. Indeed, and here I shock myself, I actually  preferred the movie’s handling of it to the book.

The Vanger family are well played, particularly Henrik. All stayed true to their characters. While I did not like the ‘lets all meet in the boardroom’ scene – it felt like a parody of a Agatha Christie novel, I expected Poirot to turn up and explain who the murderer was – it was a clever way to establish characters quickly.

I thought the prioritising of plot was carefully done and well handled. This film must have been hell on the cutting floor, and I don’t envy the directors and producers of those decisions but I think on the whole, they made the right ones. There is a lot missing but I think the right content eventually made it to the story though I could have done without the weird zooming in on pictures thing the director had going on.

The handling of the crime plot was a bit… weirder. I did not like that they killed Anita off, presumably because she was easier to handle dead. One less character. And the order of their discovery of the girls murders seemed indiscriminatingly random. I don’t understand why they didn’t follow the book in this sense. And I loathed the addition of the break-in at Haralds.

For me, I actually liked that the prison sequence was moved to the end. Indeed, I thought the whole ending was handled well but for one detail. Whether it was on purpose or by accident, I don’t know but if it was the latter, it was very careless. Having just come from a scene where Salander openly admits to murdering a man (albeit by omission) – we then have a scene of Berger (whose name I only know because I read the book incidentally) and Blomkvist hearing that Wennerstom has committed suicide and Blomkvist pulls an unconvinced face. It feels like the implication is that Salander had something to do with it, particularly including the knowledge of the theft. If it was by accident, it was sloppy. If it was on purpose, I dislike this intensely.

Locations were stunning. Visually it was breathtaking as a movie. I adored the score. Some of the background music was absolutely beautiful and really fit the movie. I thank eternally Oplev for choosing not to use gothic/punk music. As a pure movie, it’s not brilliant. It’s well filmed, well acted and well put together. It draws you in and keeps you there. But there’s something missing. It has lost some of the books charm. As a rendition, it is only so-so, in that, I mean, if I had to choose between the pure story-telling, I would still choose the book. It’s funny. When writing of the book, I described it as a character study. I describe this film as crime/action/adventure. And sadly, when it comes to cinema, these two just don’t overlap. And so while both book and movie share the same plot, they tell completely different stories.

English Version: Director: David Fincher

It’s funny. I intended to make notes as I watched this movie because I didn’t think I’d be wanting to rewatch the two and a half hours. This is how far I got…

“It starts well”

That kind of sums up my view of this movie. It’s brilliant. I will grant from the off that being able to understand the dialogue without the aid of hack and often unrealistic subtitles does help its cause but still. Right from the beginning it feels cleaner and more professional than its international counter-part.

First thing I will say. I deplore the choice of music for the credits. As afore mentioned I dislike the association with punk that I don’t feel suits this book and this is the direction Fincher went in. So, one nil to Sweden. Also, I will be honest, I actually had to double check the title in the credits to make sure I’d turned on the right movie. I take it there is now an unwritten law in English cinema that every movie Daniel Craig appears in tries to be James Bond. The credits are visually stunning but I thought it would have been nice to draw away from Mr Craig’s other work a little.

Talking of Mr Craig, his interpretation of Blomkvist is brilliant. Both compelling and believable, and well, any movie which Daniel Craig’s chest is on display is going to get a thumbs up from me. Where as Nyqvist was hesitant with the character, Craig created a far stronger, firmer character that I really liked right from the off, and fitted better with the Blomkvist in my head.

It appears both Fincher and Oplev read the same handbook on Salander’s appearance. I actually snorted at her ridiculous Mohawk in her first scene. Again, she calms throughout but I think Rapace just got the look better. I am not going to try and split the two renditions, acting wise. Both are excellent, considering the difficult nature of such a character, I was absolutely stunned by both actresses and call it a draw. The biggest difference was the quality of the scripting, and this is true throughout, but particularly with Salander. Whereas Rapace had to deal with lines and situations that didn’t suit the character, the Salander in the Fincher movie is written beautifully. Many of the lines are taken verbatim from the book. Of note, I adore the kitchen scene which was lacking in the Swedish version. Mara is just given more to work with.

This leads to the biggest reason why Fincher’s movie works better. It stuck to the book. Everyone’s stories were handled better. Wennerstom. Berger (who actually even got a name in this version – Robin Wright could have stepped right out of the pages). Amansky (who I adored. Not how I imagined him but I thought it was a fun twist). Palgrem. The various Vangers. And the Cat. I will forever thank Fincher for taking screen time for the cat. I found it an important part of the book. It sets the tone in some ways.

It is also a lot truer to the crime plot. And this for me, works sooooo much better. Plummer’s sequence at the beginning, much better lays out the back story and creates a much stronger backbone for the overall movie. On that note, Plummer is genius. I adore the dry, dark humour he brings to the movie. It suits the overtones Larsson chose to run through his novel and so gets a thumbs up from me. I adored the delivery of the line ending with “my family”, not to mention Craig’s face after it.

The handling of the ending was much cleaner in this version for me and left me a lot happier than the Swedish version. Salander is not implied as a murderer. For even though you could argue she did approach with the gun she didn’t pull the trigger and it is left to you as a reader/watcher to decide if she would have done. I found this an important detail, twisted by the Swedish version, done right by Fincher. I loved that we actually got to see the sequences in Zurich (just saying that Mara makes a stunning blonde) and the ending was heartbreaking. I thought the decision to have that conversation with both Palgrem and the coat vendor, really brought out the betrayal that Salander felt. In this I say, movie one, book nil. I liked the addition.

Of course, there were always going to be issues with a very English lead in a movie about Sweden. Accents range from the ridiculous to the awful. Craig, Mara, Skarsgård and Visnijc were the only ones that managed to stay consistent throughout, everyone else was a bit up and down. And visually I MUCH MUCH preferred Oplev’s vision. For me Fincher took Hedeby too gradious. I liked the rustic, more rural look of the Swedish version. And of the two scores, Sweden once again trounced the English version.

I loved this movie. Both as a movie and as a rendition of a book. And that’s rare. It’s normally one or the other. I would highly, highly recommend it and cannot wait to see what they are going to do with the sequel.

Overall Ratings

Character Interpretation: M. Blomkvist: Daniel Craig (though I’m biased)

Character Interpretation: L.. Salander: It’s a draw. Both impressed me greatly.

Relationship Salander & Blomkvist: Craig & Mara

Crime Plot: Fincher

Oplev’s version

Rating (as movie): 7/10 – aside from some dodgy acting from Nyqvist and some weird direction choices its a goodmovie.

Rating (as a rendition): 5/10 – it made a valiant effort but its betrayal of the fundamentals of Salander’s moral code really drag it down for me.

Fincher’s version

Rating (as movie): 10/10 – just a brilliant movie.

Rating (as a rendition): 10/10 – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that has stayed so true to its literary material and still made it out the other end a brilliant movie.