Second Head of the Dragon (Tattoo)

Back over here, I talked (nay, gushed) about my love for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And it was while I was still heady from finishing the book that I threw myself into back-to-back viewings of the 2009 Swedish adaptation and the 2011 American adaption, to see how both stacked up to the original book.

The American version wins out over the Swedish version for just how close it was to the original books, but there were still changes. Let’s go over the ones that struck me the most.

The Cuts, The Changes:

What didn’t make it in the Swedish version? Well, sadly, lots.

The magazine subplot, the primary driver in the novel that gets Blomkvist to accept Vagner’s offer, is for the most part dropped. Once Blomkvist gets on the island, it’s strictly an investigation and it’s all out in the open. The pretext of the memoir is dropped as quickly as the magazine-in-peril subplot is. Lisbeth’s relationship with her mother is changed significantly here and her original court-appointed guardian is given no screen time. The Vagner family is slimmed down and don’t make many appearances. (There is a research montage sequence in the beginning, which made me giggle.)

The mystery itself is quite roughly shuffled. The old detective, Morell, one of Vagner’s contemporaries and retired in the book, is still in charge of the force here and heads a squad of locals all too happy help. The original Morell helps as best he can, describing his decades-long interest in the disappearance, calling it his ‘Rebecka’ case, a departmental short hand for anyone obsessed with an unsolved crime named for a girl that was murdered twenty years earlier than Harriet went missing. But the Rebecka case is important, one that helps crack the code on a series of as-yet unconnected murders. The Swedish version, for some reason, makes the Rebecka case the last of the murders to be connected to the investigation, and for no real narrative gain.

You have to make changes. You can’t have a whole novel reproduced page for page on the screen. But if you are going to make changes, they should be useful changes, ones that either keep to the spirit of the book or, better, are clever adaptations.

Changes in the vein of, “well that makes sense I suppose,” could include changing the dark-haired Harriet into a blonde, done in both films. In the book, her having dark hair is a part of the plot, which I won’t spoil. Making her blonde in the film removes that clue, which relates to a subplot that ended up cut out of both films (see Cecelia). It may also be that they felt a blonde girl had more appeal, which is an argument for another time.

For an example of a smart change, take the American version’s Lisbeth bringing her former (and good) guardian a Christmas gift of a book about Bobby Fisher. In the novel, her and her guardian played chess together, and had a positive (as possible for Lisbeth) relationship. But how to dramatize it without adding more screen time? The book is the perfect choice: not only does it shout out to the pair playing chess in the book, but Bobby Fisher himself was a troubled genius, a terrific analog to Lisbeth. Well done.

Let’s get to a bad example, even though the effect on the overall plot it utterly negligible and I can’t for the life of me figure out why they did it at all. (And this, really, is what’s kicked off this whole series of posts for me.) At one point in his investigation, Blomkvist goes to the local paper looking for access to the archives. He knows that a newspaper photographer will take reams more photographs than will ever be published, and that the negatives are routinely kept because you just never know what might be useful. Sure enough, his search will give him a lead to chase down. In the book, it’s a woman who’s in charge of the archives. They chat a bit, talking about the Harriet case and the effect it’s had on the paper and the town.

In the Swedish movie, the archivist is a man.

I sat there watching the scene rather befuddled. Why would they possible need to change the sex of this background character? There was no reason, absolutely no reason at all, to change the character’s gender. Any of the other changes made for the film could be argued (some better than others) that they condensed, or presented the male lead in a more flattering manner for the viewer, but this decision was utterly without need or purpose. Why shouldn’t the archivist be a woman? Just defaulting to male … because?

I think that would have pissed Larsson off to no end.

(In the American version, the archivist is a woman, and yay, because there was no reason to change it in the first place.)

The American adaption is more faithful to the series of the events in the book that the Swedish one. (I’m not sure why that surprised me as much as it did.) More of the book’s relationships and the turning points of the novel survive intact barring a few odd changes, the biggest of which is the Cecelia subplot, as we’ll see. I did feel that the American movie handled sharing the evidence of the murders with the views in a much more respectful manner, too, another surprise. Photographs of the various crime scenes looked like photographs of crime scenes – their bodies weren’t as posed and the photographs not repeatedly shown to the viewer at length. In the US version, they are just part of the research, quickly shown. More emphasis is placed on Lisbeth actually telling Blomkvist’s about the details than showing lingering close-ups of the dead women.

The Climax (Pun Intended):

In the book, Lisbeth gets to be the hero. Which, awesome! Blomkvist and Lisbeth both figure out the identity of the killer, but Blomkvist does the traditionally gal-blundering thing of rushing to confront the killer. Of course, he gets captured, and gets the details of the killer’s crimes – except for one twist, which I won’t spoil. Lisbeth arrives just as Blomkvist is about to die (he is hanging from the ceiling, about to be raped), and she viciously takes down the perpetrator. She frees Blomkvist and then heads out after the killer, who is trying to escape. She chases after in her motorbike, and the killer ends up choosing suicide by car, crashing into a truck that echos an event that took place on the day Harriet went missing. The killer’s car explodes, there is nothing Lisbeth can do. She returns to Blomkvist.

In the Swedish version, they have, up until this point, been really graphic with the previous murders. Photographs of the dead women are explicit and numerous to the point where you question their purpose. But when Blomkvist is threatened, he is not threatened with rape, he is not kissed by the killer. Lisbeth’s attack is dialed back a bit, but is pretty good. She chases the killer on her motorbike as well. The killer is swerving to get control of the vehicle, and avoids an oncoming truck just at the last moment. But in doing so, drives off the road. As the overturned car leaks oil, the killer begs for Lisbeth to help. But she watches, and when the car explodes, she has chosen to let the killer die.

In the American version, the climax of the mystery is closer to the book. Kinda. We get the killer’s confession and the audience knows that Blomkvist will be violated and murdered – his shirt is cut open, his zipper undone. A bag is placed over his head to asphyxiate him so there is, once again, no kiss. I wonder why? (We also get this with Enya’s Orinoco Flow playing in the background. I have no words.) Lisbeth still arrives in the nick of time, and gives the killer one good smack and then rescues Blomkvist before he suffocates. The killer slinks off and, before she leaves Blomkvist, Lisbeth asks him if it’s okay to kill him, suddenly his trained hound. Blomkvist nods. This time, as she chases the killer on her motorbike (no helmet, unlike the book and the Swedish version), the killer swerves purposefully, trying to run her off the road, and ends up crashing the vehicle. Like the Swedish film, she approaches the doomed car with the killer trapped inside and begging for help. However, here she has the gun and cocks it, ready to put the killer down. But the vehicle does the honorable thing, bursting into flame, meaning she doesn’t have to do it herself.

Now, that’s not all the end. After the killer is revealed, and other mysteries resolved, there are still the other subplots to take care of. In the book, the subplots of the magazine’s survival, Blomkvist’s public redemption, and the dangling unresolved relationship between are two main characters close out the last fifth of the book. The American movie does a better version of it than the Swedish one, which jumbled and cut so many things from the original story. The ambiguous and unresolved nature of Blomkvist’s and Lisbeth’s relationship is retained in the 2011 film, but the pair are parted in the 2009 version, with Lisbeth off to enjoy her stolen money with a faked passport.

Tomorrow I’ll round out this study-turned review-turned obsession in a final post. This has gotten away from me a bit.

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