Hear Me Out Before You Shut Me Out

A Tale of Two Tattoos

Every now and then, The Nostalgia Critic does what he calls “Old vs. New”. What he does in these segments is compare two movies: one original and one remade. Some examples include “Batman vs. The Dark Knight” and “Ralph Bakshi’s version of The Lord of the Rings vs. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings“. I will do something similar except with nothing exactly nostalgic but rather something that stirs debate today: which version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is superior?

Frequent visitors of my blog know my review of David Fincher’s adaptation as well as my opinion of him; if you’re new to the site, simply scroll down for the review. I hadn’t seen the original Swedish version of the movie until just recently out of the recommendation of a friend (thank you, Nicole Rothschild). I know that so many people defend the original as a “classic”, a movie that needn’t a remake. These people dismiss Fincher’s adaptation as unnecessary garbage even before they see it. I made the statement that it isn’t a wise choice, a statement that I still defend, but who’s right? I must compare the two movies in five aspects: Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth Salander, supporting cast, direction, and overall movie. Which one is the better movie?

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist vs. Daniel Craig): Hearing that Daniel Craig would play Mikael in the American version didn’t pique my interest so much. I don’t think he’s that great of a Bond, and I never really saw much of his acting to appreciate him. After watching him, he really did pull off a good performance, one of the best he’s done. Michael Nyqvist has the benefit of authenticity: he doesn’t have to work too hard on playing a convincing Swede because he really is Swedish. Craig playing Swedish provided some challenges, namely a convincing accent. His mumbling didn’t really help much either. These little details attribute only to the actors, never the character, which despite being of the same story are different in both editions. The problem with Blomkvist in the book is that he lacks some character; we know he battles the shame of a failed libel case, but we know very little about him as a person. This lack of character really shows in Nyqvist’s Blomkvist (try saying that five times fast, non-Swedes). Nyqvist plays him rather realistically but also rather passively, more like a MacGuffin of a character rather than somebody important. His realism convinces the audience that he is Bomkvist, but it stands in the shadows a mere shadow on the wall. Craig actually made Blomkvist take full control of everything, even added some character to the…character. Craig plays Blomkvist as someone defensive, keeping things close to the chest. And we can see why he would: he was just publicly humiliated. The scene where he finally meets Lisbeth is a good example: he bursts in with coffee and breakfast telling her to kick Mimmi out. Nyqvist didn’t do that; he just came in and said “hey, I know you did this. Wanna help?” Nyqvist may be more realistic and closer to the book, but Craig’s Blomkvist stands out as stronger, more interesting.

Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara): Could there be a more kickass girl in literature than Lisbeth Salander? Noomi Rapace’s performance as the heroine (or anti-heroine however you define it) received widespread recognition and praise from critics and fans alike…but then again, so did Rooney Mara’s. It does make things easier when your character is written the way Lisbeth is. Rapace is still relatively unknown in the United States, her most known role in America outside of Tattoo is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and that wasn’t released until after the former. Mara stunned people in The Social Network despite not having much screen time. The famous opening scene in that movie was half her, and it was a strong half. So who is the better girl with said dragon tattoo? Like Blomkvist, both actresses play Lisbeth differently. Rapace plays her very defensively, more like a punk than really a victim. She’s the kind of girl that always keeps her fists up no matter where she goes. Mara plays Lisbeth defensively as well, but she makes Lisbeth out as the outcast, antisocial savant that Stieg Larsson created. She keeps things close to the chest, and the audience gets the feeling that she experienced her fair share of pain, explaining her character. You don’t really get much of that in Rapace’s character. She plays Lisbeth as someone you want to leave alone. You don’t mess with her, and she won’t mess with you, but Lisbeth also makes some moves that don’t make sense. She has sex with Mikael and then throws him aside; he kisses him and then walks off. She’s one confusing person. Mara makes Lisbeth more sympathetic in the movie, even falling in love with Mikael, which makes the audience feel for her even more. Both films share the same back stories, and yet both Lisbeths come out differently. In the end, it all boils down to which Lisbeth you prefer: the feminist punk in the Swedish film or the victimized girl who’s had enough in the American film. As for me, I find Mara’s Lisbeth connectable and therefore more interesting.

