Watching the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was actively engaged with its dual storylines, but I also found myself pondering which of the two was the more important. Now that David Fincher has made an English-language remake, I find myself pondering what went wrong. Here is a mystery thriller so cold, so distant, and so lacking in energy that it feels neither mysterious nor thrilling. It follows the plot of the original film fairly closely, and yet it makes a number of small changes that drastically affect its credibility. I’m also stumped by the curious decision to retain the Swedish setting. If you have gone to the trouble of casting English-speaking actors, it seems only fitting that you should change the story’s location to somewhere more appropriate, say America or Britain.
Adapted from the novel by Stieg Larsson, the title is a description of goth chick Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an emotionally walled-off computer hacker who works for a security company. In the original film, we got only scraps of her back story, and yet just enough was given to pique our interest. We were challenged to read her. Who was she? What had she gone through? What led up to a disturbing watershed moment seen only in flashback? In this remake, her back story doesn’t even amount to crumbs. That watershed moment is altogether removed, as is a significant chunk of her family history. Because of this, we’re no longer compelled to probe her mind, to try and understand why she is the way she is. All we see is a girl in her early twenties in serious need of an attitude adjustment.
She was hired to investigate a former reporter turned magazine publisher named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who lost a libel case against a powerful billionaire. Although he must pay a serious amount in damages, he insists that he was set up. Lisbeth is inclined to agree; her investigative work turned up nothing incriminating. Not long after the trial, Mikael is hired by a man named Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) on behalf of his employer, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the former CEO of a family industry. Now retired on a family-owned island off the mainland, he asks two things of Mikael: To write a memoir about the Vanger clan and to investigate the case of his great-niece, Harriet, who disappeared in 1966 when she was only a teenager. Henrik is convinced she was murdered, and that her killer is a member of his family, with whom he does not get along.
Needing an assistant, Mikael is directed towards Lisbeth, who has just worked her way of a particularly nasty situation with her new guardian, a sadistic sexual pervert (Yorick van Wageningen) who kept strict control of her finances. As she and Mikael dig deeper into the mystery, they must make sense of a series of numbers Harriet wrote in a notebook, all of which are paired with initials. What do they mean? How do they connect to a series of murders spread across time and distance, all involving young women? And in what way does Henrik’s family factor in? Watching the original film, I anxiously awaited the moment the mystery would be solved. That’s because, as contrived as it was, there was at least the sense that the filmmakers were interested in their own material. The same cannot be said about this new film. There’s no urgency about it.
I think much of the blame rests on the updated screenplay by Steven Zaillian, which awkwardly intertwines dark and twisted scenarios with an undercurrent of dry wit. When Henrik first meets Mikael, for example, we find that the former is almost jovial – not at all appropriate given his sad situation. Certain scenes from the original film were intense, and yet they always felt as if they were character driven. That’s not the case here; most of the intense scenes, including when Lisbeth spontaneously decides to have sex with Mikael, are overproduced, as if the intention was to be sensational. The most glaring misfire is the inclusion of a stray cat. I don’t need to spell out what happens to it. I will say, however, that this plot device is so overused that it has long since ceased to be symbolic. Now it’s just cruel and disgusting.
Little touches, such as Mikael’s affair with his magazine coworker (Robin Wright) and his relationship with his religious teenage daughter (Josefin Asplund), contribute absolutely nothing to the story apart from a surplus of characters. And then there’s the ending, which is really more of an epilogue as it involves events unrelated to the case of Harriet Vanger. In the original film, it was a brief couple of scenes that tied up a few loose ends. Here, it goes on much longer than it should. I’m usually the first to give remakes the benefit of the doubt. It’s certainly not my style to make endless comparisons between old and new versions of the same story. But in the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I just can’t help myself. I’ll make this easy on you: See the original instead of the remake. Quite simply, the original is better.
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