Leave it to Movie Smackdown to throw two mythical film beasts at each other. The Dragons in this tale are the mighty Scandinavian monsters that have dominated the world of fiction for nearly a decade. Metaphors aside, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first in a series of three mystery novels by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. Dragon and its two siblings became best-sellers throughout the world quickly after publication. So it wasn’t surprising when the movie people showed up for an adaptation.
Fittingly, the Swedes got there first with a 2009 version of the first book; two years later, we have Hollywood heavyweight director David Fincher doing a big-budget reworking of same. So the claws are out, and the air will reek of sulfur from the fire-breath of our monsters. But only one Dragon will prevail.
Stockholm journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) loses a high-profile libel case and subsequently finds himself out of work and nearly broke. Luckily, retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) has a sweet job waiting for him in the remote north of the country, far away from the troubles and controversy of Blomkvist’s life in the big city. Vanger needs the journalist’s investigative skills to help him solve a decades-old family mystery: Who killed his favorite niece, the pretty teenager, Harriet? Although the death occurred more than forty years previously, Henrik knows the killer is still alive and knew Harriet well—he (or she) taunts Henrik by sending him a “gift” of a pressed, dried plant once every year, a reference to the victim’s favorite hobby.
Only the Vangers knew Harriet so intimately, meaning that almost certainly the killer was a family member. This isn’t hard to believe as, save for Henrik, the Vangers are generally reclusive, violent alcoholics, serial child abusers and even ex-Nazis, most of whom despise each other.
Blomkvist is a decent investigator but the answers to his questions always seem to lie just barely out of reach. Help comes from an unlikely source—the title character, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Despite her youth, extreme antisocial tendencies and that crazy skin art, she’s a bright and successful detective and hacker (she comes recommended by Vanger’s assistant who, it turns out, engaged her services to run a background check on Blomkvist). The dark Lisbeth and the straightforward, almost nerdy Blomkvist make a very odd team, but they’re good at what they do and are easily underestimated by the bad guys. They’re also the last, best hope for finding out what happened to Harriet and nailing the guilty party.
The earlier version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, like its Hollywood rival, sticks fairly close to the story and plot of the book. Subtitles and stylistic touches aside, it’s essentially the same movie. This time, Blomkvist is played not by the current James Bond but by Swedish character actor Michael Nykvist, who’s currently building a career in Hollywood by appearing as the bad guy in the James Bond-ish Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The central role of Lisbeth is assayed by Noomi Rapace (also currently making her mark in big-budget American movies, including the current Sherlock Holmes sequel), whose naturally dark, haunted look is a good fit for her character. The action plays out similarly to Fincher’s higher-profile effort, with Blomkvist and eventually Lisbeth getting drawn into the very creepy world of the Vangers and unearthing the family’s ugly secrets (such as a bothersome habit of serial killing, for example).
Both Fincher and the 2009 version’s director, Niels Arden Oplev, do a fine job of adapting the novel. Oplev’s attempt (scripted by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) is the more traditional of the two, and as such plays more like a classic crime procedural. Watched strictly as a crime thriller, the Swedish film has the edge, as the pacing is more even and the clues are revealed and analyzed clearly. This is not necessarily so with the American version, which places the emphasis more on tone and mood. Fincher’s movie delivers its procedure in big clods of exposition, as opposed to Oplev’s method of uncovering the mystery more evenly.
But in Dragon 2011 that tone and mood, as well as just the right touch of humor (with the help of star screenwriter Steven Zaillian), are what give the movie its flavor. Fincher may be overrated as a director, but he can sure build suspense and dread. Witness the fine job he does near the end of the film with Lisbeth combing through the archives of the Vangers’ company. Not every director can wring tension from such an innocuous setting.
Hollywood’s Dragon also scores more points with its casting of the title character. Although Rapace-as-Lisbeth has a rabid fan base (which lobbied, unsuccessfully, for her to reprise her role in the new version), Mara is more affecting in the role. Pale and gaunt, she cuts a very striking figure while her almost wispy look gets her vulnerability across. This combination is difficult to act convincingly; Mara pulls it off well. Rapace also does excellent work but, although “uglied” for the role, we can’t escape the fact that she’s a beautiful actress playing a role. She’s also physically strong and although this fits the character, it takes away from that vulnerability so crucial to the character.
Dragon is a strange beast; although Lisbeth is not the lead investigator or even the main player in the drama, really, she’s the heart of the story and easily the most riveting personality in it.
She’s what elevates the books and the films, making them something special. So the success of any adaptation depends on her portrayal, and on that basis, Dragon ’11 scores more points.
Both of our films are very good, audience-pleasing Dragons. The current version features a more memorable Lisbeth and has a tastier atmosphere of gloom and trepidation. While the earlier film delivers a cleaner story, the more important elements in this tale are mood and, especially, its central character. Since Fincher more memorably and effectively delivers both, it’s his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that wins this monster battle.