Supporting Characters: While the American version has what appears to be the stronger leads, the supporting characters may not be too easy to pick. For starters, not one movie has all the better supporting characters; where one movie may have a better x, the other has a better y. Case in point: Henrik and Martin Vanger. Christopher Plummer played Henrik very well, probably just as recognizable as Mara did Lisbeth. He even introduced his entire family better than the original which, don’t get me wrong, did well. Both made Henrik rather likable, but Plummer’s Henrik had better dialogue. Martin, on the other hand, has the reverse effect: the original did better than Stellan Skarsgaard. Martin never changed with the adaptation, but Peter Haber made him more interesting and even more threatening. Skarsgaard had the better scene with Blomkvist but still kept him rather deadpan and didn’t show too much of a threat. Haber controls his scene, dancing along that line between genius and insanity and showing no resentment for what he’s done. He even celebrates his “accomplishments”. Skarsgaard’s Martin didn’t really kill anyone except one girl. Haber’s version is closest to the book. To stray away from the Vangers for a moment because there are too many of them to single out, Advokat Nils Bjurman deserves some recognition. The slimeball lawyer gives Lisbeth some “grief” and even gives her the opportunity to show her strength, but the American version makes him more disgusting and loathsome. For one thing, Bjurman in that movie is fat, so having Lisbeth perform on him? Well let’s just say the original seems easier to handle. Speaking of which, Peter Andersson doesn’t really catch that level of disgust for what he makes Lisbeth do; in fact, he looks more like a porn star and a blackmailer than really disgusting. Again, which one do you prefer: the more realistic or the more effective? The original had the better Vangers outside of Henrik and Dirch Frode, but the American version had the better Bjurman and Erika (which didn’t really have much in the original).

Direction: I have sung Fincher’s praises enough, so forgive me if I sound redundant in this. Because the story in both movies are the same, I will instead focus on the way they are told. The original director, Niels Arden Oplev, went more for Swedish realism in his version, which makes sense considering his low-budget. Realism works on certain occasions, i.e. horror, suspense and mystery, but too much realism and not enough intrigue make the movie less exciting. Fincher does the opposite: more intrigue and less realism. He attacks the book for its investigative potential, even showing the exposition as its being told rather than have people tell us like Oplev did. Fincher told his investigative moments in the same style as The Social Network and Fight Club: showing us what’s happening as its being explained. This leaves more of an impression than just hearing about it. Both movies use the investigation that propelled Larsson’s book to phenomena, but the changes in both films either lead to the story’s strength or weakness. In Oplev’s version, Lisbeth makes the big discovery regarding the names in Harriet’s diary. How she managed to make the connection is a bit of a stretch: she might be good, but she couldn’t be that good as to know their actual connection, especially since she doesn’t show any knowledge of its supposed background. Fincher keeps it to the book and therefore has Blomkvist’s daughter make the connection. This works because of her innocence, and that innocence proves enough to send Mikael towards solving this case. Fincher proves to be the superior director not just in capturing intrigue but also in shooting the scenes that don’t seem that far fetched.

Movie: and now for the final aspect of this comparison. The direction differs from everything else in this, even though the director did call the shots. This section covers the writing, editing, score, etc. The technical aspects of the storytelling. First to the writing. While Fincher keeps the book’s story intact, it seems that Oplev keeps the book’s writing and dialogue intact, the same writing and dialogue that American book critics found mediocre. It really does show in that version as the dialogue has some really weak moments, specifically with Henrik Vanger, Erika Berger and Nils Bjurman. Bjurman in the American version had some weak lines as well, but he didn’t have as much. The tattoo that Salander writes on Bjurman in the original also needed modification; for one thing “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist” sounds like she added that last bit at the last minute. It doesn’t pack as much of a punch as “I am a sadistic rapist pig”. In the editing, where the American version moves so quickly that it doesn’t feel like two hours, the original moves more slowly and even edits awkwardly. Some scenes cut at some strange places. The scene after Blomkvist discovers the truth with Harriet ends after she makes a weird face. Other edits feel sloppy and very unprofessional. The same can be said about the scores. The original score seemed louder, something typical of suspense movies; Reznor and Ross’s score in the movie actually blended in with the atmosphere like it actually considered itself part of the movie.

So after all of this, I consider the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be the better film. I thought it had the better Blomkvist, the better Lisbeth, the better direction and the better…everything else. So my question is what do some people see in the original? I guess is people love it for its “authenticity”. They think that because it was filmed by Swedes for Swedes in Swedish, it truly is a Swedish movie. As authentic as it may be, that alone doesn’t cloud the little details in a movie. A foreign language and foreign people don’t automatically make the movie better. But I am one of a million people with one of a million opinions. While I found the original to be underwhelming in comparison to the people’s response, I can’t rule it as a bad film. Fincher is an amazing director and shouldn’t be ruled out regarding his movie. This is something I’ve tried to tell people: you can’t underestimate him.

If I don’t convince you, then at least see it how I saw it.

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