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At The Movies: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Oh God I Am So Sorry I Watched The Remake First

2012 January 18

Oh, by the way? There’s spoilers in this, too, if, like me, you were/are a complete Millenium Trilogy virgin.

I’ve turned over different ways to start this review in my head, and really the best way I can think of is with an apology. I’m sorry. I did a bad thing. I watched the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo before I saw the original Swedish. I haven’t even read the books, either. When my own revolution comes, I’ll be first against the wall. And then my revolution will end.

A drawing of a young man, leaning on a table, his face in his hands.  He has a half-disgusted, half-exasperated expression on his face.  In front of him on the table, there are DVDs of both the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the remake.  He is saying,

I am often ferociously anti-Americanised-remakes, as the remake trend can assume, on the part of their Western, English-speaking audience, a certain level of can’t-be-bothered-with-anything-not-in-their-own-language.1 It also assumes that anything not English-language isn’t really worth seeing, and this is fully gross. That said, I avoided Stieg Larsson’s critically-acclaimed Millenium Trilogy until the remake came out, and let me tell you why. It’s quite simple, really.

Rape scenes. That’s why. There’s some notoriously graphic sexual assault in these films. So I avoided them. I avoided them very well until I heard Trent Reznor2 was doing the soundtrack for the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and then, three days ago, I found myself with a spare few hours and a fiver in my pocket, and went, “Hey, I’ll go and see a film that I know will trigger the fuck out of me on my own! What could go wrong with that?”

Nothing went wrong at all. I mean, yes, both rape scenes are absolutely atrocious and I actually felt sick and cried, and if you’re at all disturbed by the portrayal of sexual assault, stay the fuck clear of this film, BUT I saw it again the next day and bought all three of the original Swedish films (well, the extended versions that were two-parters for televised release), and watched the original TGWTDT that very evening. I was going to, in fact, write a comparison piece on the films and talk about how the remake does things differently in terms of the plot and all that, but something magic happened when I went to see the film the first time around and I found myself incapable of doing so.

Have you ever fallen in love with a fictional character? Everyone says it’s impossible to fall in love at first sight, and while that may be true of people you meet in the street, it’s totally possible to fall in love with a character the moment they appear in the story.

I have fallen in love with Lisbeth Salander. So, this review is going to compare the original Lisbeth (played by the divine Noomi Rapace) and the remake Lisbeth (an unrecognisable Rooney Mara), and how her character varies across the films, in part because of some very small design decisions. It’s also a good excuse for me to do some proper fanart of her. I fully accept that my opinion of Lisbeth was shaped by the version of her I saw first.

In Niels Arden Oplev’s original films, Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth is withdrawn and quite brusque, but perceptive and vengeful. She makes eye contact with people, she touches them, asks questions – she’s pretty easy to relate to, and in the however-many hours of sprawling investigative plot you get, she undergoes a lot of development, morphing beautifully from a quietly damaged, pained creature to this fully-fledged angel of justice. In the final scenes, where she hunts down killer Martin Vanger on her motorbike, she doesn’t ask for permission to do so; she just watches him burn to death, deaf to his pleas for mercy. It’s a beautiful scene. There’s steel in her eyes and mouth. It explicitly echoes her own setting alight of her father – a parallel only hinted at in the remake – and her associate Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) is amazed and disgusted with her when he learns of her actions, which allows Lisbeth to give her gorgeous “Don’t make him into a victim” speech.

Original Lisbeth is a human. Plenty of design decisions have lead to this: she has eyebrows, for a start, which do a lot to shape her face and give her expression. She has make-up that looks like a professional taught her how. She wears colours other than black. Her skin is unblemished, and her nails are short and neat. She carries herself with quiet pride, and her eyes are alive with Noomi Rapace’s trademark razor-sharp observational glare. Her hair lies flat a lot of the time.

She’s as brusque and vicious as you’d expect, but she shakes people’s hands. She makes eye contact and says things. And all this fleshes her out as a character in more explicit ways that a viewer can relate to – it’s easier to form an empathic bond with a character who has dialogue, obviously – but she’s a lot more human. And yes, I do actually count that as a bad thing.

Remake Lisbeth, in David Fincher’s film (co-starring Daniel Craig) is a tiny, vicious monster. She is easily the greatest thing about the film, with Rooney Mara effortlessly stealing every scene she so much as breathes on, but unlike Original Lisbeth, she starts out as being so viscerally damaged, so visibly broken and so fucking furious with the world around her, that it feels as though she remains quiet just to barely contain the thrashing, clawing monster that she constantly keeps under skin. Where Original Lisbeth becomes more overtly monstrous, the character development with Remake Lisbeth is that she becomes more human, almost – she seeks out Mikael because she has, as she says in a one-sided conversation with her former guardian, “made a friend”.

