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3 Dragon Tattoo Girls: The Art of Adaptation

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How the hell do you make a book into a film? Over the years, we have seen a vast array of literary fiction transposed on to the big screen with results that vary both in creative success and sense of loyalty, some loving failures and others dismissive successes. Die Hard was based on a novel, not that you’d know it. Dune is considered a masterpiece of literature, but apparently cannot be accessed by the movies. So close and yet so far, books provide the license to visualized storytelling but cannot seem to transfer their secrets and feelings wholesale. Such different mediums and manners of expressions rarely come together in a manner that satisfies anyone. And you’ll never satisfy anyone. Usually to break even, you have to break the book or break your own film. There are only a handful of exceptions and one of them, done twice, presents a fascinating rejoinder to the original question, a different take. Not so much how it can be done, but how it should be done. Read Steig Larsson, read Niels Arden Oplev, read David Fincher, take three Girls With Dragon Tattoos.

Naturally, considering that the novel is beloved and the two adaptations acclaimed despite their differences, debates regarding the superior product basically constitute an argument comprising which one is best rather than worst. For many, before Oplev’s try, the idea of anybody successfully putting the late Larsson’s noir epic to paper was fanciful; too much plot, too much character study, too much searing undercurrent. That both directors succeeded so memorably is a credit to their varying styles and sensibilities, and this exposes the nature of any dispute. For although both films are two and half hours long and stick to the novel’s narrative, they end up coming out as different stories with different messages through the art of tinkering. Small changes, adjustments to the layout of the plot, and differing focuses are all that is required to delve into Larsson’s work and return with an alternative take. The term remake, perversely, has never been more appropriate.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Strange Reinterpretation Article) ImageFincher is perhaps the perfect candidate for such material due to his temperament and track record of adapting unfilmable books, and his visual style, sharp editing, and ability to find murkiness in everyday life to convey mood creates an ambience that burns through the screen. Though long, it rolls the ball much more swiftly than Oplev’s version and makes a mockery of its seemingly endless running time. Interestingly, the film is more Zodiac than Se7en despite its more twisty nature and conventional buildup. With much material to get through, there is a matter-of-fact storytelling style that clearly prioritizes the hunt for the killer of women over some of the less integral angles. The novel’s plot points are followed to a tee, only changed at certain points to maintain momentum (notably with the extraction of the Mikael-Cecilia relationship) but basically following the premise as gospel. Even the ending, unfashionable for a film and a Hollywood one at that, is painstakingly adhered to. In short, it is an adaptation that both on page and on-screen is a loving tribute to the book, a rarity with such efforts.

So, what’s the issue? Though it might sound deliberately antagonistic a point, a subversive view for the sake of being subversive, an appropriate question would be to argue that complete fidelity to the novel only gets you so far; that is, to essentially put the pages on a big screen and re-enact them. It begs the question of what is a better manner to adapt a novel into film. Do you follow the gripping story and build your visual experience around this, or do you try to locate the heart hidden between the lines and pull at it, extrapolate and remold the material to make it work in a different medium? In short, should you change the original story to retain the original point? What is more sacrosanct? And, from a more honest point of view, what is more important?

Daniel Craig & Christopher Plummer in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Henrik Vanger was shortchanged despite Christopher Plummer’s efforts in the Fincher’s 2011 version

Unlike Fincher, Oplev’s vesion hesitates not a second in choosing the second option, in a move that left it retrospectively open to criticism from fans of the book and purists in general. His version takes the same characters and the same plot and rewires them, switching the focus from the investigation and its proponents to the central arc of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, going as far as to rewrite entire sections to further reinforce their relationship. 2009’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about how two wounded and damaged individuals of hugely varying nature can come together and dramatically alter each others’ lives in a most unlikely bond, and that even in a cruel world, there is somebody out there who can make your existence more meaningful. To put it in simplistic terms, it is a love story where the original book is not, and where Fincher’s version most certainly isn’t.

It is quite revealing that one can talk at length about the 2009 version without ever mentioning the Vangers, Harriet and Wennestrom, central pieces in the original material. You could compose entire essays about how Swedish-based national socialism in the 1930’s and a culture of hating women, not to mention political and corporate corruption and espionage, exists within the film as an emotional backdrop, illustrating the evils of the world and the threats that the joint-protagonists each have to survive. Unlike in Fincher’s remake, this subtext does not exist purely for mood setting and plot pushing. Even the central premise doesn’t matter, it is simply a means to spin a good yarn around a much richer relationship and create a scenario where Blomqvist and Salander would meet, work together, and find each other.

