The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (US-Swe-UK-Ger, 2011)

'You will do as you're told!'

It’s inherently irritating that Hollywood insists on remaking commercially successful foreign-language films as it’s due to the fact that the majority of film-goers, in America and UK at least, won’t watch subtitled films. Anyone who has watched a subtitled film knows that after a few minutes they are barely noticeable. Hollywood is only interested in making money and the issue of whether the remake can add something to the original matters little to it. Filmmakers, however, often want to put their stamp upon the new version and it can be interesting to look at differences, many of which will be cultural. Hollywood, of course, can also spend more money on the film which, while not necessarily a good thing, can raise the production values.

However, Hollywood will also spend money for the sake of it. After the ‘indie’ success of Sitting Ducks (US, 1980), director Henry Jaglom was offered an enormous amount of money to make a film. He said that he’d make 10 films for that amount; the offer was withdrawn. Money means stars and, although their importance is in decline, this brings an extra set of baggage to the narrative; though the only ‘big’ name in the remake of Tattoo is Daniel Craig (Stellan Skarsgaard is also well known as a supporting actor).

Having read the book and taught the original film I had a lot of baggage when watching the remake. However I admired Fincher’s early films (I wrote a York Film Notes on Se7en, nla) so was interested in what he could make of the film. Incidentally, apropos the previous post, the Kim Newman in February’s Sight & Sound states ‘that Fincher brings cutting-edge Hollywood narrative skills…’ (18a); I suspect that that was scriptwriter Steve Zallian, Kim.

Did I enjoy the remake? No… what follows is a number of points, in no particular order, outlining my dissatisfaction and contains spoilers:

  • the film is well-acted but Daniel Craig is wrong for the role. He’s far too beefy, and carries connotations of action-man Bond, for the role of the non-macho journalist.
  • there are a number of points that reduce Salander’s spiky character including the first sex scene where, as in the original she starts on top but, unlike the original, finishes underneath.
  • After the sex, in the original, Salander gets out of bed and Blomkvist complains he wants her to stay for a post-coital cuddle; the remake fades to black…
  • and fades up with Salander having made breakfast! FFS!
  • Salander saves Blomkvist but then asks his permission to kill Vanger; the original’s denouement is far superior as Salander does what she wants which includes failing to save Vanger after the car crash. She is not faced with this choice in the remake.
  • There is an absurd shot of Salandar with a gun framed in front of the burning car; we’ve suddenly switched genres to a mainstream action flick.
  • Blomkvist’s assent to the death of Vanger removes the moral dilemma from the original in favour ‘let’s kill the bastard’.

So it is an artistically pointless remake with the hard-edges of Salander’s character smoothed off for the patriarchal American audience. The original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women and while I can understand the publisher changing this to a more commercial title, why not ‘woman’ instead of ‘girl’ – see an excellent post by Anne Helen Petersen.

I did like Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ score though but found the much-praised title sequence too much like a music video.

UPDATE (11/1/12): Hmm, might have to revise my opinion that title sequence was like a music video… see here.

7 Responses

  1. She is still sexually dominant. Second sex scene and the “put your hand back in my shirt” scene do show this, and she still instigates the first sex scene. Also in the extended version of the original (oh yes) Salander makes him breakfast.

    Also Mara’s portrayal of Salander appears to be a more emotional being, as opposed to just being the hollow shell she was in the original. Which for me makes the character more human and as a result I think her performance surpasses that of Noomi Rapace.

    I also think the ending contains less problems than the original. In the original, Salander leaves in her disguise which is supposedly meant to make her look more “glamourous”. This is different, Salander hasn’t altered her appearance, she leaves on a motorbike beforehand using that disguise to con the money people. A point which is made far clearer in the remake than the original.

    The point I thought you would pick up on, which actually really bothered me was the second rape scene, that went further than I wanted it go. But I thought the characterisation of Bjurman as something more than just a vile, loathsome monster (a la the original) was kind of subversive.

    I think the direction was better, the cinematography was terrific and Zaillian’s changes were interesting. I really liked it

  2. Unlike you I enjoyed the film and thought it an improvement on the original (with a couple of reservations.) I’ll get round to a couple of points but first want to challenge your assumptions about sub-titled films. Putting my anti-American bias to one side for a moment and just tapping my own experiences as a reader of subtitles – like you I forget they are there after a while (hey I’d risk sounding illiterate to say otherwise!) but as someone who often watches all ‘television’ with the subtitle option on (so that my hearing impaired husband doesn’t have to crank up the volume) I have noticed that the journey the eye makes around the screen is no longer dictated by the composition of shots, action and ones own interests, but interrupted by the need to repeatedly return to the bottom of the frame. (even when I am listening to spoken English the written word dominates) This may be less problematic if you are viewing films on a small tv, laptop, but for those of us who like the big screen and try to emulate the experience domestically this is an issue. Perhaps some audiences may find the ‘authenticity’ and charm of a foreign language on the sound track in some way compensates for the erosion of the visual experience, I do think that dialogue benefits from being translated – as anything creaky is assumed to be a failure in translation and anything significant takes on poetic weight from being written, but there is a downside here in that even a small knowledge of the language on screen tends to switch on our translation checker and discrepancies between subtitles and soundtrack do distract.

