Sunday, January 08, 2012

We come from the land of the ice and snow ...

Sitting down to review The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I had to get myself in the mood. How better to do it than with a Nine Inch Nails Genius mix in Itunes. Of course, it's Trent Reznor (of NIN) and Atticus Ross that do the soundtrack and whose cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song (with Karen O on vocals) begins the movie:

Beginning with a weird title sequence reminiscent of movies of the 50's and 60's, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo jumps right out of the gate. That sequence reminded me a lot of, ironically (because Daniel Craig's in this movie), the elaborate ones you would get with most James Bond movies. All black, in a medium of what appears to be oil, the characters come in and out of focus with occasional flames. Aesthetically, the result is effective in setting the scene and getting one a bit on edge. I listened to an interview on NPR's Fresh Air where Trent Reznor explained how they wanted to evoke both the literal and emotional cold of Sweden and the subject matter.

Just adapting an immensely popular book series, from the late Swedish author Steig Larsson, you are already under a lot of pressure. Add to that a well-received series of Swedish films that many people have already seen. Most directors would probably not take on the challenge. David Fincher did. His history has shown that he does not shy away from the dark side of human nature. Quite the opposite. His movies Se7en and Fight Club are iconic and went a long way towards defining what these type of movies should look like. They are highly stylized and if I had any criticism of this movie was that Fincher largely reigned in that tendency.

My wife liked this adaptation quite a bit more than the Swedish film. Like me, she had read the book prior to watching either, but she still found the Swedish adaptation hard to follow and not as well-paced. I really liked the Swedish films, particular the performance of Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth Salander. While differing a bit from the description of the character in the book, Rapace owned the role and there was a rather large group of people pushing for her to reprise the role in the American film(s). Fincher chose American actress Rooney Mara for the role instead. Mara, wisely, did not try to recreate Rapace's performance.

It's unfair to try and compare the films and performances but it is the elephant in the room. If you don't acknowledge it's there, then you are not being honest about how it might inform your reaction to the new movie. Filmspotting does a great film review podcast that I recently listened to that touches on this point a bit. There are reveals in both the book and the Swedish movie that are surprising the first time you see or read them, but when you know they are coming up, the effect is not the same. That's not Fincher's fault. I think his vision of the film is great, but I think that it would be viewed even better if you had not seen the Swedish film.

The casting in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is impeccable. We've already mentioned Mara, and Daniel Craig in the role of Mikael Blomkvist. Christopher Plummer does his usual fine work in the role of Henrik Vanger. Robin Wright Penn has always given understated performances and continues to do so in the role of Erika Berger, Blomquist's editing partner. Stellan SkarsgÄrd, a Swedish actor that American audiences are already quite familiar with, plays Martin Vanger to great effect.

Because of the numerous times of seeing the original film and having read the book, I frequently have a hard time keeping the sequence and content of events straight in my head. But from my largely untrained eye, the specific instances where I saw Fincher straying from the source material:

- the location and manner in which the still living Harriet Vanger is found
- the exclusion of the short affair with Cecilia Vanger by Blomquist
- the nature and exact participants in the discovery of the past murders by Gottfried and Martin Vanger
- eliminating Blomkvist's time in prison
- additionally, there are a couple of things that do not happen until the 2nd book that are shown in this movie
- Salander having her computer stolen and then her attacking the thief (and her computer is broken in the process)

I have no major problems in any of the above cases. Eliminating the travel to Australia helps to keep the consistency in tone and location. The affair with Cecilia Vanger in the Swedish film is superfluous and does not propel the story forward in any way. Changing which discoveries were made together and which were made individually by Blomquist and Salander does not hurt the story, though I'm not positive why Fincher made this change. It may just be for pacing. Removing the time in prison is probably another case where the plot point really is not integral to the arc of the story.

On the subject of 2nd book plot points, I can't really criticize Fincher for incorporating items from the next book, when the director of the Swedish film, Niels Arden Oplev, did the same.

On the last item, I probably disagree with Fincher a bit. Being attacked by a group of punks establishes her victimization by males that is prevalent through her life. Giving her a more forward role in pursuing her assailant seems to get away from that. But I do understand why Fincher probably did it. He wanted to establish her willingness to stand up for herself. I just think it would be more effective to have that emotional release be during the confrontation with her guardian.

