The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Review and Discussion

Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson

Directed by: David Fincher 

Produced by: Scott Rudin, Søren Stærmose, Ole Søndberg, Ceán Chaffin

Written by: Steven Zaillian (based on the novel by Stieg Larsson)

Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Running Time: 158 minutes

Rating: R

Note: This is a discussion post and thus contains numerous SPOILERS.

David Fincher and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — any movie fan doesn’t have to do much thinking to conclude that this is a great fit. Fincher’s penchant for dark, stylish thrillers aligns perfectly with the bleak, brutal nature of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s internationally acclaimed Millenium series.

Of course, a Swedish version of this film was already made in 2009, along with the other two parts of the trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). As such, complaints and criticism have arisen over this alleged remake. Obviously, one cannot ignore the appeal to Sony and Columbia Pictures of being able to tap into an audience that would not want to sit through a film reading subtitles. That being said, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) insists that this is a separate adaptation of Larsson’s novel, not a remake of the 2009 film. In any event, I’m not going to complain about David Fincher wanting to put his stamp on this awesome story.

I should also note that I have never seen the Swedish version; I actually just completed reading the novel prior to seeing the new adaptation. It was Fincher’s involvement, a reignited buzz about the novels, and some free time (thank you, winter break) that got me initially interested in diving into this phenomenon. I thus have no preconceived biases against this new film; the novel is my only basis for comparison. I’ll watch the Swedish film version some other time, but for now, let’s talk about this one.

Dragon Tattoo is a captivating ride right from the very beginning, where a brief prologue (true to the novel) is followed by one of the best opening title sequences I’ve seen in a long time. Like in his film Se7en, Fincher takes us through a series of up-close images; the ones in Dragon Tattoo appropriately feature an artistic bit of work done with the idea of tattoo ink, and the entire sequence is set to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Interestingly, the opening title sequence in Se7en features a remix of the song “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, who are fronted by none other than Trent Reznor. Reznor and Ross also scored Fincher’s previous film, The Social Network, for which they won an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

I veered off topic a little bit there, but hey, hopefully I gave you some knowledge nuggets you didn’t already have. Anyway, Dragon Tattoo remained thoroughly enthralling throughout its sprawling 158-minute duration. It might help that I read the book and was thus always looking forward to the subsequent scene, but I think it’s fair to say that the film was extremely well-paced. Two-and-a-half hours is quite a bit for some people to digest, but there are really no wasted scenes here. Larsson’s novel is densely plotted, and Zaillian’s and Fincher’s adaptation of the book to the silver screen is about as faithful to the source material as a motion picture can realistically be.

For those unfamiliar with or needing a refresher course on the basic storyline, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in an atypically not-so-bad-ass role) is an investigative financial journalist who writes for and co-owns Millenium magazine. At the film’s outset, he is found guilty of libel for a story he wrote about wealthy but shady businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. With a damaged professional reputation (in addition to some harsh monetary penalties), Blomkvist steps down from Millenium temporarily but soon finds a new opportunity for work. He gets a call from Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), the lawyer of the wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), former CEO of the very large and once-renowned Vanger Industries. Vanger offers Blomkvist an exorbitant amount of money to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of his grand-niece, Harriet, which occurred nearly 40 years ago. Blomkvist is also tasked to write a chronicle of the Vanger family, which would provide him with a convenient excuse to investigate things about family members, as the facts of Harriet’s case lead Henrik to believe that a family member is responsible (while Dragon Tattoo might not be the most feel-good movie, the hideous things we learn about the Vanger family should at least make you feel better about whatever kind of dysfunction you have within your own extended family).

Blomkvist is hesitant to spend an entire year in isolation with the seemingly futile mission of uncovering the truth about Harriet Vanger’s disappearance. However, Henrik offers him information that will supposedly sink Wennerstrom, and that ultimately convinces Blomkvist to take on the job. As the investigation progresses, he finds himself in need of a skilled research assistant, and that is how he eventually comes in contact with the titular character (who actually did the background check on him for Frode and Vanger): the brilliant but asocial Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in a star-making performance).

The film, like the novel, jumps back and forth between Blomkvist’s experiences and Salander’s experiences before their storylines eventually converge. Some might find Zaillian’s and Fincher’s fragmented scene-shifting to be irritating, but the novel was written that way and in my opinion, it really does work, as the audience is always on its toes about what will happen next. Salander’s scenes are the most interesting, given the nature of her character and the breathtaking performance of Mara. Salander does not initially say much, but Mara — who underwent a dramatic transformation to become Lisbeth Salander– is nevertheless able to convey a quiet pain and anger. Watching the film (and reading the novel), you feel like her character can snap at any moment.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist

While Mara’s character might be more interesting, Craig effectively tones down the Bond-ness and portrays Blomkvist as an intelligent, meticulous, honest (ironic, given his character’s libel charges), and oftentimes nervous man. As Blomkvist begins to uncover certain clues about the mystery via photographs, Fincher’s direction becomes more deliberate to create as much suspense as possible, and Reznor’s and Ross’s slow, ominous tones add to this atmosphere with extreme effectiveness. Having read the book, I knew how things would unfold, but the suspense still increased my heart rate significantly and sent chills down my spine.

