At this point, it’s hard to write about the dreaded American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo without sounding like an apologist. The movie has only grossed around $60 million so far—a respectable sum, but not nearly enough to make it the rape-y, torture-y cash cow that Sony hoped it would be. An endless stream of snark is being hurled its way in any online film-nerd repository you care to visit, and critical responses have been lukewarm. It’s a far cry from the rapturous reviews and $200 million in ticket sales that greeted Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish-language original back in 2009.
That’s unfortunate because, overall, David Fincher has made the better film. There are aspects of the Swedish version that I prefer to the American one, but Fincher has simultaneously spun a more complex, nuanced tale and embraced the inherent pulpiness of the source material. Many of us expected the American version to be dumbed down and flashier that its European cousin, maybe with a breakdancing rape robot subbed in for the titular character’s loathsome nemesis, but Fincher and screenwriter Steven “Oscar Bait” Zaillian have taken a very different tack.
At first glance, both adaptations are remarkably similar; after all, you don’t plant an orange tree and expect to be picking apples a few seasons later. Thanks to the clarity of deceased novelist Stieg Larsson’s grim vision, both Oplev and Fincher have staked out similar narrative, dramatic, and visual territory. The story is essentially the same; both films are shot mostly in icy, monochromatic color palettes; both boast a brooding, atmospheric score. The major—and completely unexpected—difference is that the American guy has made a considerably more faithful adaptation of the Swedish novel than the Danish dude. Oplev opted to pare the convoluted story down to its bare essentials, cutting subplots, rendering major characters in broad, easily definable strokes, and banishing supporting players altogether. Though his film is only six minutes longer, Fincher finds room for much of the material Oplev opted to cut.
If you’re interested enough to still be reading, you probably know the plot already: Liberal journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by Mission: Impossible 4 heavy Michael Nyqvist in the Swedish film and Daniel Craig in the American one) has been convicted of multiple counts of libel against a wealthy industrialist. Embarrassed and financially ruined, Blomkvist agrees to investigate a decades-old murder mystery involving one of Sweden’s most infamous industrial dynasties. He soon finds himself on the trail of a serial killer who might or might not be a Nazi and enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, respectively), a brilliant but profoundly disturbed computer hacker who is frightening in her own right. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and an even stranger romance as their investigation inevitably puts them on the killer’s own to-do list.
Oplev deftly captured the major plot points of Larsson’s complex thriller, but when it comes to a murder mystery, the devil is in the details, and Fincher gives him much more room to stretch his furry little goat legs. Fincher and Zaillian restore numerous elements that might seem inconsequential—Blomkvist’s fondness for an ill-fated stray cat, for instance—but ultimately add narrative depth and give us a better feel for the characters. There are still major cuts from page to screen, with Oplev and Fincher both glossing over a few of the book’s sketchier plot points, including Blomkvist’s tryst with a member of the family he’s investigating.
What it all comes down to in either film, though, is the actress who brings the eponymous inked-up girl to life. Comparisons are inevitable but, in this case, they’re ultimately unnecessary. Rapace and Mara offer very different interpretations of the character. Each complements the other, and both are worth every minute of every repeat viewing. My first thought when Mara was cast was, poor girl—how can she possibly live up to the standard that Rapace set? Turns out, she didn’t have to. It may be true that she’s no Noomi Rapace, but she’s one hell of a Rooney Mara. She makes Lisbeth her own; more fragile and less sure of herself at first, but just as dangerous in the end. In some ways, I think I like Mara’s take on the character even more than Rapace’s; there’s something deeply satisfying about the transformation she lets us see in the character as Lisbeth goes from victim to vigilante.
The narrative glitches that marred the Swedish adaptation are still here—the meat of the story is the interaction between Mikael and Lisbeth, and we don’t get to that until well into the second act, and then there’s the long dénouement that defuses the impact of the climax—but Fincher has constructed a pulpy, grim, and very entertaining take on a pulpy, grim, and very entertaining story. Let’s hope Sony can persuade him to finish what he’s started.