The Film Pitt

Byron Pitt lives and breathes cinema, displaying a rare and sometimes explosive passion for the silver screen - often with unpredictable results. GeekPlanetOnline is proud to present a movies column from the self-confessed “film drunk”; a man who once yelled at an entire cinema for laughing at Johnny English

"Even in Hollywood there seems to be a kind of anger about the remake; like, 'Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”” – Niels Arden Oplev, Director of the Swedish version of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo – Word & Film, 5 November 2010

Well the reason is simple: Money. We can argue until the cows come home about originality, creativity and all those other glorious things that we wish the medium to be. The fact is however, commerce is where it’s at, it is what drives show business and that’s why it is called show business. As someone who enjoys foreign features and the subtlety that they can often bring, it’s important to remember that the market for such features is still relatively small. Like most businesses, if Hollywood sees something doing quite well on a small scale, they will try to expand upon it. Why the hell shouldn’t they?

The problem is unfortunately that often the commerce overpowers creativity. How often do we hear of remakes being given to a director of little or no name (cheaper of course) and given the most typical overwrought treatment? It’s clear that the basis of the material has already struck a connection with some people. So now we get subtexts or certain conflicts being removed or made more manageable for a general audience. Target markets are introduced and everybody has to “get” everything. For the sake of reaching more people, we lose the mystery that made the original what it was.

I don’t expect this from David Fincher, a director whose vision and attention to detail make him one of the stand out directors of modern American cinema. We can scoff at films like Seven, now that television shows like Criminal Minds have arguably raised the bar in terms of grizzly police procedures. However Fincher helped create the genre that we all enjoy now. Lest we forget, he brought us one the most unsettling sequences shot during the day this side of the The Wicker Man (Zodiac).

After rewatching the original Swedish film, I was surprised that only now I picked up how televisual it is. I was hardly surprised that the trilogy was re-released as a miniseries (with additional footage) a year later, because visually the material seems to lend itself to that format. The film, in terms of appearance, is actually quite flat. Fincher’s version, with its snow-blanketed Sweden providing a chilly metaphor of the plot, shows that if there’s one thing that Hollywood is bring to the material, it’s visual muscle.

The first example of this is the film’s opening, which to me is a complete audio visual assault. An intro that feels like a Bond title sequence submerged in grime. With Trent Reznor and Karen O’s killer rendition of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song it’s no wonder it reminded me of Nine Inch Nails' Only music video (also directed by Fincher). Such notable elements are mixed with smaller details. Halfway through the film's first act we hear a mobile alert ring and a circle of men all checking their devices in unison. It’s a small but telling moment of visual wit that shows that the film is taking no prisoners in its intent.

Fincher’s near Kubrickian demand for takes may feel like an obsession to some, yet it does show his cinematic abilities and eye. It’s no surprise that when this Lisbeth leaves her new guardian in the much talked about torture scene he looks very much like a murder victim from Seven. The money is on the screen for all to see and Fincher makes sure that his film doesn’t have the TV drama look that infiltrated the first feature. However, some could say that such explicit showboating is typical of an American remake.

Fincher’s film doesn’t really suffer story wise, in fact some plot elements are stronger than in the original version. In the Swedish feature, Salander jumps to help Mikael Blomkvist for no apparent reason. In Steven Zaillian’s script things make a little more sense. In fact, the telling of the Harriet Vanger case and the revelation of the murderer (which is more cat and mouse and far more tense) are Fincher’s bread and butter and his precise execution is mostly what you expect.

Fincher and Zaillian also allow Blomkvist’s personal life to have more structure. It’s not essential, but it does give balance to a character who can come across as quite blank. It does help having the more engaging presence of Daniel Craig in the role rather than Michael Nyqvist.

There are some slight digressions, as it's Mikael’s daughter who accidentally solves the religious clue, taking from Lisbeth’s tenacity somewhat. This interrupts some of the building conflict between the two characters. We now don’t get that spark of interest as Lisbeth solves the clue and taunts the man she’s outsmarted (“read it and weep”). Blomkvist merely asks who produced the report on him. It’s a small alteration and yet it’s one that affects the central relationship from the beginning.

But then again it’s always the little things, isn’t it?

