the circular runner

What The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo says about Americans…

In life, media, observations, writing on December 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I never was part of the Stieg Larsson frenzy. I remember a few years back riding on trains here in San Francisco and in New York and seeing all the bright neon covers that were the trademark of the series, but I never felt the need to pick up a copy myself. As a reader, I tend to be more reticent about fads, but as a move-goer, I’m not reticent at all. (I actually saw 2 out of the 3 Twilight movies–yes, I was the only male, but in my defense, my wife was with me both times so I avoided being creepy.) So, when it comes to movies, yes, admittedly, I am a little bit of a whore. Or maybe I should say I tend to be more open, which often enough, pays off.  Case in point: the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

I remember being excited to see it, though I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not like there was a lot of buzz around the movie. It was a foreign film with actors no one had ever heard of, but I had seen enough Scandinavian films to know that when it comes to creepy and dark, those people know what’s up.  I wasn’t disappointed. It wasn’t an easy movie to see. Unlike Hollywood movies, the Swedish version seemed to go for it when it came to the uglier side of life. Nazis, sadists, rapists and serial murderers all make their appearances, but the movie never makes those characters glow, stand out the way an American movie does. Even subtle filmmakers in this country like David Fincher seem to want to make it clear which characters wear the white hats and which don’t.  You need not look further than how Lisbeth Salander, the main character, is portrayed. In the Swedish version, the only emotion she knows is rage, but other than that, she’s almost autistic in her disconnect from people. In the American version, on the other hand, she is shown having real feelings–she even seems to fall in love.

Maybe it’s because of the weather, but the Swedish production of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo stayed away from the black/white. Everyone was touched by the gray. So here’s the awful social worker who takes advantage of Lisbeth, here’s the ex-Nazi asshole looking own at the world from his mansion on a fjord with a swastika behind him, here’s the drunken young men beating up a woman on the subway.  The Swedish version doesn’t push these people in our face and tell us that they are awful. Instead, it shows them to us, as if to say with detached Scandinavian accuracy: “you don’t want to know these people, but here’s the thing, they’re everywhere.”

Three years later, we have an American version directed by David Fincher, a director I usually love. As you can imagine, critics have been making comparisons and they almost all agree that the American movie is the superior film. I can’t speak to the technical differences, though I guess I did notice them. I don’t remember thinking that the Swedish version felt like a TV movie, though that’s what it was originally. Still, I take the greater point: David Fincher is a visual artist and he brings that to the project. There are stunning shots of dour-looking houses and long views of Swedish landscapes that teach you how something can be both beautiful and terrible at the same time. You don’t get the same kind of delight from the Swedish version, which is more straight ahead in its cinematography.  And yet, for me, there was something bothersome about the American version. I think it was just too American.

There’s part of me that wonders if the differences between the Swedish and the American movies are just simple psychology. For a Swede, cold weather and gray landscapes are not the makings of eeriness; they are just life. So a Swedish director probably wouldn’t spend too much time setting up exterior shots to set the mood for the horrors that are happening inside of doors. Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but for my taste, the American version suffers because we’re looking at a supposedly Swedish story the way an American tourist would. As if the camera is saying to us: Yes, awful people all around doing despicable things, but of course, they have no choice in the matter. Did you see the thermostat? You can’t be decent in that kind of weather!”

This Americanness that I’m referencing goes deeper; it comes into play when the camera goes indoors, as well. I think the best way to convey what I mean is to compare how both the American and Swedish versions deal with a rape scene that happens midway through. In the Swedish version, we are there in the room throughout. The camera makes us look at this brutal act. It’s not filmic. There’s nothing about the scene that tells us we need to feel one way or another. There’s a chilling simplicity to the way the scene is shot. We hear the breathing, the sounds of cloth gagging the vicitim and ropes pulling aginst her bound wrists. The American version sets the action up in the same way. We see the sadistic social worker tying up Lisbeth Salander, the main character, but then instead of staying with the action, the camera pulls out of the room and we see a heavy oak door and hear the screams over the eerie, dissonanant music composed by Trent Reznor.  There’s no way to deny that the American version is more cinematic, more artistic, but the greater art creates greater artifice. You might be getting more production value from the experience, but do you get more empathy for the awfulness of what’s going on? Is the dissonance of the music just a filmic trick–a way of sugarcoating by reminding us that we’re watching a movie?

Maybe an American audience doesn’t want to see the rape. Fine. But in the very next scene, the camera follows Lisbeth home and focuses on her naked body as she tries to clean herself up. Does this mean that for an American audience rape is not ok to look at, but a raped body is? I’m sure that someone with a more trained theoretical eye could make sense of these differences, maybe make some grand sweeping cultural judgment. I don’t have the tools for that kind of work. What I can say is that after leaving the theater, I was almost angry at Fincher’s version. I was angry that the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo tried to tell a story set in Sweden about Swedish culture without trying to be anything other than American.

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  1. This is a great review! I think you have valid points and i enjoyed reading it.

  2. Loved your review. I’ve watched the Swedish version, and was totally engrossed. I had refrained from watching the US version, cause I figured it would be commercialized in some manner. I guess I have to watch it now, and respond to you. 🙂 US . As Netflix doesn’t stream in Italy, I have to wait till I get back to the US to watch it, so it might take a little while.

  3. apparently, the Swedish version (I’ve seen neither movie) is just like the book, which I have read… not to say that artistic license isn’t great and all, but the moneybags behind the American(ized) version had trendiness in mind, not edgy truth, hence the soft approach… I think those Scandinavians have always been “honest” about sex, sexuality, ugliness potential for humanity, et al – I remember trans-sexuals having to sneak off to Norway or Sweden some 30 years ago, to even think about surgery, much less, get it… my inner cynic insists that it’s because we are a country of prudish, commercialized, “god-fearing” pantywaists who just can’t tell it like it is… but (I hope) that’s not 100% true… then again, why is gay marriage even an issue here…?!?!? In the book our “heroine” was definitely as you perceived: rageful, disconnected, autistic, smart and a realist… and the book, though good, was not an easy read, in the same way as you describe the Swedish movie… thanks so much for a wonderful review, made so better by your having seen both versions… 😉

  4. […] much about it is Steve McQueen’s Shame.  It’s not a feel-good movie. If you read my post on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, then you know I’m ok with that. But whereas Girl was […]

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