Friday, December 23, 2011

THE HEART OF THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Did you know that the original title for Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women? That, right there, is reason enough for a remake. That theme is worth bringing to a broader film audience, and let’s be honest, there are only so many Americans who are going to see the original Swedish language film version. (It’s not just that the distribution of foreign films is narrow, it’s that too many filmgoers in this country don’t want to read subtitles.) So, the more people who get to see this dark and political story, the better. And it is very political. Sexual politics is precisely what’s at stake in Larsson’s story.
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
Larsson’s female lead is Lisbeth Salander, the asocial, bisexual, hacker/investigator who became a new folk hero to 65 million readers. In the story, she joins forces with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist to solve the mystery of a rich girl’s disappearance decades ago. Along the way, they also end up solving a series of related serial murders perpetrated upon young women. Larsson, who died from a heart attack in 2004, in his time was considered to be a liberal writer with a pro-feminism agenda, and it’s clear to anyone who’s read the book that that’s true. Many of the male characters populating his fiction are rapists and misogynists. And even his hero Mikael Blomqvist is not quite as honorable towards women as one would wish.

In the book, he’s quite the ladies’ man and doesn’t hesitate to blur the boundaries between his professional and personal lives. He even sleeps with his magazine’s married editor. And when he works with Lisbeth, they too become involved sexually. And it turns into something more intimate. It turns into admiration, affection, and yes, a form of loving.

That depth of feeling between the two main characters was missing from the first movie. Despite it being a terrific adaptation, and featuring a stunning performance by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, it didn’t show Lisbeth falling for Blomqvist. She’s never that vulnerable with her heart. This film version kept her tough and impenetrable, her character hardened by the brutality of men throughout her troubled life; from her abusive father to her sadistic guardian to various male thugs she encounters in her punk world. That informed Rapace’s performance and dominated it. And her Lisbeth always had the upper hand with Blomqvist. She not only helped him solve the mysteries, but she saved him from being killed by the serial killer. And at the end, she even helps him prove that the businessman Blomqvist ‘libeled’ was indeed just as dirty as the journalist suspected he was. Lisbeth really triggers the man’s downfall and restores Blomqvist’s good name. That is in keeping with the plot of the book. And director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian have kept all that in their American version as well.
But what the Swedish version did not show, and the American film does, is the part of the book’s story that shows Lisbeth getting her heart broken. In the book and the American film, she still keeps Blomqvist at arms’ length, but she does fall for him. She let him in her head, her body and her heart. Her love for him is demonstrated by the purchase of an expensive leather jacket for Blomqvist as her Christmas gift to him. In the last pages of the book, and the last moments on screen in Fincher’s version, Lisbeth goes to his office to present the gift to him and then discovers him walking down the street, hand in hand, with his editor. They’re back together and Lisbeth is the last to know. It breaks her heart. And his easy dismissal of something so precious to her is the last straw for Lisbeth. She tosses the gift into a dumpster and shuts down permanently. It’s a devastating moment. And one where Larsson is telling the audience, along with Fincher and Zaillian in their screen version, that men victimize women over and over again. Not all are serial killers, and Blomqvist is essentially a good man, but he still stabs Lisbeth in the heart with his callousness. 

And that is what gives the American remake an extra layer of power that the Swedish original did not. And why everyone should see it, even those who know the book and the excellent Swedish film. They should also see it for Rooney Mara’s haunted and haunting performance. She brings all of Lisbeth’s personality to life, from the surliness to the loathing of societal pleasantries to the broken heart at the end.
What Rooney Mara looks like in real life.
Mara achieves something else that Rapace couldn’t. Because the Swedish actress has dark hair, eyes and features, and a tight, boyish body, she looked pretty authentic as the scrappy little Lisbeth. Mara on the other hand, is a willowy and beautiful with big, blue eyes and an ample chest and wide hips. She is more in costume because of it and it helps show how Lisbeth is hiding too.

At the end of the movie, when Lisbeth dons a blond wig and fashion-plate wardrobe disguise to put the nail in Blomqvist’s nemesis’ coffin, the scene is revelatory. This is what Lisbeth/Mara would look like if she played to her natural feminine beauty. She diminishes her own looks, arming herself in a Gothic ruse, to keep men away who would too easily want her just because she’s pretty. It’s a man’s world and a pretty girl always can find a place at the table. But Lisbeth doesn’t want any part of such shallow and surface acceptance.

She thought she found someone different in Blomqvist, someone who cared for her because he knew and respected her brains, body and soul. But she was wrong. And Mara shows how humiliating it is to be betrayed like that. When she sees Blomqvist cheating on her, her eyes fill with tears instantly. But then just as quickly, she tosses the gift away, and rides off on her motorcycle. The roar of the engine echoes the howl in her aching heart. Larsson, even in the piece’s denouement, reminds us of his original title. Too often men treat women with some form of hatred. Blomqvist isn’t a misogynist, but his callousness about Lisbeth’s affections murder what’s left of her wounded heart. 

5 comments:

  1. I have not read the famed books, but did see the Swedish versions of all three films. Having seen Fincher’s PANIC ROOM, SEVEN and ZODIAC, I fully expected his version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO to be just as cold, dark and brutal as the originals, if not more so.

    To my surprise, he chose to bring out some of the emotional depth that was missing in the foreign film. Lisbeth finally allows herself to have romantic feelings for a man and allows us to see her grapple with unrequited love. We see Mikael in the role of father as we view his warm relationship with a daughter who helps him solve a vital clue. Henrik Vanger is more jovial, and while guarded about his family members, also shows the pain he feels in their individual isolation, both physically and emotionally, in completely separate homes. Even the wicked guardian Bjurman expresses a tiny shred of regret after the assault on Lisbeth, and that’s before she pays him back for it.

    Perhaps the more emotionally reserved version of the original film is somewhat a reflection of Scandinavian society generally. Regardless, I loved and appreciated both takes on Lisbeth and the film as a whole. If Fincher chooses to direct, and Zaillian chooses to adapt the next two films, they have their work cut out for them to improve what I consider two sequels that don’t nearly match the quality of the first.

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  2. Very well said, Fan. As always. And you're probably right that the Swedish reserve may have some to do with the cooler tone of the original.

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  3. A great story by Larson. The protagonist is an exceptional character. This was an interesting insight into life in Sweden albeit primarily through the eyes of some dysfunction people. A good read.

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