It’s typical behavior in Hollywood to take an outstanding foreign language film and hack out a mediocre rehash for the American market. David Fincher’s take on the Steig Larssen novel does nothing to buck the trend. More worryingly, it takes one of the strongest female characters to come out in years and does everything it can to dilute her power.
I’ve already railed in a post back in June about the initial poster and trailer campaign for the film, appalled by the way the tough, independent Lisbeth Salander suddenly became a second, subservient wheel to Daniel Craig. After watching the film, I can only repeat those concerns. As played by Rooney Mara, she is a much more vulnerable character, who over the course of the film begin to fall for disgraced journalist Mikah Lundkvist. Of course, it can never be. She sees Lundkvist together with his editor lover, which breaks her heart. She motorbikes off alone at the end, in a toe-curling “forever alone” fade to black accompanied by sad girly singing. The same thing happens in the Swedish film, but it’s a throwaway moment, deliberately undermined with a final shot that shows Lisbeth striding away empowered and victorious, needing no-one. If anything, you get the feeling that it’s Lundkvist that’s falling for the fearless hacker.
All through the new version you see Salander the fury, the implacable avenger, quietly losing her edge. She cannot be seen as the guiding force in the Wenger case, the girl who risks her veneer of anonymity to put the investigation back on track as she does in the book. She’s second fiddle, a step behind all the way. Lundkvist doesn’t even figure out who the killer is until he’s strung up in his cellar in the original. In Fincher’s version Micah is front and centre in the investigation and some fairly silly narrative hoops have to be jumped through to get him into Martin’s house. Worse, Lisbeth asks permission from Micah to kill Martin. As if she would ask permission from anyone to do anything. In the Fincher version Lisbeth is much less proactive, much readier to do what she’s told. It’s an approach that simply doesn’t jibe with the character we all fell in love with in 2009. Conflate this with a publicity campaign in which it was difficult to find a fully-clothed picture of Rooney Mara, and it’s hard not to see a deliberate attempt to chip away at Lisbeth Salander’s primal, furious power.
Now, it’s desperately unfair to review the Fincher version up against the earlier Swedish release. I should at least try to be objective and view it as a movie in its own right. The problem is, it’s difficult to do if you have seen Nils Arden Oplev’s 2009 version, which seems to inform Fincher’s casting and directorial decisions a little too closely for comfort. Sure, Daniel Craig is a lot prettier than Michael Nykvist. I’m not looking at the primary cast. Characters like the hacker Plague and Lisbeth’s rapist guardian look remarkably similar in both films. Both movies also realistically portray the use of Macs. Lisbeth and Micah use iPhoto, Photoshop and Word. No bespoke Hollywood operating systems here. I can’t realistically accuse the American version of plagiarism – after all, they’re both struck from the same source material. But watch the two back to back, as I’ve done over the last day or so, and there are striking similarities. I think we can nail this down to Fincher not really engaging with the material. There’s no sense of him taking his own stab at the story. It feels like work-for-hire, dashed off with a “will this do?” attitude. It doesn’t look like a Fincher film at all, apart from being overlength and sloppily constructed. These are accusations you could as easily level against the book, granted. But it doesn’t help a film that feels both rushed and bloated, that takes its time in all the wrong places. I’d say this even if I wasn’t fatally biased against it from the start. I’d imagine fans of the book who have this as their first movie adaptation must be desperately disappointed.
In fact, the Fincher version did terrible business over Christmas, and it’s surprising to see that Columbia have greenlit the next film in the trilogy. All I can hope is that Fincher and his writer Steven Zaillian will rethink their approach for The Girl Who Played With Fire, and stop trying to water down a character of astonishing resilience and power. For the rest of us, there’s always the 2009 trilogy. A much more intense and flavoursome brew.