The strength of Fincher films is his evocation of mood. The color palette, the music, the pacing, weather, etc. all work together to bring about a certain feeling. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is no exception. While being less stylized, as I have previously mentioned, he still sets up shots that bring about feelings of dread and isolation. The snowy initial approach to the Vanger mansion reminded me of a Kubrick shot, most specifically The Shining. Kubrick liked to present perspective shots down a hall or road or space ship that tapered to a point far in the background. They were always spooky, as is Fincher's shot.

Though it's a long movie (2:38), it does not seem long, meaning Fincher has largely done his job. It entertains, establishes characters, solves the initial mysteries and sets up the series for the sequels one would expect to be made, whether Fincher will continue to helm them or not. Even though I'm a big fan of the source material and the Swedish films, I've never been one to hold something in such high regard that I will not be open to different interpretations. There is room in the rich world of Stieg Larsson for a different take. Grade: B+

For a great review of this film, please wander over to Ink Blot at Journal Wunelle


wunelle said...

Very nice summary. I've seen Se7en and Fight Club, and Fincher's more recent The Social Network. But I haven't yet become familiar enough with his style to identify its elements. When you point it out, I can see that he puts perhaps less of a personal stamp on this material than with some past films.

I saw it again a couple days ago, since I needed to let the story congeal in my brain as something distinct from the Swedish movies and the books themselves (an issue you raise). I feel confirmed in my initial impressions, to wit: 1) it's a fine film and an engaging couple of hours; 2) the primary characters here are superbly drawn--it would be tough to improve on Mara and Craig, even if they don't blow Rapace and Nyqvist out of the water in any way; and 3) it has a great and polished and expensive look but does not, IMO, do quite as good a job telling Larsson's story as Oplev's film.

I don't know why I chafe at any artist doing their thing, but I still have a nagging sense of Fincher et al. trying to make the story their own instead of just telling Larsson's story. Maybe you and I as book people are inclined to hold the original source as more sacrosanct than most people. But I just don't quite see the point of some of the deviations from the book, especially those that kind of fundamentally impact the central characters.

This could be a lengthy (and gratifying, I think!) conversation around a fire sometime.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, " ... I still have a nagging sense of Fincher et al. trying to make the story their own instead of just telling Larsson's story" -- Absolutely. And I've heard it straight from the horse's mouth, Fincher himself. I saw some interview where he had changed some things and that he didn't really care if fans of the book or the Swedish movies liked the changes. I think this is a characteristic of a lot of genius directors and I do forgive them to a point. They are making their own artistic statement and you shouldn't be solely trying to maintain the fidelity of the original to the detriment of your statement. But by the same token, you shouldn't ignore the original intent. I wonder whether actually having that original author alive and around would have changed things. For example, Peter Jackson didn't have Tolkien to consult for LOTR but did have many people who knew his work well to draw upon (including himself). The result seemed to have a lot of fidelity to the original but with a lot of changes that were necessary for a change in medium. A different case where you had a genius director and an author still alive was The Shining with Kubrick and Stephen King. Kubrick was always intent on having his own artistic vision (and the world was lucky for it) but that chafed King greatly. He hated the movie.

I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make. Maybe that it would have been interesting to see which version Larsson would have preferred or even which version he would have allowed to have been made.

wunelle said...

I think you're right in that directors are artists in their own medium, and it's a rare artist (in my limited experience) that doesn't think s/he could do better. It's that confidence and singular vision that marks the artist.

I'm fascinated at how many of my favorite movies have come from books, which contains a kernel of a lesson about storytelling versus medium. A book without a good story is absolutely nothing, whereas a film without a good story can still be visually engaging and technically gratifying. But many of my favorite films have a great book at their core, and those that don't typically have singular scripts (Chinatown, Big Lebowski).

Interesting to think on what Fincher's movie might have looked like if Larsson were still around. I suppose it would depend on Larsson having input / control over his story, and the existence of further books might also have had an impact.

I'm quite willing to forgive Fincher his alterations, especially if he's taking a long view and has the rest of the story in mind. He's made a great start.

CyberKitten said...

Well... With the very positive reviews from you guys I think I'm definitely going to see this.....