Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ink Blot

I wonder if there were ever a movie pushed bawling out into the world more freighted with baggage than David Fincher's new film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Adapted from the sensational best-selling novel from 2008 by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, the book and its two simultaneously-published sequels were an international phenomenon, all of which were quickly made into Swedish-language films. The original film of the first novel was titled in Swedish "Men Who Hate Women," and was an excellent film, I thought, though not one that found a broad audience in the US (Americans turn away in droves from any film with subtitles). I stumbled unwittingly onto the first film in Louisville a couple years ago, and this was my introduction to the whole phenomenon. This led to a frantic search for the other two films (shot simultaneously with the first film but, unlike the first film, intended for TV and so shot at a lesser production quality), and thence to the novels and even the audiobooks. I've had Stieg Larsson on the brain, I'm afraid.

The story--both the story of Stieg Larsson and of his trilogy--are well known at this point to virtually everybody, and there is no need to go over the plot again here. (Wikipedia has a nice summary of the first novel for the unfamiliar.)

It's a pulpy story and a great crime whodunit. But I've become convinced that the real reason we have taken to the story so strongly is because of the books' (and films') principle character, Lisbeth Salander. She is one of the great inventions of fiction, a compelling admixture of dysfunction and extraordinary skill and competence. She's the unlikeliest of heroines: tiny, damaged, anonymous, beleaguered. She's a bit of a freak, but not in the cartoon-ish way of a James Bond or a comic book superhero. Her skills and deficits are believable, and her story is a sad but compelling one.

Truth be told, I was actually disappointed to hear that an English language version of the film was being made, not least because I loved Niels Arden Oplev's original film and felt there was little chance of topping it. Mostly I resent that a great film will flop in this country if audiences are asked to do any work to get at it; a part of me feels we don't deserve a great film if we will only see it by insisting on our own Hollywood version. But (after I breathed in a paper bag for a minute or two) I reminded myself that David Fincher is a huge talent and I should just wait and see what he comes up with.

It's hard to evaluate the film without making comparisons--to the book, naturally, but also to Oplev's original film. Condensing any 10 hour book down to a two hour film necessarily means tossing out about 75% of what's in the original text, and that leaves a lot of leeway about what the final product might look like. Two movie adaptations may be very close in arc while still being quite different in their details. And so it is with Fincher's film. Fincher's screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian, and the original story is there in the main. And yet there are a host of changes, most of them little but not all of them. And my predominant feeling exiting the theater is one of being mired down a bit by these changes. I suppose it's my familiarity with what has gone before, but a lot of these changes strike me not as the best way to tell Larsson's story but more like somebody's attempt to "improve" it. This instinctively raises my hackles. As I say, the screenwriters are to be expected to find their way to some kind of condensation, but a lot of these things change the nature of the story being told--especially projecting out over the next two films--and some of them have a real impact on what we think of the characters involved. (I read one bit of publicity with Zaillian talking about what could be "tightened" or otherwise improved. Steven Zaillian is a very accomplished and successful screenwriter, but I still found myself thinking reflexively 'when YOU'VE sold 30 million books--as opposed to getting 30 million folks to see your films, which is quite another matter--you can make that claim; for now you should just try to provide good stewardship of another author's very popular work.') This verdict is still out.

Fincher's casting is beyond reproach: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan SkarsgÄrd, Robin Wright; all fabulous. And yet, though the film feels more expensive than the earlier film, I don't find that it improves on Oplev's film in any particular. No, on the contrary; it seems less adept at telling the story, and some of what was tossed aside we might wish we understood later (say, the inner workings of Millennium magazine, or making better sense of the labyrinthine Vanger family tree). And much of it goes by so quickly that I wonder how many details are lost to anyone not familiar with the story from the book. Niels Arden Oplev devoted very little effort, it seems, into making his film feel hip or current or fashionable, whereas Fincher seems to have paid considerable attention to this aspect (the opening title sequence seems to have been spliced incongruously into place from an unrelated MTV music video). In the end, Oplev simply does a better job of telling the details of Larsson's finely-detailed story.

Mara and Craig are the two principles, of course, and are in virtually every scene (at least one of them). Craig's Mikhail Blomqvist is more of a supporting character to Lisbeth Salander than Michael Nyqvist's. Rooney Mara is really excellent, a fine variation on a theme drawn pretty carefully by Stieg Larsson. Her Lisbeth Salander is not better to my mind than Noomi Rapace's--and not even terribly different; they're both channeling the same rare substance--but she has found her own creature in Larsson's creation, and she is similarly magnetic on screen. More so than in Oplev's film, Fincher has made this Lisbeth Salander's story and she, I maintain, is why we come to the theater.

My wife, who knows a thing or two about drama, has had a pretty strong distaste for the whole franchise from the beginning. Though I think Larsson was a feminist and an uncompromising egalitarian, my wife (and others, to be sure) find something salacious and unnecessary in Larsson's depiction of the injustices perpetrated upon Salander, especially in the first book. The story involves some rather brutal and explicit sexual violence against Salander, violence shown quite explicitly in both films, and Susan questions whether this is necessary or even forgivable. 