Everything Remake Lisbeth does and says is carefully tailored to make her as cold as possible – fitting perfectly into what is visually an ice fucking cold film, all in blue, black and white. “I have a high metabolism, I can’t put on weight,” she deadpans, as though she’s said it a thousand times before, when she’s asked when she last ate, even though that wasn’t the intention of the question. Her make-up is sloppily crayoned-on as if she simply couldn’t care less. She doesn’t care. She prowls through the film as though everyone she meets couldn’t affect her life if their own lives depended on it, and if they tried, she’d literally bite them to death. Her eyes are wild, fiery and bestial. In the last shot of her face, when she watches Mikael walk off with his lover, Erika (the painfully hot Robin Wright), she honestly looks like a wolf. Her eyes are almost red. It really does feel as though in everything she does – including sex – Lisbeth performs only the very basics of what she needs to be received at all in society, because that’s in her best interests. Everything else can burn.

And that, my friends, is why I liked the remake better than the original: because Lisbeth is a werewolf. Also because she gets better consensual sex scenes and her revenge upon her rapist isn’t filmed to be a precise echo of her own rape. Perhaps I’ll write a second Lisbeth Salander Please Can I Be Your Friend Why Are You Biting Please Stop Biting Me essay comparing all the sex she has.

The linked image is a drawing of Lisbeth Salander, perched on a dark wood chair, over which is slung a man's jacket.  She is a thin young woman with a bony, almost androgynous frame, with tattoos.  The most visible tattoo is one of a wasp on the side of her neck.  She is wearing a clear plastic welding mask on her head with the visor pulled back.  Her short black hair sticks out erratically in most directions.  She is holding, in one black gloved hand, a tattoo gun, pointing towards the floor and dripping ink.  The tattoo gun is plugged into a control box on the floor, next to which there is a split bottle of tattoo ink.  She is lighting a cigarette, held in her lips, with the other hand.  On the floor, trailing away from her feet, is a smear of dark red blood leading off frame.  The whole image is gloomy green/grey in tone, and heavily textured.

But for now, here’s a potted summary of why you need to see the remake, honest.

YOU SHOULD SEE THE REMAKE BECAUSE:

  • It’s bleak, disgusting, savage and beautiful all at once
  • It’s very nicely paced
  • The acting is superb, and it contains predominantly European/Swedish actors!
  • It doesn’t feel very Americanised, product placement aside (why do I suddenly want an Epsom printer?)
  • LISBETH LISBETH SHE’S AMAZING LISBETH I LOVE YOU LISBETH
  • I literally do not have the words for how perfect Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ethereal, terrifying soundtrack is

YOU SHOULD SEE THE ORIGINAL BECAUSE:

  • It plumbs into the mechanics of the story with more depth
  • Lisbeth has more dialogue, particularly showing her social politics
  • The sex scenes (as opposed to the sexual assault scenes), particularly between Erika and Mikael, are more loving and personable
  • You get more backstory to the characters in general
  • It’s a lot less bleak and disgusting-feeling than the remake (although the endless shots of dead women’s faces at the end is horrendous)

YOU SHOULD NOT SEE THESE FILMS BECAUSE:

  • I am not joking when I say that, between them, both films contain two of the most personally painful rape scenes I have ever seen (Rape 1 is worse in the original, Rape 2 is worse in the remake, but that’s obviously completely subjective!)
  • A cat is mangled in the remake (but not the original)
  • Seriously, it’s actually quite horrible in its violence, both portrayed and alluded to, so steer clear if that ain’t your bag
    1. Did you know they’re making a Hollywood remake of Troll Hunter? I know, I know, I set everyone around me on fire, too. It’s okay. It’s a natural reaction. []
    2. I would crawl through fire to get to this man’s trousers. []
8 Responses leave one →
  1. Rai permalink
    January 18, 2012

    I think that, as you say, one’s impression of the films will depend on which you saw first. I saw the original first and as such I found the rapes in that version much more horrifying than in the remake. The violence in general was quite distinctly more disquieting in the Swedish version(s) than this remake.

    Similarly, I have to say I still prefer Noomi’s Lisbeth but Rooney Mara has made a much better impression than I expected her to – though I think Fincher’s portrayal of Salander has been heavily influenced by American perceptions of ‘alternative’ people. As you mention, she is like a little monster being held in check by a human skin; this just reminded me of the U.S. fear of their youth generations – especially those who aren’t ‘mainstream’ – it seems they half-expect these young people to be completely psychotic, animalisitic maniacs who must be normalised into society lest they attempt to cannibalise their elders or ‘mainstream’ peers. But I suspect that is a debate for another day! Either way, I was not wholly fond of Fincher’s dehumanisation of Lisbeth for the above reason.

