The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: English vs. Swedish Films

Hold still, or it’ll get messy.

What is good?  More to the point, what is better?  I’ve now seen the English and Swedish versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2004) without reading the book.  Presumably, at some point I will read the book.  At that point, which will be the best?  I purposely avoided the book and the Swedish film in order to see the English film without any interference from my brain.  I learned this through watching the Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Harry Potter (2001-11) films after reading/listening to the books upon which they are based probably half a dozen times each.

While watching these movies I, like many, could not stop thinking things like “They skipped the thing where” or “How could you not do that” or “That was good, just like in the book” or “Oh, that wasn’t in the book, but I liked it.”  See, it doesn’t have to be negative (though it so so so often was!) to keep you annoyingly out of the movie.  I knew exactly what was going to happen even when it didn’t.  That’s an irritating film experience.

So, I avoided it entirely.  In a way.  That brings me back to my initial questions of “what is good?” and “what is better?”  Because I, being a lover of English, Daniel Craig, and Immigrant Song, decided that the English Film was the one I wanted to experience fresh and clean.

The thing is, I will probably always be (or seem) right.  So long as each rendition is good in any way, the first will be the way it is “supposed” to be.  I watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and every character in the film was really playing the actor in the miniseries (in my mind).  How can I say who was better when one is “the original”?

Noomi Rapace as Salander

In this case, the book is surely the original.  As there are plot differences between the English and Swedish films, it is apparent that someone took liberties.  Knowing the English as I do, I strongly suspect it is the English who took greater and more fundamental liberties.  Anyway, let’s get to the movies themselves.

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist/Daniel Craig) is a journalist for Millenium magazine.  He’s just lost a libel case against Hans-Erik Wennerström (Stefan Sauk/Ulf Friberg) and is facing a prison sentence (Swedish)/large monetary loss (English) (/both in the book).  A corporate mogul, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube/Christopher Plummer) has investigated Blomkvist to see if he’s the man to look into his little problem.  He uses a firm where Lisbet Salander (Noomi Rapace/Rooney Mara) is a researcher (or, more accurately, hacker/computer wiz) and finds Blomkvist basically a stand-up fellow.  As Vanger knows Blomkvist has some time on his hands, he invites him up and explains the case.

In 1966, his niece, Harriet (who he basically looked after, and her brother Martin, because her parents were useless) disappeared and the scenario was such that it must have been a member of the family.  They live on an island, there’s one bridge, blah blah blah, it’s fact.  The family is a bunch of reprobates of one sort or another and could well have done the deed.  It was looked into by the police, but was never solved.  Enter Blomkvist.  Blomkvist accepts.

In the English version (and the book), the investigation has a “family history” cover story (which people don’t absolutely believe).  In the Swedish version, everyone knows exactly why Blomkvist is there.  It’s an interesting departure for the Swedish script and I was tying myself in normative knots thinking the English had added an entirely new element.    But they didn’t add, they returned.  I think it works much better that way.

In other news, Salander is a ward of the state (but-but why we wonder) and she’s got a new guardian.  He’s a pig who shows us how bad he is, makes us want some big-time angry revenge, and then we are satisfied.  Salander has a thing for Blomkvist, but being a bit on the wacko side, it’s hard to tell what it is.

Paths diverge again as to how Salander/Blomkvist get on the same trail.  In the Swedish version, Salander, through her interest in Blomkvist and his computer’s contents, figures out a vital clue for him.  In the English version, he goes to her through her company.  Either way, they go about solving the mystery.

Plummer as Vanger and Craig as Blomkvist

It’s interesting what was put in or left out of the two films.  I had presumed that the Swedish version would be more faithful to the source, but after looking at the Wikipedia synopsis, I see that the opposite is true.  I am shocked by their senseless diversions.  Shocked!

In the Swedish film, Blomkvist was babysat by Harriet in the 60′s during family vacations.  Also, the Swedish film points to and partially explains Salander’s history and gives her a computer buddy (“Plague”).  Again, I think the English team correctly nixed these as unnecessary to the film.  If nixed is the word (and it’s not).