    Now might be a good moment to tackle the issue of the book’s, and subsequently the film’s title. Why there should be such consensus that ‘Men who hate women’ is not a title with legs for mainstream audiences is undoubtedly a feminist topic and one that has quite rightly attracted debate, but those who are concerned about why ‘girl’ with the dragon tattoo rather than ‘woman’ might be said to be missing the point. Salander is a woman in years, but treated by the state as a ‘girl’ she is, in their eyes, incapable of running her own affairs and a ward of court. Whether you call her a woman (and are then surprised to find she is treated like a child,) or call her a girl (and are then surprised to discover she’d an adult) either way the film makes its point she inhabits a state of compromised autonomy

    My chief disagreement with you is that Salander is softened beyond her spiky original book incarnation. I don’t think she is. She does seem softer than the Salander of the first film, but I think that is partly down to casting Noomi Rapace, an actress who, I thought, looks too old for the role. I do think Salander’s sexual encounter with Blomkvist softens/weakens her but I thought it did in the book – I thought that was the point, we’re torn between wanting a conventional romance for her and wanting her to keep her hard-won edge. She must forever be damaged by past experiences if she can’t manage to trust blokes ever again, and daring to play traditionally feminine roles (in the bedroom, or while scamming a bank) are as much a part of her development as the revenge on Bjurman.

    I thought your analysis of positions in the bedroom a little algebraic. Women on top in films are just as likely to be engaged in a ‘performance’ for the bloke’s/camera’s pleasure as they are to be empowered by the position… I read the movement between positions as a contrast with the bound rape – and taking your bedroom formula as gospel for a moment, had she been on top all the time we might be discussing whether Salander was weakened by her inability to ‘give’ as well as ‘take’!

    As to making breakfast: I was interested to be reminded, by Will, that she does this in the extended original, and you might recall Blomkvist arrives in her life with a breakfast (OK he bought it but he did think to arrive with it) and so you might think of this a s a reciprocation rather then a sell out of the sisterhood. (Paddy makes my breakfast on weekday mornings and I see no signs of metaphorical castration!) Blomkvist is constantly offering sandwiches to people of both genders.

    I thought Salander was way more active in this film than the original, far more pivotal in solving the Vanger case and felt she’d been a bit side-lined in the first film. I liked that she seemed as clever as she was in the book (her eye rolling despair at Blomkvist’s computer skills) I liked her in action mode – riding the bigger bike, appearing in the lift, and even gun, in hand, as the car blew up. I’m not sure why you find this absurd. (generic and clichéd perhaps but not absurd) The trilogy does have quite a bit of action in it and the burning car is a reminder of Salander’s past. In the book Salander is chasing Vanger, here we are left in no doubt she would have finished him off if she’d had to. I prefer that. (Even if she did share the burden of guilt/glory by asking Blomkvist’s permission.) I think we perhaps give the first film credit for ambiguity because it actually fails to generate narrative pace effectively. Certainly feminists suggesting that this sort of cathartic, revenge of a woman against violent men makes society less likely to tackle issues of violence are, I think, expecting too much from a single film and failing to see how disturbing and ambiguous the revenge-rape was. I don’t think anyone would come away from the film thinking rape, tattooing and constant vigilance were the solutions to having been abused! Maybe such crititcs should be writing a realist drama where women get no revenge or a utopian law film where women have recourse to a perfect judicial system instead of attacking a film which has at least put violence against women at the centre of its plot without either making it is an acceptable norm, a turn on for male audiences, or an excuse to protect women (ie. further restrict their freedoms).

    I’m with you on Daniel Craig he was having to reach right into the bag of acting tricks, not shave, be too lazy to take his off his glasses …. in order to try and not be too buff and goodlooking for the role. That IS Hollywood.

    Finally, Nick Cohen writes about Larson’s feminist credentials in today’s Observer…

  3. Responses to comments – Will: At my age it’s sometimes a miracle that I remember a film I’ve just scene so I’m sure you’re right that I’ve misremembered the original. However, I stick by my argument that this Salander is less ‘different’ as evidenced by the other points I raised. I prefer Rapace because I got a real sense of her dislocation from society, whether that’s because she is autistic or whether it’s an understandable response to how she’s been treated is not clear.

    I didn’t mention the ending in my original post and I agree that the remake’s is better and more (I hesitate because of memory) faithful to the book?

