As a book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was the kind of publishing phenomenon that happens for a novel only a handful of times in a decade. It’s sold over 15 million copies in the US (and still counting), and has matched that success around the world. Sometimes it’s hard to get one movie made of a book, even when it’s a bestseller. Dragon Tattoo has been filmed twice. The Swedish-language version came out in 2009 and starred Noomi Rapace (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and Michael Nyqvist (Mission:Impossible Ghost Protocol). I saw it in an art house theater and loved it, even though at 159 minutes it did drag at the end.
Stieg Larsson filled his book with murder, rape, incest, financial misdeeds, Nazis, and constant plot twists, building on what is essentially a locked-door mystery. But he also created an indelible character in the goth computer hacker extraordinaire, Lisbeth Salandar. It was a wise editor who changed the book’s Swedish title “Men Who Hate Women” to focus instead on Salandar.
Now the English-language version of the movie is out. In some ways it has improved on the Swedish version; in other ways it’s weaker. In the end director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zailian have cut only one minute off the running time.The disgraced editor of Millenium magazine, Mikael Bloomkvist (Daniel Craig), has just lost a libel suit brought by wealthy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). After he resigns from his editorship, he’s contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), another wealthy man whose family business has branches all over Sweden. Vanger invites Bloomkvist to his family’s private island to request that he look into a mystery. From when she was young, Henrik’s niece Harriet Vanger gave him pressed and framed flowers every year for his birthday. He shows Bloomkvist a wall filled with the framed flowers covering decades of his life. Harriet, though, was murdered when she was a teenager. Henrik wants Bloomkvist to investigate his family and find out who killed Harriet and has taunted him with the pressed flowers for his birthday ever since. If Bloomkvist is successful, Vanger will give him information about Wennerstrom that might help him recover his reputation.
Before being approached, Bloomkvist was investigated by Vanger’s attorney Dirch Frode (Steven Berkhoff). Frode employed Milton Security, run by Dragan Armansky (Goran Vijnic), to check on Bloomkvist. When he collects the report, Frode meets Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara), the young researcher who prepared it. With her multiple piercings, goth garb, and awkward social skills, she’s unlike anyone in the Milton office, but she can crack any computer and steal any secret. Salandar has been under a court-appointed guardianship ever since she was young. She’s had one guardian, Holger Palmgren (Bengt Carlsson), for several years but then he suffers a stroke. The new guardian, Nils Bjurman (Yorick Van Wageningen) is a sexual predator who rapes Salandar. But Bjurman soon learns that Salandar is not a woman you want to have mad at you.
Bloomkvist has been making some progress. He’s met others on the island, including Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgaard) who’s taken over for Henrik as CEO of Vanger Industries. Soon, though, Bloomkvist realizes he needs a researcher, and Frode suggests Salandar. With Salandar’s help, Bloomkvist discovers a much wider murder conspiracy going back decades.
Fincher brings to this version of Dragon Tattoo his visual style that increases the foreboding. It recalls the cat-and-mouse interviews in Zodiac as well as the feel of Se7en.
Rooney Mara’s performance as Salandar is rightfully gathering Oscar nomination buzz. While she’s rail thin and appears to be delicate, she handles the violent physicality of Salandar wonderfully. Interestingly, they kept the clothing style that Rapace used in the Swedish-language version. (Rapace has said that she raided her own closet for items she wore when a teenager to portray Salandar.)
As Bloomkvist, Daniel Craig communicates the right blend of world-weary stoicism with a burning desire to solve the mystery. Larsson had also made him an incredible ladies man, bedding several women in the book including one of the Vangers, as if he were James Bond. While it was briefly covered in the Swedish version, it’s been mostly cut in Fincher’s film.
The other supporting actors, including Plummer and Skarsgaard, are quite effective in their roles. There’s an interesting turn by Joely Richardson as Anita Vanger, another cousin who knew Harriet and who turned her back on the family, settling in London.
While the film is a tantalizing mystery and involves the audience, it has some major weaknesses. The opening credits seem to have been borrowed from the Bond films and are jarring to the mood. One of the best parts of the original is Bloomkvist and Salandar as they uncover other brutal murders tied to Harriet’s story. In this version, Salandar discovers them on her own in almost a montage. The greatest problem though for the film was also a problem in the book – the main physical climax happens far from the end. The resolutions of the plots then take up quite a bit of time. Strangely, the slowest part of the Swedish movie has been re-written and now works really well. Its power though is dissipated by an extensive resolution of the Wennerstrom story that the original movie told in a tight few scenes and a memorable final shot.
Still, given all that he had to distill into this script, Zailian has done a good job. It does set up the possibility that he’ll be competing against himself for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar next month, since he co-wrote Moneyball.
Overall, though, if you liked the book, or like mysteries – and have a strong stomach – you’ll find The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo a fascinating movie.