Predictably, Fincher did not curtail some of the novel’s more brutal aspects. While one scene in particular (corresponding to a notorious section of the book where Salander is raped) is hard to watch, it’s actually quite important to the character development of Salander — at least in revealing to audiences an example of the pain she has experienced and how that has shaped her. We also see how unforgiving she can be in vengeance. Lastly, the scene helps us understand why she jumps at the chance to help Blomkvist once she learns what the job entails — she vehemently despises men who mistreat women (the literal translation of the title of the Swedish novel is “Men Who Hate Women”). Therefore, the friendship she forms with Blomkvist is significant on two levels: first, she does not have very many, if any, true friends at all; second, and more pertinent to what has been discussed, Salander befriends and begins to trust a man, which is a big deal given her predispositions.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fairly faithful adaptation of Larsson’s brilliant novel, as Zaillian and Fincher compress the key plot points into the most crisp 158 minutes you can get. There were of course a few minor differences, shortenings, and omissions of a few side-stories. Those who read the book will follow me here; the ones that were minor but nevertheless stuck out to me were as follows:

  • Blomkvist did not have to serve a brief stint in prison in the film.
  • Blomkvist and Cecilia Vanger (Geraldine James) did not form a sexual relationship in the film.
  • In the film, Blomkvist never suspected Cecilia of being the girl by Harriet’s window in the photograph.
  • We did not see Henrik Vanger’s request that Blomkvist not publish the family memoir after the revelation of such heinous truths, nor did we see Blomkvist’s anger and moral dilemma resulting from this issue.
  • Interestingly, the film had Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) encouraging Blomkvist to stay in Hedestad to try to solve the mystery, whereas in the novel, Martin — as an acting board member for Millenium after Henrik’s purchase of part of the company — kindly suggests that Blomkvist return to Stockholm because Millenium needs him. He also calmly deflects Blomkvist’s assumptions that he simply wants to get rid of him. Perhaps this change was made to create more suspense with respect to the killer’s identity, given the absence of some other details.
  • The book devoted much more time to Blomkvist’s meticulous development of his second story against Wennerstrom.

The biggest difference was with the Anita Vanger/Harriet Vanger storyline. In the book, Anita helps Harriet escape her family and Harriet ultimately moves to Australia under Anita’s name, while Anita settles in London. While both have the same name, their residence in different countries makes their matching identities passable. In the film, Anita has died years after the escape and Harriet has assumed her identity to hide from her family. Since Anita has severed ties with the rest of the Vangers, none of them know that the Anita Vanger in London is really Harriet. This alteration, though a notable deviation from the book’s plot, did not bring down the film at all. Even as a (week-long) fan of the book, neither this change nor any of the other changes really bothered me. Some changes have to be made to make a viable film — it’s inevitable.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is enough of a visceral cinematic experience on its own that these deviations do not really matter all that much (I just had to get them out). The only small gripes I might have are that Zaillian’s script seems a little muddled early on, and there is not quite as much dialogue and interaction between several characters (particularly between Blomkvist and Henrik) as I would have liked to see. On the other hand, however, I’m glad Zaillian didn’t oversimplify things for the masses. These extremely minor issues are more than negated by the captivating overall story, Fincher’s unsurprisingly outstanding direction (perfect pacing, the formation of a great amount of suspense and anxiety, and his Fincherian lighting and color style), the subdued-yet-chilling score from Reznor and Ross, and of course, the eye-opening performance of Rooney Mara, who should be seeing some nice accolades coming her way in a couple of months. Quite simply, this is a can’t-miss film.

Tommy D’s Score:





3.75/4 Tommy Ds

About Tommy D

Clemson and UGA alum with a market research job in LA. And I kind of like movies.

Posted on December 30, 2011, in General Movie Discussion, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Good review, not sure how I feel about seeing this one though. Seems a little too “sick” for me lol.

  2. It’s certainly worth seeing if you missed the original. If you saw it, however, there’s no way of unseeing it, and nothing in the new one to top it. Craig and Mara are great here though and Fincher brings so much more to this film like I was expecting too. Good review Tommy.

  3. Superb analysis of a super film. I hope they make the next two. (I’ve seen the original Swedish “Dragon”). Our Swedish friends just saw this version; are huge fans of the original book and movie; and were totally taken by the this new version.

    • Thanks! It was definitely a thoroughly enjoyable film, and I really hope it generates enough $$$ at the box office to justify Fincher, Craig, Mara, and co. making the next two. I plan on watching the Swedish one soon, but it’s nice to see that a lot of people appreciate this one for what it is.

  4. I’ll add that I just watched the Swedish version from 2009. It was quite solid, as I knew it would be given Larsson’s stellar source material. However, I slightly prefer this newer English one, for several reasons (of course, I saw the newer one first, so there’s some comparison bias there). I thought Fincher’s version was more true to the book overall. Many more details were changed in the Swedish one (I won’t delve into all of them here), and the ending omitted Salander’s heartbreak when she sees Blomkvist with Erika Berger. That’s a crucial element because it explains why she ignores him for much of the following novel, The Girl who Played with Fire.

    I thought Noomi Rapace’s performance was outstanding, but her reading of Lisbeth Salander was noticeably different from Rooney Mara’s. Rapace portrayed more of an ongoing fury and toughness. Mara conveyed more of a pained character who often lacked much expression on the outside but based on certain actions and words, was burning on the inside (much like in the novel). Rapace chose to let this emotion shine in her facial expressions most of the time. I also thought that Mara looked more like the Salander I pictured when reading the book, but then again, I had that image going into the reading because I had already seen previews for the English movie.

    I also thought Daniel Craig was a better Mikael Blomkvist than Michael Nyqvist. Nyqvist was quite good, but he didn’t convey the shrewdness and emotion of Blomkvist quite as well as Craig did. I also thought’s Fincher’s directorial style was a huge advantage in the English one, as his dark style made a profound contribution to the film’s overall tone. Of course, having a higher budget helps in this regard.

    I did like the Swedish version very much because the story is just so captivating. I’d probably give it about 3.5 Tommy Ds. I just thought Fincher’s version was slightly better.

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