Friday, June 5, 2015

A Comparison Between "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Films (2009 and 2011)

Left to right: Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig
As the years have dragged on and the culture continues to find new fads, it is interesting to note the legacy of author Siteg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." While the book itself is a behemoth - accumulating 15 million copies sold worldwide - there are two camps on the two main filmed versions and the heroines that are at the center. With American star Rooney Mara claiming that the sequel is pretty much not happening and David Lagercrantz writing the first book since the author's death in 2004 called "The Girl in the Spider's Web," it seems as opportune of a time as ever to look back on the two filmed versions and see how the language and visual outlines play into each other.

In 2009, Denmark director Niels Arden Oplev made the first adaptation of the Swedish novel. The story focused around the work of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and internet hacker Lisbeth Salander as they solved a case involving a serial rapist. While these characters go through their own personal battles ranging from journalistic legalities to Salander's own unfortunate exploits, the story was a gripping look into a counterculture that hasn't been often explored. At the helm was Noomi Rapace who created the iconic look of Salander with chain necklaces, pitch black clothing, and a certain masculinity to her. She was an outcast who looked tough, incapable of possibly working with a buttoned down mind like Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). In fact, that's the story's charm. It's a procedural wrapped around two misfits who inevitably love each other but know that it would never work.

The story takes place in Sweden. As the book goes, Blomqvist inhabits a cabin where he is isolated to focus on paper work. This is the general gist of the story, as it intends to make boring research into high art. While Orpev has tried to make a break in America following the film, his work on this film feels unified in formula. While the story itself is compelling and the depiction of violence is unrelenting, there's a certain straightforward nature to it. As even critic Roger Ebert would note in his four out of four star review, the real magic is in Rapace's performance. It was a subversive take on the female protagonist whose trauma does not define her. It could help that there's ambiguity and toughness to Salander's profile, of which would be explored in the sequels. However, it was just a well written character into a story that is otherwise conventional. The empathy lies more in her trying to relate to someone. Much like the location, there's a certain isolation that is inevitably tragic.

Orpev's version was released in America in 2010 as part of the trilogy released months apart, the latter two of which would be directed by Daniel Alfredson. While the film would run 153 minutes, there was an extended edition that played on Swedish TV. If anything, it helped to raise interest in the franchise. Unbeknownst at the time was that writer Steve Zaillian had written an unrelated script for an American version. Of course, thanks to the general notion of American consumerism, the film was perceived to be a cash cow moment in which translating it into English would bring in way more money with the higher profile. Questions would immediately rise around the film, specifically involving scenes of rape and torture. How loyal would a $90 million production be and could anyone top the career making Rapace performance? With this, a legacy of competition between the two was born.

Among the few pros that could be applied to the "remake" was in choosing David Fincher, who is widely considered to be one of the most confrontational mainstream directors working. Going back to his breakthrough films Se7en and Fight Club, he brought a violent aesthetic that popularized the gritty crime film. Considering this, it only made sense that he would be chosen for a production of a film with such controversial themes and violence at the center. However, the one thing that is often ignored is that Fincher is also conceptually more challenging than most directors. Consider how anti-consumerism film Fight Club had a Starbucks cup in every frame. There's subversion at play that could easily be ignored for another taut and engaging version of the story. Was Mara a better Salander than Rapace? Thankfully neither are similar enough to make one more than subjective superior.

The "remake" of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo actually has that instinct in its bones. It isn't in the obnoxiously blunt 21 Jump Street mold, but more in the contextual clues. The first piece of evidence lies in the grueling opening credits sequence in which a person draped in black liquid tries to escape. Over this image is a song composed by Trent Reznor and sung by Karen O called "The Immigrant Song." On its surface, the lyrics detailing a journey from the land of ice and snow would make sense for Sweden. However, a closer look at the word 'Immigrant' will suggest what is already interpreted: this is an American take on the story, thus creating its own form of disconnect. To bring the point home further, the song is actually a cover (or a "remake") of a Led Zeppelin number. Suddenly an already unnerving opening credits sequence sets up the mood for what's to come.

For starters, the cinematography looks very different. Where Orpev's film had a more naturalistic tone with unmemorable scenery, Fincher brings a deliberate look to it. His world is pitch white with snow, the buildings are even colder. It is so white that there's almost an absence of color. Among other changes, many important scenes including an early memorably mugging are now translated into a public facility. More specifically, it is at a metro where Salander is seen sliding down the middle of an escalator. Everything about this film's visual cues scream outsider to the viewer. Even the awkward hairline and boyishness of Salander adds a certain vulnerability to her role. It still remains as violent, but for the most part is a lot, lot colder.

As stated earlier, one of the story's noteworthy moments is when Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is forced to coop up in an isolated part of Sweden. If there's some disconnect, you wouldn't be wrong. While scouting for locations, Fincher suggested that the place they use look newer despite also coming from "old money." Sweden's architecture is itself a strong reason that this works because they are revered for their ability to make housing that is stylish yet minimalist. It fit the look nicely for the film and helped to create a look. Many of the interiors are also subversive in that there's a modernist take on it. The homes are filled with everyday appliances and even the cinematography shifts to a warmer and modern feel, as if the outside world is too scary for its characters.

While Salander and Blomkvist are by nature Swedish characters, they come across like immigrants doing a crash course on the country's history. Where Orpev's Salander feels rooted in confidence, there's a certain insecurity present in Fincher's world. Much like his work on The Social Network, he finds his own way to turn researching into an art form. Since the characters are trying to understand this world the way that a tourist would, things become more difficult. Sometimes it takes difficulty to translate old documents with coy wording and they don't have services to help them. They have to do it all on their own, piecing together the mystery while trying to connect not as misfits, but as immigrants to a land that they don't understand.

Noomi Rapace

The question soon becomes more indicative of preference. Orpev's vision is gritty and straightforward with more emphasis on character. There's also a confidence on the geography that makes solving the case a lot simpler. Fincher's is more complicated and serves more as a study on accumulating to a new landscape. His Salander talks in more of a mumbled tone and isn't always the most adept at her job. However, both are full of confidence and take a different look on Sweden. It is one of the rare moments in which a big budgeted "remake" is able to rival that of the low budget original, made partially to capitalize on the success of the book. The only other advantage is that Fincher's was able to embrace the film's outsider status with excellent promotion and even had DVD disc art designed as a burnt copy that outraged renters nationwide. There was a prank quality to it that helped the film to be taken more seriously.

So which is better? I personally will find myself going back to Fincher's film more often. This isn't because it is in English, but more that I think it is just a stronger production. While Orpev's comes across more as the surprise hit, Fincher simply knew how to make the film more cinematic and on a budget that shouldn't ever be applied for such a dark and gritty film. However, what makes it work is its own language and the disconnect that comes with watching American and British actors survive in a cold and isolated backdrop. The film is itself an immigrant to the source material and as a result creates its own strange tone that may be a little dull for those expecting a familiar thriller. For those able to look at the subversive layers, it's actually a lot more interesting.

So with "The Girl in the Spider's Web" set for an August release, it seems just as great of a moment to look back on the cinematic versions of Larsson's original story and see what clicks or more importantly why it continues to resonate. It is a story about a strong woman and a conflicted journalist solving crime. The latter is nothing new. However, by adding rebellious fashion and attitudes, it made a story that is rich with authenticity. Salander remains one of the most iconic cinematic film characters of recent years, and for good reason. It doesn't matter if you prefer Mara or Rapace's version. Both are loyal enough to the source material that it doesn't matter. However, the fact that it can be read as a direct thriller or a more complicated study of immigration shows just how complicated and interesting it actually is.

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