"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" dir. David Fincher, 2011

Adaptation can be difficult.  The most frequent problem I have with adaptations of novels to film is the choice to adapt them in the first place, especially when it comes to a rather lengthy crime thriller like Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tatto, the first in a three book mystery series dubbed "The Millenium Trilogy."  The trilogy has already been made into three film adaptations in Sweden, and now, mostly sparked by the immense popularity of the books in the US, comes the first American installment, directed by David Fincher (Seven, 1995; Fight Club, 1999; Zodiac, 2007; The Social Network, 2010).  Unfortunately, the most ecstatic moment is offered up in the opening credit sequence.

Although I can't speak to the specific choices Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (whose commercial screenwriting successes range from Awakenings in 1990, Schindler's List in '93, and the first Mission Impossible in '96 to the currently acclaimed Moneyball) made in transferring Larsson's book to the screen, I think it's accurate to say that a different format would fit the arc of the narrative better.  To use the parlance of my high school football coach (though he wasn't speaking in reference to literary adaptation) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like 10 pounds of shit stuffed into a 5 pound bag.  From what I can surmise, this may have to do as much with Larsson's capabilities as a writer as it does with Fincher's abilities as a visual storyteller, though Fincher does manage to raise this source material here to a higher level than he did with the Forest Gump-esque schmaltz of Eric Roth's script for 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, itself a similarly questionable adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story from the start.  Where I can't quite see a need for a film adaptation of Button to exist in the first place, I can see The Girl series existing more successfully as something like a nine part mini-series, or a short TV series.  But, the first novel presented as a single film that attempts to simultaneously survive on its own and muster enthusiasm for the two following entries in the trilogy seems to create more problems than it's worth.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
To be fair to Fincher, he hits some really nice strides of suspenseful, exciting storytelling here, as in the cat and mouse sequences between Daniel Craig, more dynamic here than ever as the lead male protagonist, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the always enjoyable and genuine Swedish-crossover character actor Stellan Skarsgard.  The way Fincher paces the film in these scenes creates the core sensation of a successful thriller that nearly rescues the film from the utter mess of storytelling that has to be dealt with in the sections that bookend it.  And that's the feeling of the whole adaptation:   it's in the book, so it "has to be dealt with."  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rarely gives the sense of film makers being wholly inspired to translate the story at hand into the language of film...aside from the opening credit sequence, which I contend should be appreciated as it's own adaptation of the book, more powerful in it's brevity than anything Fincher accomplishes in excess of 2 and a 1/2 hours plus.  To bring Trent Reznor into the conversation, it's not unlike the way in which the music video for Johnny Cash's rendition of Reznor's Hurt says a great deal more about Johnny Cash than the entirety of the James Mangold directed 2005 bio-pic, Walk the Line.

Reznor's score for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, his second with Fincher after their collaboration on The Social Network is nicely integrated, underscoring scenes in a way that mark the film and his work as a composer as unique;  it's a refreshing transformation for an artist who had seemingly exhausted the limits of his preferred genre by his third proper album with Nine Inch Nails in the mid-nineties.  At the same time, anyone familiar with Reznor's work would most likely not be surprised by his ability to score scenes of anal rape effectively.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salnader in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Rooney Mara is exceptional as the film's titular character, a waif-ish, autistic-leaning, computer hacking, kick-ass avenger;  one that Fincher seems to understand in the way he ties us visually to her particular experience of the world.  And, although I get the appeal of Lisbeth, and as much as I could see a successful TV series based on the character emerging, even potentially peaking my interest, in the hands of Fincher the character feels muddled in the attempts to present her as a feminist icon.  I think Fincher manages to create a sufficiently uncompromising portrait of the character, but the potential depth of what could be mined out of Salander's triumph over the horrific abuses she suffers would be served better by material that isn't mere glorified serial killer fare at it's core, when boiled down better suited for an episode of Criminal Minds, or even more akin to Zaillian's hapless completion of the David Mamet script for Hannibal, the 2001 sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.  It wouldn't surprise me to find out that, as per the original title of Larsson's novel, that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is created in part by "men who hate women."  I don't mean this in a flip, accusatory way, but rather through a lens that reads the attitudes of these film makers as naturalized to a kind of misogyny that pervades the film industry, and in many more overt ways than what we see here. The marketing images for the film, and the general media climate of similar exploitation-oriented commercial entertainment are all a part of why I found this film so ultimately unpleasant.  The way in which fashion magazines have exploited that Salander look, urging girls of all ages to cop to the Lisbeth uniform of non-comformity and anorexic-chic figure, is all a bit chilling.

In an age when the highest rated television programs continually exploit the idea of death for the sake of presenting yet another stale crime drama narrative, all the while perpetuating ideas of victimization and justice that are inconsistent with a reality we have become all too out of touch with, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes off as little more than another product of a degrading media landscape.  Tonight America will chase a healthy dose of rape and murder with a Coke, all for the sake of discovering "who done it," but at the expense of ever having to engage with it in any meaningful way.  And, I'm not playing the "holier-than-thou" patron here, because I admittedly sucked down half a cherry slushy while watching Lisbeth Salander hammer a metal dildo into her rapist's anus.  But, I'm not going to pay to see the remaining films or read the books, and, ultimately, I'll try to be satisfied with the small gesture of empowerment that comes with the choice of where I toss my money.  Fincher has a lot to do with that choice, too.  Last year I paid eagerly and early for what I thought could potentially be a film that had something significant to communicate about the phenomenon of Facebook and the path of a culture under the influence of social media.  What I got was more utilitarian direction by Fincher, working his way through a nicely penned bio-pic by Aaron Sorkin;  not terrible...but nothing close to the ecstatic engagement Fincher hinted at with his work on the end-of-the-millennium adaptation Fight Club.  Fincher obviously has a tremendous grasp of tone and style, but it's time we saw him do something more than stylishly cash a check, an endeavor he seems to receive numerous critical accolades for time and time again.  Meanwhile, I'm given to wondering what we as a culture would do with the same promotional image for the American Girl With the Dragon Tattoo attached to the novel's original title...