    Other points that I found irksome were a) Daniel Craig’s complete inability to even pretend to be bothered about consistency and lack of even the vaguest attempt to speak in a Swedish accent (as every other character did despite the actor’s nationality), and; b) the Americans erased Lisbeth’s sex scene with her “girlfriend” completely (but of course kept all the nice boy/girl sex with Mikael).

    Finally… I realise I am going to catch hell for saying this but the soundtrack in the remake was, at times, totally out of place, inappropriate and detracted attention from the actual film. I’m all for the NIN-noises but the timing was dreadful in some places.

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 18, 2012

      I’ve only seen parts of the Swedish films and I do want to see the remake too.

      I think Lisbeth is heir to a whole lineage of female characters who go on lonely, often socially isolated, vengeance quests against patriarchal figures and are kind of enshrined in the story as avenging angels – often in a way which, beyond fierceness and sociopathy and rage against the machine, kind of in the end transcends them as characters. They become these blazing justice avatars instead. So for me they’re very seductive and mythic and heroic within that limited scope. It’s an approach that constrains in a few ways, but it’s still a big part of why I like Lisbeth, I think. She’s sort of a dark mirror of the manic pixie dream girl trope (kinda like Dark Magical Girl on TVTropes), which probably sounds like I’m harshing her, but I mean it quite respectfully, if that’s possible. I think she’s very compelling (pointless baffling breast-implants-on-the-NHS-because-she-needed-to-feel-’womanly’ scene in the books aside) and there’s lots to say about why that might be, and why it is that she’s popular *now* particularly in terms of sociopolitical contextwang. I find even on days when I’m having reservations about Larsson – whose writing in translation at least I find quite turgid – I always want to read every critique I see about Lisbeth. In terms of “fictional women who have loomed large in the public consciousness in the last five years”, Lisbeth is certainly high on that list. How she reacts in the pop cultural melting-pot with, say, the opposite extreme of Bella Swan, who I might also put on that list, is also very interesting.

      She reminds me of stained glass windows of Joan of Arc, pretentious as it may sound – both familiar and distant at once. I’m glad Larsson wrote her, though I acknowledge some of the issues people have had with her.

      Anyway, I love your art- visually she reminds me of a particularly darkly vengeful Tank Girl in that portrait.

    • Markgraf permalink
      January 18, 2012

      Hey. The Swedish version I saw – the extended-for-television version – had literally no sex with her girl at all! None at all! Literally, genuinely none. So…

      • Miranda permalink*
        January 18, 2012

        There’s quite a longish sex scene between Lisbeth and her girlfriend/friend with benefits, I do know that much, in at least *a* version of the Swedish one. (In the scene Lisbeth turns up at her apartment unannounced after a while of no contact.)

        I had no idea there was a TV recut version before this piece! I thought it was cinema only.

      • Rai permalink
        January 18, 2012

        Yeah – the version I saw in the cinema, and the version I have on DVD, definitely has the sex-with-girlfriend/person scene.

  2. DNi permalink
    February 10, 2012

    “where she hunts down killer Martin Vanger on her motorbike, she doesn’t ask for permission to do so; she just watches him burn to death, deaf to his pleas for mercy. It’s a beautiful scene”

    Minor point of contention: Remake Lisbeth didn’t ask for permission to hunt Vanger down, she asked for permission to kill him. That’s actually something I really liked in the American version over the Swedish; in the original movie it seemed like Vanger’s death was accidental to me.

    But in the remake when she asks Mikael for permission to kill Vanger, she’s outright stating that she fully intends on straight-up murdering this dude, but was calm and collected enough to realize that perhaps maybe they should bring this guy to justice. (“No? Okay, time for him to die, then.”)

  3. Alex permalink
    May 25, 2012

    Just to give my two cents, I have also fallen in love with the Rooney Mara version of Lisbeth (I haven’t seen the Swedish versions of the books).

    It took me a while to fathom it, but I just can’t get her out of my head. I know they say you can’t fall in love with fictional characters – why not? I think I definitely have, I’m showing signs of lovesickness too, it’s pretty sad but I just wanted to point it out really.

    Really looking forward to the next two Hollywood versions of the second and third books, but yeh, it’s an awesome remake. I found it better coming at the film cold – you get far more suspense built up inside if you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen (something I think few people could appreciate if they’d read the book or seen the other movies).

    :)

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