The Film with the Hollywood Bloat
As a depressing indicator of Hollywood excess, I haven’t come across a more illuminating one lately than this: Män som hatar kvinnor, the 2009 Swedish film that became an international hit, reportedly cost $13 million to make. The Hollywood version, set in Sweden but produced in the English language and presented under the title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is rumored to have cost $100 million.
Surely, then, David Fincher’s new adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel is bigger, brawnier, meatier, somethingier than Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish film? Well, no. Better performances from big-name Hollywood stars? Um, nope. But overall it’s just glossier and, you know, somehow better, right?
I’m not sure I’ve seen a more superfluous film than Fincher’s (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) pointless second take on a story that was served supremely well onscreen so recently. If you’ve seen the Swedish film, it’s hard to imagine that you will take anything at all differently away from this one. If you enjoyed Oplev’s — as I did, very much — you may well be bored by Fincher’s, and worse, mystified: If Fincher thought he could bring something fresh to this tale, and oh how I would have loved to see that, where is it? If he didn’t think he could bring anything fresh to it, then is he the biggest Hollywood whore ever? If you disliked Oplev, then, well, not having to read subtitles isn’t going to make you like the tale anymore.
And there’s the rub. That’s the only damn reason for this Hollywood version to exist: to cash in on the arthouse excitement created by the Swedish film with audiences who can’t stand subtitles.
I say “arthouse excitement” because that’s where Män som hatar kvinnor played, thanks to its lack of characters who speak English, but it’s not like Oplev’s flick wasn’t Hollywood slick apart from that. He made a film that looked very much like something Hollywood would make — I have no doubt that contributed to its wild success at home and around the world — but it means that Fincher can’t be fresh merely by being Hollywood slick with his version. All Fincher has up his sleeve is the fact that his actors speak English.
It must be said: if you didn’t see the Swedish film, you’ll probably enjoy this one a good deal, and rightly so. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But it is most certainly not for serious film fans who will have already gotten an enormous jolt of cinematic pleasure out of the previous adaptation.
Dragon Tattoo isn’t perfect, though, either, even approached just on its own merits. Larsson’s novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] is a disaster: its characters are fascinating and the story it has to tell is gripping, but the now-deceased Larsson was a deeply terrible prose stylist. The Swedish film is one of the rare instances of a movie that’s better than the book, in that it cleaned up some of the mess. One of the major problems of Larsson’s tale: his two protagonists — 20something hacker/researcher/Asperger’s poster girl Lisbeth Salander and 50ish muckracking journalist Mikael Blomkvist — do not meet until halfway through the story. This is supremely unsatisfying, and the Swedish film concocts perfectly reasonable ways that are entirely within the spirit of the story to get them more involved earlier and to give Salander even more agency than she already has… ways that also eliminate another character who might work fine in the book but is an unnecessary tangent onscreen. Here, Steven Zaillian (Moneyball, American Gangster) — whom we may presume was paid a shitload more dough than Swedish scripters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg — is more faithful to the book, but in this case that is not a good thing. It feels like Fincher’s film takes forever to get into gear, and it reduces Salander’s own urgency as a character within the story.
When it does get in gear… Look, I’m a big fan of Daniel Craig (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Cowboys & Aliens), but he can’t hold a candle to Michael Nyqvist in the Swedish film, who is more vulnerable, more dogged, more ragged than Craig in the same role, who sleepwalks through the same paces. (We can presume, again, that Craig got a much fatter paycheck than Nyqvist, and whose presence is likely partly responsible for the bloated budget.) Rooney Mara is an unknown quantity — her tiny role in The Social Network is hardly enough to gauge her — and as Salander, she is perfectly adequate. But it’s hard not to damn with faint praise when comparing her to Noomi Rapace, who stalked across the screen like she had invented movies for herself.
The case that finally brings Salander and Blomkvist together — investigating the murder of a teenaged girl, the granddaughter of a wealthy and powerful industrialist, more than 40 years earlier — also somehow lacks the oomph that Larsson was aiming for. The Swedish title, after all, transliterates as Men Who Hate Women. Oplev brought a haunted quality to his film, a sense of inescapable menace hovering over it all, a horrific sense of a society in which the cards are stacked against women from every angle. Here, though, Fincher manages to reduce the menace to the few particular instances depicted within the story, as if they weren’t the result, partly, of larger cultural forces. It makes for a far less unsettling experience than it might be… and that, indeed, we’ve already seen it can be.