In case it has escaped unnoticed, Europe, and Scandanavia especially, has emerged as home to a new screen crime wave. Cult “EU-dunnits” include – but are not limited to - Denmark's The Killing series 1&2, France's Spiral series 1-3, Sweden TV’s Wallander, Germany's The Silence, and the wildly popular Swedish Millenium Trilogy, itself sparked by the worldwide sensation of Steig Larsson's The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.
Perhaps it is the culture. Perhaps it is the dramatic and varied climate combined with seasonal issues of light that gives this new crime genre its textured and dour feel (Christopher Nolan’s perma-sunlight Insomnia set in Alaska was also a Scandinavian remake). Perhaps it is a combination of these things together with a saturation of decades of Western crime that makes it’s stories so fresh.
Regardless the king of the "EU-dunnit" has undoubtedly been The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. If Larsson had lived to see his trilogy published, he would have seen his dramas tip to epidemic proportions so rapidly it would make his snows tyres spin. His estate’s cash cow has had huge literary sales, a Swedish TV trilogy (the first as a film, the sequels intended for TV only) then all re-released in cinemas globally, and now a Hollywood remake just 2 years later by its renowned modern crime director David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac, Social Network).
Let's be frank - this remake exists purely because Hollywood caters for the subtitle-phobic. Some may disagree with the philosophy, but that's the practicality of the situation. Purists can always feel superior and whine about how the original is better (a la Let The Right One In and Let Me In – yes also Scandanavian) but The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo went global in book and film form due to its mystery, ever increasing darkness and widely contrasting main characters. So there's a commercial opportunity to expand the audience base with a shot for shot remake whether the purists like it or not.
However the original film adaptation by Neils Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace is so recent – 2009 – that the elephant isn't just in the room, he and his plus one are taking over the bread selection.
The choice for the production team was whether to copy the superb first film beat for beat, or try something new. The makers may say that they went back to the book, and rebuilt from the ground up, but aside from a longer epilogue this 2011/2012 release has subtitle-less remake slapped all over it. And while some changes deepen the experience - such is the material that this will always be a gritty and entertaining film - most offer a slightly downgraded experience as a result.
As with all the versions, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo begins with Mikael Blomquist having been found guilty of libel for an article he printed about notorious businessmen Wennerstrom. At the same time a report on Blomquist is reluctantly presented to a lawyer by other-than-ordinary punk-goth investigator Lisbeth Salander. Via said lawyer Blomquist, out in the journalistic cold Blomquist, is offered the commission of an old industrialist to investigate the cold-case murder of his granddaughter forty years previous. At the same time Lisbeth – apparently a ward of the state after a psychiatric institution childhood - suffers at the hands of her new guardian before becoming embroiled in the mystery too.
While Lisbeth occupies the title role, this story predominantly follows Blomquist in his investigation. The granddaughter of industrialist Henrik Vanger vanished on an island owned by the industrial family, but could not have escaped that day due to a car crash on the only bridge, so is assumed buried somewhere on the large island. His reputation in tatters, Blomquist meets each of the remaining industrial and reclusive Vanger family and goes over the old case files looking for clues. As it develops – and a more frightening mystery is unveiled - he recruits the help of the recovering Lisbeth in order to get to the bottom of the things.
From this point the parallel stories become one, and a twisted dark past and tense conclusion quickly unravels.
As well as keeping the core story the same, David Fincher also keeps the story set in Sweden – and presumably Craig plays Swedish although it is never really clear. The best of the subtle key additions is the deepening of the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomquist, with Craig a more confident, assuring Blomquist and Lisbeth a slightly more fragile interpretation than Noomi’s, which is an interesting change in dynamic that suggests possible longevity in the relationship, if not a change that everyone will like.
The result is as you might expect – a dark mystery of past and present told in a tense and fast-flowing manner. As with the original the film lasts just over 2 and a half hours, but despite some jarring product placement (Coke and Apple in particular) it never drags. As ever Fincher marshals the pace and intrigue with skill – keeping his box of camera tricks mostly in reserve, and the result is an accessible Dragon Tattoo story for the masses.
… changes made by Fincher – and oddly key omissions – may frustrate anyone who enjoyed the book and original film and result in a weaker overall product, albeit one that may be better placed to launch successful sequels.
First - gone is the history that Blomquist had with the family and island. This removes a large chunk of his relationship and texture to the case.
Second - it is Blomquist that approaches Lisbeth for help, and not Lisbeth offering no-name assistance independently. Not only does this significantly weaken the story – losing Lisbeth’s parallel tracking of the investigation through Blomquist’s hacked computer and her internal debates as to whether to get involved – it also dramatically undermines Lisbeth’s important and title role. Rooney Mara is excellent, but her character is not quite as compelling. The plot change also requires a clumsy and inelegant piece of story-logic to pull off, as now Blomquist’s in-just-for-that-moment-really daughter must impossibly identify the bible code pinned to the wall so the story can continue.
Finally, and most importantly, most of the suspect Vanger family fade into the background. Gone are potential romantic relationships and complex family feuds evident in every meeting in favour of a much simplified approach. Unfortunately the net effect of this - and casting of Stellan Skarsgard - acts as the biggest flashing neon “watch out for him” sign on celluloid in years.
It is likely that these changes were made to make room for an extended epilogue, itself perhaps designed to improve the story of the upcoming sequels. However in combination these elements mess up the intricate trail of breadcrumbs of Oplev’s original adaptation, and dilute the feeling of mystery – then gob-smacking surprise at the revelation.
And even if these issues could be forgiven – of course those who haven’t seen the original adaptation will be oblivious – Fincher fails to hit the dark energy heights of Seven or the raw nordic chill of EU crime. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent thriller, but too polished for its subject matter (another disappointing downgrade would be the substitution of an electric winch for the hand one, again detracting the horrific tension of the 2009 film). Significant effort has been put into the characters, but in developing their relationship Blomquist becomes slightly too assured and less insecure and Lisbeth slightly more vulnerable and needy. The performances are fine, but not spectacular, as both characters are shaded towards mainstream stereotypes when it was their opposite anti-types that first captivated public attention.
Overall The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ends up difficult to place. Those who haven’t seen the original or read the book will likely be captivated by the story and its twists and turns. Others may find an accessible and enjoyable mainstream adaptation.
But fans of the original superb 2009 original adaptation - subtitles and all - will likely be frustrated at the variety of little losses in translation.