I'm sensitive to this view, but I can't bring myself to convict. Larsson wrote these scenes for a reason. There is nothing sexy or alluring to them. They are intended to bring us into an act of violence and tyranny, to give us a visceral sense of a horrible wrong. Screams behind a closed door might accomplish much of the same thing, but modern culture is rife with casual violence--including all manner of violence as entertainment--and the point here is to bring us back to reality and make us feel the violation involved. Whether we approve of it as story fodder or not, actual crimes against actual women occur all the time--sometimes in exactly this fashion--and these are shoes that Larsson felt we should all walk a few steps in. And so he forces us to watch what we should find revolting and profoundly discomfiting. I respect that decision even if I wish I didn't have to watch. (As it turns out, this violence against Salander is something more than it seems, and that larger arc is the cord running through all three novels.)

But Larsson's book is still the obvious work of a male writer. Its (non-violent) sexual content feels different from what I expect a woman would have written (Twilight it ain't), and this fact, plus the quite differential nudity in the films--Salander is shown pretty graphically naked in both films while Blomqvist is kept mostly covered--further contributes to my wife's suspicions about the film's feminist credibilities.

Duly noted. But we both found ourselves glued to the screen, and it certainly makes for a gripping couple of hours. I'm always inclined to see films I like more than once, but here in particular I feel I need another viewing to see this more as Fincher's work than as his adaptation of someone else's.

Grade: B


Anonymous said...

Why must women always overcome some atrocity to be strong? Men don't - they are simply strong as a matter of life, as I contend are women. We are smart and strong not because some male dominated us. I think Men Who Hate Women is a very apropos title. I don't think Larsson loves his protagonist at all.
"da wife"

wunelle said...

I'm glad you de-lurk and say so! :-)

dbackdad said...

lol. My wife never "de-lurks", though I've encouraged her to do so.

Since we have not yet watched this film, I just read your first couple of paragraphs and your conclusion. Not that I was worried about a "spoiler" as I, like you, have watched all the Swedish films (several times) and the books. I just didn't want to be overly influenced. But I did want to know whether you liked it and if it was a worthy couple of hours. Alas, you guardedly did, and it most likely will.

Once we're back from the folks this weekend, we'll go to see this and I will revisit your review.

wunelle said...

I'll look forward to your comments! (and a review if you post one).

CyberKitten said...

I've seen the first two Swedish version films (actually liking rather than being put off sub-titled films [of which more later]) but haven't read any of the books yet (though I have all three in the pile).

I'm always wary of English versions of foreign language films. My main objection is: Just what exactly is the point - apart from making them more 'accessible' to an audience who can't be bothered making the extra effort.

After enjoying 'Let the Right One In' I watched 'Let Me In' and was *very* disappointed with the dull scene for scene pointless adaptation. I doubt very much if I'll watch the English version of Dragon Tattoo despite being a fan of Daniel Craig's work. Shame really but it does seem to be a waste of talent.

payingattention said...

Thanks for your insights (both of you). My own thoughts run closer to da wife's. Do we really need the in-your-face stuff, or are we all mature enough to have some things left to the imagination to figure out ourselves? I heard David Edelman's Fresh Air discussion on his 'best of 2011' bit last night and was sympathetic to his wishes not to buy into Larssen's view of a world filled with awful, violent, nasty people.

wunelle said...

Thanks for the comments, all. CK, you'll have to let me know if you decide to see it, and what you thought if you do.

I can't disagree with you, LTW, and indeed my life could hardly be more different from the world of Stieg Larsson's story. This is a bleak and ugly world we see, one I hope never to even visit, let alone inhabit (and a horrid indictment of Swedish men!).

It's a fair question to ask whether this kind of violence and corruption is good fodder for entertainment, but that question applies to so much of what we watch and read and see these days--all manner of crime fiction and much of fiction and fantasy generally.

But this stuff is 10 minutes of a 160 minute film, and it's key to the very odd person we meet on the screen. Horrid as this scene is, I hardly think one finishes the story and thinks of Lisbeth Salander as something other than freakishly capable--a savant. The wrongs we see are the setup for her to ply her extraordinary skillset in seeking justice; her triumph is exactly proportional to the forces arrayed against her. And the extremity of her story is surely partly responsible for the wild popularity of the series.

I don't mean to be defensive--I quite respect one's desire to avoid this kind of story--but offer my thoughts as an explanation.

I hate the violence perpetrated against Lisbeth, but I'm lying if I don't admit to being exhilarated at how she exacts her revenge. And these are the yin and yang (Harry Potter would be much less without an adversary.) Maybe this is just the catharsis of a powerless person in a time of generalized tyranny.

Anyway, thanks as always for your thoughts!