There’s been tremendous buzz around director David Fincher‘s interpretation of the novel Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the beach book to end all beach books. By now, anyone with a pulse knows that Fincher’s film follows a Swedish movie that received high marks from critics and audiences. Having just seen the American translation, I can say outright that it tops the Swedish version, and also manages to improve on Stieg Larsson‘s original novel in a number of ways.
Larsson didn’t exactly do filmmakers any favors with his clunky and overly-descriptive yarn. In between lengthy inventories of what characters had for lunch (usually any combination of Aquavit, small sandwiches, coffee and something called Billy’s Pan Pizza), the author delivered unflinching observations of murder and degradation, particularly those acts committed against females. His real contribution to literature, however, is the introduction of an indelible character named Lisbeth Salander — a petite and ferocious young woman who has been chewed up and spat out by institutions ostensibly there to protect people like her. The novel strongly suggests that Salander may be a high-functioning autistic, which may make her the first officially Aspergian detective hero (though I’ve long suspected Sherlock Holmes). In Lisbeth, Larsson created a character both irresistible and off-putting, characteristics that would be difficult for any actress to evoke — particularly when said heroine doesn’t do a lot of talking.
Noomi Rapace played Salander in the Swedish film, and did a fine job of it. Still, Rapace’s portrayal made Lisbeth’s behavior seem like a choice, rather than the product of systematic mistreatment, an iron will or neurological wiring. She was also likely a bit too old for the part. Numerous characters in the novel are continuously surprised — often at their own peril — to discover that this antisocial creature who is often mistaken for a young teen is such a dynamo. Rooney Mara, on the other hand, captures every nuance of this hard-to-pin-down character — from autistic inwardness to intellectual curiosity to explosive rage.
It helps that Mara is physically closer to the Salander in the book, painfully thin and angular, with features that nevertheless could be seen as attractive if not for the deliberate attempts to obscure them with body mortification and a yanked-up hoodie. Credit must be given to whoever designed her wardrobe, which improves greatly on the dated techno-nihilist look of the Swedish film. Fincher and Co. must have spent some time observing pissy crustpunks and misanthropic hackers in real life. (Insert OWS joke here.)
What Mara really brings to the role is ice-cold detachment and a palpable lust for information, especially that transmitted through electronic devices. With precision comportment and a credible Swedish accent, Mara embodies Lisbeth Salander on a cellular level. Whether she’s piecing together clues at superhuman speed, enacting rough justice upon an abuser, or engaging in rapacious lovemaking, this Lisbeth is a force to be reckoned with. I’m still somewhat in awe that a relatively unknown actress could pull off such an arresting performance.
Fincher’s filmmaking style is perfect for at least the first tale in Larsson’s trilogy. The mood is chilly and pensive throughout, and mostly manages to avoid the book’s narrative stumbling blocks. I’m not sure what kind of impression will be generated in viewers who haven’t read the novel, but I’m guessing there’s enough intrigue to entertain. Fincher manages to thread the book’s numerous characters and subplots together in a way that Larsson would have done well to take note of, were he alive to see it.
Daniel Craig is also fantastic. His Mikael Blomkvist is a huge improvement over the Swedish actor, and definitely more likable than the character in the book. (It’s pretty clear that Larsson was writing the fantasy version of himself — a heroic whistleblowing reporter who is, despite advancing middle age, irresistible to women of every conceivable variety.) But it’s not Daniel Craig’s movie. It’s Rooney Mara’s, and she positively owns it. It’s also nice to see Robin Wright as Erica Berger, Blomkvist’s partner at Millennium Magazine (and in the sack). She, too, is leaps and bounds above her predecessor.
If you even marginally liked the book, I expect you’ll really dig the movie. If you’re one of those people who rolls their eyes at American “remakes” of foreign films, get over it. Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is simply superior.
In fact, I look forward to seeing it again this weekend.