    Regarding the second rape scene, as I remember the original it wasn’t anal rape so, I guess, the degradation is worse (and degradation is the point of the scene). I remember the scene being more horrific in the first version, however, but it could be – having seen it dramatised – I was ‘desensitised’ when seeing it in the remake. It’s sometimes difficult to compare responses to such horrific scenes. I agree that Bjurman was better characterised in the Hollywood version.

    Like you I struggle with subtitles for English language texts, the eye is irresistibly, and needlessly, drawn to them. While subtitles aren’t ideal, and I have to blame my foreign language illiteracy, and they can be problematic due to poor translation or sheer weight of words in some films, they remain the best option. My experience is that people who have resisted watching a subtitled film find themselves pleasantly surprised after the viewing.

    I agree with you regarding the title, I remarked I understood the publisher’s point of view. And you’re correct in suggesting that Salander could be regarded as a ‘girl’, however the term carries so much baggage, usually to do with making women subservient through association with being juvenile – see Petesen’s blog post on this.

    Again I cannot disagree with your interpretation of Salander’s softening however I prefer the original film version because she exhibits ‘male’ behaviour in disengaging immediately after orgasm. The role-reversal seemed to me to emphasise her difference. Of course, I am talking about tropes of representation and not about reality.

    There’s a book waiting to be written: the sexual politics of sexual positions in film. I shall pitch it (well I would if my publisher ever deigned to answer my emails)! Again, it’s a point of interpretation I think: for me the trajectory starts with Salander dominant and ends (the breakfast) with her as passive. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a woman being beneath or making breakfast, however in a film that is about gender politics, these actions take on more significance than usual. It’s interesting to speculate a role reversal for this scene: if Salander had been shot at and Blomkvist had offered/insisted upon sex…

    I found the low angle shot, silhouetting Salander with gun in hand against the flames, absurd because her strength is not based upon the phallic symbol of a gun. She uses her intellect and determination to better those who would oppress her. The other moments of violence she’s engaged in, on the escalator, with Bjurman and against Vanger, are all ‘realist’, rather than generic, in nature. By that I mean, you could imagine them happening in the real world whereas the handgun (unlike Vanger’s shotguns), for most of us, exist only in the realm of fiction. A North American response to this is likely to be different due to the ubiquity of guns.

    Will read Cohen but am not likely to agree with him.

  4. Nick, I read Peterson’s blog before posting and wasn’t convinced. Yes, ‘girl’ is usually to do with making women subservient and that is why it is just the right word in this case and why I stressed she is a ward of court. By keeping her nameless (and enabling us to infer a universality) and by emphasizing her formalised lack of autonomy the title is going some way to suggesting the position of women in general. I also think identifying her with a key signifier the dragon tattoo does not reduce her to one of appearances (quite the reverse the dragon and her choice to bear the pain in order to wear the reminder of her fiery past is far more than skin deep.)

    We will probably never agree on the sex scene. I think she was far from Florence Nightingale in the stitching of his wound and, pushy in expecting sex when he’d just been shot and I guess that is suggesting ‘difference’ enough for me. Her responses of photographing the dismembered cat and setting up cameras around the cottage are all weird enough.

    As for the Phallic symbols. A tattoo gun, a motor bike, a golf club… but sometimes a gun is just a gun!

  5. I saw that piece in the Guardian and found the argument that Larsson was more of an ideological extremist as opposed to a feminist really well argued. Although he certainly had solid liberal credentials.

    And I believe it is anal rape in the original film but you only really see the beginning of it, there would have been a neat cut off point for me in the second rape scene where the camera slowly pulls back from the door while we hear the horror inside. To me had it ended there and shown the aftermath you would have something far more powerful and just as disturbing.

    Another thing I didn’t mention was that the bisexuality of Salander’s character is made more obvious in this version without being gratuitous, which, for a Hollywood film, I found fairly bold. Although it is brief, it’s enough to add further character to Salander while in the original it just seemed throwaway.

    One point I think would be interesting to look at again with the remake is the changing appearance of Salander as the film progresses. I think that if one was to watch it again it would be a strong point of contention. She starts the film looking very masculine (especially in that opening scene with Armansky and Frode) she looks very much like a teenage boy (mohawk, eye shadow emphasising that) but by the end of the film she looks more feminine (hair straightened down to look more like a woman, wearing a long flowing coat when Blomkvist meets her outside Millennium when she gives him his loan back), to me that’s where I would start if you were looking at the film’s weaknesses as a feminist text.

  6. Kate: a gun in never just a gun in film; she had enough phallic symbols to make the point. Though I’m coming around to the probability that she is more different than I allowed.

    Will: I also wished the camera continued its dolly away from the door concealing the rape scene, as in Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’. However, unfortunately we had to see the scene of degradation otherwise the point would have been blunted. I doubt I’ll see the film again but your point on her changing appearance is interesting.

  7. […] useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments). Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPrintMoreStumbleUponDiggRedditLike […]

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