Men Who Hate Women
 Mara's comments to Vogue Magazine about the image:
“There’s a certain way people are used to seeing nude women, and that’s in a submissive, coy pose, not looking at the camera,” Mara says. “And in this poster, I’m looking dead into the camera with no expression on my face.” She smiles and flicks a cigarette into the street. “I think it freaks a lot of people out.”
Later in the article, Fincher likens the risks they're taking in their particular adaptation of the novels as not unlike being "out on the ledge juggling with chainsaws."  If The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo adds up to risky film making and daringly subversive portrayals of femininity, then I must be missing something.


nathaniel drake carlson said...

A really brilliant critique which nails many of the same issues I had with this one. In fact, I would say I'm with you virtually 100%.

I suspect I remain more of a Fincher fan than you but I'll admit that at this stage I keep attending his new films hoping for some glimmer or spark of what initiated my interest 20 years ago. But then I was always a fan of his video and advertising work first, that very succinctness you mention as glimpsed here in the title sequence (the trailer for Social Network was infinitely superior to the film, as well, though that may not be a fair comparison as the film itself evidenced little of the same set of interests in social media as phenomenon or effect).

The only other set piece sequence that was remarkable to me in TGWTDT was the Orinoco Flow scene toward the end (though not nearly toward the end enough). That's a truly great scene, a model of its kind, perfectly handled by all those involved as you alluded to above. But that's about the only scene that comes alive in a vital way or even seems genuinely "dangerous". Most of the rest, especially including the Lisbeth-rapist material, comes across as stagy, half-assed political tracts crowbarred in.

It may be strange to say this but, despite the film's ominous tagline, it all never seemed nearly "evil" enough. That's why the Orinoco Flow scene stands out, I think; because it does. And really much more of this should if it's meant to be taken seriously on the level it's pitched.

Mara's comments about her photo spread just make her sound juvenile. For me, as solid as she is here, her performance in the rebooted Nightmare on Elm Street resonated far more, as did that film over this one (it has a much more thorough understanding of the depths of what it is implying and the use of style there is also superior as it functions on a separate aesthetic level of meaning and impact, contributing to the whole). As far as "daringly subversive portrayals of femininity" go, Sucker Punch FTW.

Anonymous said...

Smart commentary! I agree wholeheartedly with the lackluster adaptation. The film felt like Lego-stacking in places - just clicking scenes / pieces together because they were in the book & need to be dealt with. It would be an excellent candidate for a series and would allow for Lisbeth to get the character development she needs & deserves (vs. vacillating between bi-polar extremes: torturous rapist-revenge-artist and deluded-hurt-little-girl-who-doesn't-get-the-boy-in-the-end). Thanks for articulating why I did & didn't like the film for me.

jtuder2002 said...

Have you seen the Swedish version? I have not (and will not) see the Americanized version of this movie. I don't believe in it. I contend that there is a Swedish sensibility to both the films and the books that would be very difficult for an American director to capture. I think I only recognize it because I live in Minnesota (huge Swedish immigrant influx in the early 1900s). But the Swedish film treats sexual assault in a way I am not used to seeing it represented. I can't really articulate it well myself. If you can bring yourself to contrast and compare, I would love to hear your thoughts on the Swedish film, Hedrick.

Jason Hedrick said...

MammaBorg, I agree that Lisbeth deserves more. I imagine a film that has the same kind of space and grasp of storytelling as Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In," with the character at the center, and a simple, sparse mystery surrounding. I wouldn't want for Lisbeth to be transformed into a simplistic superhero, but rather let everything that's fascinating and strong about her thrive. You're right--Fincher's movie doesn't allow her enough room to do all that is required of her in the script. I think your assessment of her as "bi-polar" is also evident in the initial blowjob scene, which seems so mechanically inserted as a way to get to the rape revenge nonsense. I think Rooney put a lot of effort into that characterization, but the film doesn't seem to respect her as much as she did the acting challenge.

Jason Hedrick said...

Your continued mention of this "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake has finally peaked my curiosity--I'm searching for that one sometime in the near future.

Jason Hedrick said...

Tuder, thanks for the recommendation! A friend had mentioned to me something about the particular Swedish-ness of the book when she was reading it, and had wondered how the difference in the magnitude of the type of crime they're talking about would translate to an American audience. That was part of the reason why I took the critical angle I did, because it's hard to justify the way the American version handles the sexual violence in the context of not only what's on the tube every night, but a cinema that has abused the depiction of sexual assault so haphazardly over the last few decades. To be frank, it was a particularly difficult picture for me to watch, and although my curiosity and your urging will probably win out, right now the last thing I want to do is return to some of the particulars of that story. Thanks for the Minnesotan perspective--if I get around to it, I will definitely let you know!

for the love of tampa said...

I really enjoyed the swedish films..mainly the first one. The third was a yawn. I'm very hesitant to see the American version.