Amazing.  I was all set to have this revelation that the source material need not be the final word on content and that additions might even be allowed to an adaptation.  This was severe blasphemy to me.  Then I find out that everything I thought was an addition/alteration was, in fact, a return to source material.  Vindication!  It’s like a double-bluff study rather than double-blind.  I thought the Swedish changes were cannon that the English correctly identified as useless and I thought the English “additions” were a nice touch.

Mara as Salander

I had written all this stuff trying to rationalize my views on the Harry Potter movies with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films.  But no need, I was right all along.  Wasn’t I?  Or does this prove that it was possible to make a better movie with changes to the source material.  After all, if the Swedish film was more faithful, the English film would still have been better with the “changes”.  Boggled, my mind is.

I’m going to put this forward.  If you’ve got a good (or solid) book/material, that all comes from one mind over a great deal of time, with a great deal of effort on the writer’s part.  When you start to tinker, you’ve added another mind, another subconscious and trouble becomes more likely.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe that’s not.  Anyway…

How do the performances match up?  While I am almost certainly biased in favor of English actors, I’m pretty sure most everyone would agree that the English cast puts in the better work.  In this regard, the biggest difference is in the Salanders.  Rapace plays the character much closer to ordinary human.  She shows her thoughts, confusion, and vulnerability a little too readily.  Mara, on the other hand, plays it a little more crazy, a little more broken.  I like that.  Tastes.

Daniel Craig as Blomkvist is allowed a little more complexity than Nyqvist’s.  Nyqvist’s Blomkvist, on the other hand, is a little smarter and is more aptly playing the family members.  Obviously, Craig is way hotter than Nyqvist, so there’s that.  Craig also plays the character a little more haunted than Nyqvist does.  More out of place.

Some of this comes down to superficial issues with the casting.  For one thing, Henrik Vanger is supposed to be in his 80′s and Taube (Swedish) looks 60 (though was actually 75–good for him) while Plummer (who actually was 82) looks and plays the part much more realistically.  Plummer also plays it with far more emotion and gravity.  Another thing is Rapace/Mara’s general styles.  Rapace actually looks attractive while Mara is made to look wild and crazy.

Comparing direction is a little unfair.  Niels Arden Oplev (Swedish) had a budget of $13 million while David Fincher (English) had a budget of $90 million.  In terms of value for money, Oplev is the astounding winner.  The movie looks and sounds great.  Oplev doesn’t really get as much from his actors, which is pretty important in a low budget movie, but they don’t do any harm.

Fincher’s movie, on the other hand, looks and sounds phenomenal.  I’m astounded that it didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  There was one moment in the English movie, ironic considering it won for Editing, where Blomkvist, out of nowhere, consoles his daughter.  Other than that, the movie doesn’t have a hole in it.  That’s fantastic.

The book cover

Obviously, the Swedish film is…in Swedish, which required I either check out the English dubbed or the subtitles.  I tried out both subtitled and dubbed for the first couple minutes.  My fear was that the voice actors would be comically terrible according to cliche (think kung-fu).  That did not turn out to be the case, so I went for seeing the movie over reading it.

I freely admit that something was lost there and judging the actors might be tainted.  That said, I estimate most acting by their physical performance anyway.  Further, their speaking Swedish, a language I don’t understand, means that I couldn’t really judge their line delivery anyway.  How do I know whether they’re expressing their emotions well or not unless they’re screaming?

I will say this, though, for the voice actors.  Some were strong, some were mediocre, but none were weak.  They would have done far better, I believe, if they used British accents rather than American ones.  To my American ear, a foreign person has a foreign accent.  They could have at least all spoken with fake Swedish accents.  Still, the firm, mature tone of a British accent would have been a nice asset.

Final question: Should I ever read a popular book ever again?  Not if David Fincher is rumored to direct the adaptation, I suppose.  The question goes to my own (or your own) foundation.  Are you a movie person or a book person?  Is it more important to you to experience the story, psychology, and expression of a book or the filming, acting, story, and expression of a film.  To answer that, I think I’ll have to read the book and report back.  I’ll do that…eventually.