While this might sound schmaltzy, it is essential and accounts for certain beats that in the more pragmatic remake ring hollow. One of the most notable examples is the scene in which Salander and Blomqvist sleep together, with her – the most cold and introverted of souls – initiating the act. The wholesale re-working of the plot in Oplev’s version means they spend more time together on the road investigating a series of grisly murders, giving them time to create an eccentric and often humorous double act that also reveals much of Blomqvist’s fundamentally honorable but momentarily fractured soul, and them ending up in bed seems like an equally odd yet strangely appropriate first step towards intimacy and connection. In Fincher’s version, the pair barely know each other and have spent much of the film apart. Them having sex is off-kilter and almost superfluous, attracting unwanted accusations of exploitation. It completely changes the characters in a manner that is not flattering and hardly insightful.

Michael Nyqvist in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Michael Nyqvist enjoyed a far better written incarnation of Blomqvist in Oplev’s take

The one to come off worst is Blomqvist, and this is reinforced by the remake’s much discussed final scene, in which a heartbroken Salander drives off alone in to the night after seeing that Blomqvist is not the man she thought. This reads as unsatisfactory, especially considering that this relationship has not formed the pinnacle of the film as far. While a fine actor giving a nicely animated and naturalistic performance, Daniel Craig is let down by the manner in which his character is scripted in an unlikable manner, which turns him into somebody we don’t see any point in caring about. It is closer to the ‘Kalle’ of the novel, but a huge step away from Oplev’s version.

Here, Michael Nyqvist plays Blomqvist as a lonely and betrayed man facing prison and the prospect of personal and professional ruin, reputation and trust in tatters. There is a pain that runs through his every expression and line, a vulnerability that presents after such a harsh traumatic event. This, and his sensitive and respectful treatment of Lisbeth, teaches her that despite all the cruelty men have inflicted on her, there are still some of good moral fiber capable of truly caring, on top of granting Mikael the professional and personal success he needs to heal and begin rebuilding. His damage is also a perfect mirror image of Salander’s psyche, possessed by the same pain but projecting it inward instead of out, the opposite end of the same spectrum. Craig’s version of the character, by contrast, is a man simply annoyed by his conviction and merely enjoying the fruits of Lisbeth in his bed before he goes back to his previous life without thinking twice. It leaves a nasty taste in one’s mouth and dramatically shifts the nature of Lisbeth’s arc, as well as destroying his.

This change creates a chain reaction throughout the story and also means that Harriet and Henrik Vanger’s reunion at the close is an anti-climactic narrative footnote in Fincher’s film, where in Oplev’s, it was a moment of triumph for all and another reiteration that despite all the nastiness and pain that exists in this story, two people finding each other can still possess raw, wonderfully uplifting emotion. Lisbeth revealing that she has found a friend (to her disabled mother in the original, and her disabled former legal guardian in Fincher’s) is a powerful moment in Oplev’s because we have seen that friendship, how it has grown, and how it has seen her slowly but surely start to find a way out of her traumatized shell. In the remake, it is has no real emotional impact and is rendered crudely redundant by the final scene. Lisbeth charging off across the globe to take down Wennestrom is a brilliantly effective sequence in Oplev’s because it shows how she displays her love for Blomqvist not by staying with him but by going to war with him, a great illustration of her nature and attitudes. In Fincher’s, it again seems cruelly fastidious since it earns her nothing and from a storytelling point of view serves more to tie up loose ends.

Rooney Mara and Noomi RapacAgain, being loyal and faithful to the material is a necessity when adapting material that is far from wholesome. Fincher’s film is a masterful take on the plot of the novel, conveying its mood and edgy temperament meticulously, taking risks by not deviating from the source. Oplev’s film is an example of taking what you want from a book and adding what you feel makes it work better in an attempt to retain a core that is both intellectually nourishing and emotionally satisfying. This point raises a very interesting, worrying point that cannot be ignored: If one adapts a story and adds to it, changes it, to create something else that is ultimately more memorable and more meaningful, does that mean the adaptation is an improvement?

Rarely does such an exercise raise such a controversial question, one the heart demands answered in the affirmative. It proves that in a truly satisfying conclusion to the debate, there is something for everyone in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that the two adaptations are two sides of the same coin that cater to vastly different individuals. The sheer contrast between two critically acclaimed and beloved films born of the same book proves that the art of adaptation is not merely in cramming a novel into a script, it’s about finding the heartbeat that gives it life and presenting it to your public. It doesn’t have to be the same. There is no winner, simply two options to be taken, three if you include the book. Then again, who reads these days?

— Scott Patterson


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