As the film progresses we realise that the original places more emphasis on the two different forms of investigation: Lisbeth's new-fangled hacking and Mikael's traditional use of contacts. That they use their abilities in tandem creates fascination between the two. In the shiny new film we have a much more socialised Lisbeth, happy to converse with librarians like a bratty child, rather than a withdrawn outcast.

This leads to the main issue of Lisbeth, who when played by Noomi Rapace came across as slightly autistic. Rapace’s Salander is incredibly alien and the actress and script do well to emphasize her distrust for men. Here, the film makes her emotional connection to Mikael much more explicit. This compromises a character whose independence is her strongest feature. I titled this article May I? as at a crucial point in time Mara’s Lisbeth asks for permission for an action that she instinctively takes in the original film. The Lisbeth that many know and love would not do this, however, the film's lessening of Lisbeth’s past is important. Why? Now her back story doesn’t mirror the shady exploits of the Vangers.

Flat visuals aside, the original film was never reluctant to highlight the back story of Salander through flashback or otherwise. With the remake, there is no conversation with her mother to remind us that men in the past have distorted and warped these women’s futures. There is however a second scene involving her former carer, which bolsters the male mentor relationship. Also emphasised is almost a need for men; there is a second sexual scene with Daniel Craig’s Mikael. We also witness a short scene in which she requests his hand on her back and also the film’s coda, which strongly hints at a wish for a romantic relationship.

The access to her personal space that she grants Mikael in Fincher's feature is vast compared to the Oplev version. Also we get a protracted tell-all of what Lisbeth does after the Harriet Vanger case, which takes away a lot of mystique the original film managed to retain. This doesn’t mean it's bad: it’s clear that the film is covering its bases in case the second and third films don’t get made, which is understandable.

For all that Fincher does better, for example his darker wit and the improved overall telling of the mystery, he does so at the expense of female characters; a subplot in the original involving a spunky intern is eradicated. We no longer have the aforementioned scene in which Lisbeth tends to her ill mother. Yet one of the biggest changes is the rape scene, throughout which we see flashes of Lisbeth's buttocks. An additional shower scene is included and used to show the distress caused by the rape. The problem is that the amount of flesh shown nearly fetishes the situation. We often see Lisbeth in states of undress and see a lot more of her breasts and body.

We should also compare how Oplev and Fincher handle Erika Berger and Mikael's sex scene. We do not see any of her. The cheeky sequence involving Lena Endre in the Swedish film and the lack of flesh baring with Robin Wright. Lisbeth's nudity and underwear shots throughout the US feature denote a level of sexuality that doesn't belong to the character. Even when Mikael and Lisbeth first have sex: in Fincher's film it’s more planned and meticulous; in the previous version it's the impulsive act of a character who just took what she wanted. The sex scene was all about her having pleasure in the original. In the later version the pleasure is shared; it is a more conventional love scene.

What’s slightly frustrating is that Rooney Mara is superb as Lisbeth. She is more childlike in features, but still retains a certain amount of intensity. From a screenplay point of view we have a character that’s slightly watered down, but not because of Mara. More socialised she may be, but amusingly, she is more rude and gives more grief to others than in the original film. Along with other character changes, this makes the fact that she asks permission for such a vital act later on, annoying.

My podcast co-host Iain is actually quite happy that Fincher's version focusses on the relationship, but what made the original film so appealing is that Mikael simply cannot get close to Lisbeth. He’s attracted to her smarts yet can’t get a hold of her. She will not allow this to happen and why should she? Lisbeth is a character that takes hold of so much on her own terms and yet in the American film we see things differently. She is not completely submissive, the filmmakers have way more smarts than that, but there is enough in the film to diminish what made her what she is. The film's last empty gesture involving Lisbeth, a present and a solo bike ride does enough to hint at the sequels, but it also presents a more sensitive tone to our hero. This is now someone who is compromised and doesn’t mind her cold shoulder being warmed. In the original, Lisbeth tells her mother that one shouldn’t fall in love, suggesting feelings but still at a distance. Mikael still has a way to go. In the more recent film he seemed to be allowed in so much quicker.

Fincher’s film is a much more cinematic beast, which is visually more stylish and works well as a remake for those who either like making comparisons between films or the crowd of people who hate the idea of reading subtitles. However, from a thematic point of view, to paraphrase Reznor in the song mentioned before: “you might say [it's] losing focus”.