So, finally final question:  Up or down?  Both up, but the English version is so much further up.  You definitely ought to buy the English version, especially as it’s cheaper on Blu-Ray at the moment.  Rent the Swedish version a few months later.

One thing though.  The title sequence in the English version is awesome, but I’m not really sure what it has to do with the movie.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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8 Responses to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: English vs. Swedish Films

  1. I really couldn’t have said it better myself… I just saw the Swedish one last night (And the Hollywood version last week) and your analysis is very close to that of mine.

  2. Pingback: Hollywood vs Swedish version @DragonTattoo « Write, Wrong, and Everything InBetween Reviews

  3. claudia marien says:

    I thought the swedish one was amazing!

  4. Very interesting review and comparison.

    I saw the Swedish version first – with subtitles. Something I found was how astoundingly alike the two languages sound, in inflection, pronunciation and structure – much more than you’d guess from trying to read written Swedish. I strongly recommend seeing the Swedish film in Swedish with subtitles. It is not distracting. (And that way you won’t be disturbed by the American/English accent question. The people I saw the American film with muttered a lot about Swedes in their own country speaking with ‘foreign’ accents, but I thought it was well done, and avoided a divide between American and British actors.)

    I was blown away by Rapace, and found Nyqvist more believably lived-in to look at, although at the time, of course, it wasn’t a consideration – the benefit of not having seen the actors before meant that I could react to them strictly as characters rather than thespians portraying them. While I found elements of the story overly melodramatic and sensational, the two lead characters were so compelling that flaws were overwhelmed.

    So then I came to the American version, having seen all three films in Swedish. I like David Fincher a lot (Se7en and Zodiac both suggest his suitability to the material), and even though he is way too movie-star hunky for the part :D I could see Daniel Craig doing well in the Blomqvist role.

    What can I say? I loved the American film, and Rooney Mara also.

    Both actresses were edgy, enigmatic, self-contained. Deceptively slight and very dangerous. And yet they were different, as you point out. To me Rapace was more deliberate and controlled, and therefore, perhaps more manipulative. Damaged, but to a large extent already healed and less vulnerable in her idiosyncratic way, whereas Mara was raw and very much unhealed. Given how strong a character Lisbeth is, she can support multiple interpretations, and I loved both versions of her.

    I’m really glad I saw the Swedish one first, because I’ve had a good time comparing cinematic treatments of various episodes and characters. I enjoyed some things about the American version more, because by then I was acquainted by the aspects I see as flaws and therefore more accepting of them.

    The American version was plagued/blessed by the presence of Stellan Skarsgård (ironically the most English-sounding of the lot), because you couldn’t know the plot premise, and that he was in it, and not know which role to expect him in – he’s a perfect villain. (Last point – I also love Christopher Plummer, who could have been that villain a few decades earlier, and am frankly amazed that he is older than his Swedish counterpart!)

    • The interesting thing about Daniel Craig is that he wasn’t really a hunk until Casino Royale. But I agree with much of what you said, though I’m of the view that watching the Fincher film first is the way to go because it’s the better made movie. As for Skarsgard, I totally agree. It’s so strange that casting people don’t see the stupidity in picking a high-powered actor for a villain when you aren’t supposed to know who the villain is. I’m thinking of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Why cast [Spoiler]?

  5. Sorry – one more comment. A detail noticed by a friend who’s seen both was how Mara!Lisbeth beat up the guy who stole her laptop on the subway escalator vs Rapace!Lisbeth taking a beating rather than allowing it to be taken off her. The friend found the second premise more likely. (They’ve been mugged and it went more the second way, with my friend simply refusing to let go of his vital piece of equipment, regardless. But although the attempted mugging infuriated him, I don’t think he had Lisbeth’s levels of anger to draw on.) That was something I liked about the Rapace version – she was so determined, so committed, and I believed in everything she did completely, rather than imagining an actress challenging herself to do these things. No doubt that was partly to do with never having seen her before in another role, and not being particularly aware of the books, either.

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