5 Things Wrong with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (the Swedish film)

I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Netflix Instant streaming (which is fantastic for spontaneously watching movies that you missed or never wanted to pay theater prices for) and I was underwhelmed. I have not read the book, so I can’t speak as to the faithfulness of the film adaptation, but I can say that as a stand-alone Thriller, I found it lacking on many fronts. A film should stand on its own as a cohesive and satisfying narrative and not ask the audience to fill in the gaps, no matter if it was adapted from any kind of popular source material or it’s part one in a trilogy.

I’m a big fan of the genre and I’m always on the look-out for the next Great Thriller. I’m hoping for a new twist on classic Thriller archetypes and story engines driven by a character that I can emotionally invest in such that when they’re in danger I feel true tension for them.  Think of Clarice Starling fumbling around in the dark, pistol out, as the serial killer Jame Gumb shadows her with the night-vision goggles. True terror.

Lisbeth Salander? You are no Clarice Starling. (Yes, Lisbeth is an interesting character; she’s the best thing about the film, but for me, she can’t make up for the many flaws in the story.)

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t based on a best-selling book and I read it as a spec, I would have sent it back to the slush pile. Here’s why…

5 things wrong with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the Swedish movie):

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

1. Lisbeth and boys. Talk about repetition. Lisbeth Salander burns a guy alive in a flashback from her youth, ostensibly for revenge. Lisbeth tortures and rapes her probation officer, definitely for revenge after the bastard did the same to her. Lisbeth watches the serial killer burn in the overturned car…sweet revenge for all of those women he murdered.  And in the end, Lisbeth steals millions from the unseen tycoon Wennerstrom and starts a new life; revenge for falsely convicting her new lover, Mikael Blomkvist.

That’s a lot of revenge on men.  And perhaps explains why the original book and film were titled “Men Who Hate Women!” (Anyone know the story about when and why the title was changed for the Western market?)  But my point is this…

What if she forgave one of those men? That would have subverted our dramatic expectations and been a truly shocking turn.

2. We never get to know the girl that was murdered. We see photos of her, but we don’t get to know her, thus we don’t emotionally connect with the fight for justice for her murder. This could have been shown in coherent flashbacks or Mikael’s dreams (a la Erik Bana imagining the kidnapping and murder of the athletes in Munich) or spending more time with the Vanger family…

3. Mikael never gets to know the extended family. He starts to get to know the sister… but that goes nowhere. He has a few quick scenes with the siblings which are repetitive and don’t reveal much in the way of character development or clues. Thus, we don’t get to know them, so when the true killer is revealed to be the brother with the least amount of screen time who is essentially a cipher, the impact of this beat is lessened. I suspect they cut scenes from the book that could have really helped to show Mikael forging a greater emotional connection with some of the siblings and a more powerful fear of others. The film attempts to fill in that emotional gap with an awkward device that relies on coincidence…

4. The Babysitter flashbacks. Huh? It just so happens that Mikael knew the murdered/missing girl/s when he was a child…and yet no one recognizes him or even mentions it? If this is the filmmakers’ lame attempt to give the hero a personal connection to the murder case, then… A) It’s not earned, and B) It’s not clear.

I’m not saying the Protagonist must have a personal connection to the victim, but if you’re going to go there, at least have it make sense. (For an example of a European thriller that forges a strong emotional connection between Protagonist and audience and also relates the murders to a wealthy family with a dark secret, see Tell No One.)

And now for my ultimate pet-peeve, the biggest cliche on film these days…

5. Those darn Nazis! OF COURSE the killer has some connection to Nazis and the Holocaust. It’s set somewhere in Europe, isn’t it? Forget the fact that the murder occurred in 1966, this killer was still really mad at those Jews!

With that said, the movie had bright spots and held my attention, but with all the hype, I was expecting more. Let’s hope David Fincher and Steven Zaillian’s American remake improves upon the Swedish original.

Good Luck and Happy Writing,

Dan Calvisi

p.s. What did you think of this film? Sound off in the comments below.

1. The Babysitter thing.  Huh? Is their lame attempt to give the hero a personal

connection to the murder case? a) It fails. b) It’s not clear.

2. Lisbeth and boys. Talk about repetition. Lisbeth burns a guy alive in a flashback

from her youth, ostensibly for revenge. Lisbeth tortures and rapes her probation

officer, definitely for revenge. Lisbeth watches the serial killer burn, revenge

for all of those women he murdered.  And in the end, Lisbeth steals millions from

Werkommen and starts a new life. What if she forgave one of those men?

Wennerstrom

Lisbeth Salander

Mikael Blomkvist

3. I don’t care about the murder case. We never get to know the girl that was

murdered.  We see photos of her. We don’t get to know her, thus we don’t

emotionally connect with getting justice for her murder.

4. Guy never gets to know the family; that personal connection problem again. He

starts to get to know the sister…then that goes nowhere.

“Don’t Look Now” much better European thriller. I cared about that protagonist.

There was a personal connection. When the family’s secrets were revealed,

No real sense of danger.Sure, our hero gets shot at in the forest, but it’s not

until he’s hung in the dungeon do we really fear for his life.

Confusion.

Those darn Nazis! Of COURSE the killer has some connection to Nazis and the

Holocaust. It’s set somewhere in Europe, isn’t it? Forget the fact that the murder

occurred in 1966, this killer is still really mad at those Jews!

All these awful men in Lisbeth’s life but yet no consistent thread. There’s the guy

she burns alive in the car as a kid…the guy who rapes her and she returns the

favor courtesy of a white dildo…the serial murderer of the central mystery…and

the Swedish businessman that falsely accused the protagonist, her lover. That’s a

lot of guys to take out for one girl. Do we need that many? Maybe this is why thre

original book and film was named “The Man who Hates Women.” That title really makes

sense, now that I think about it.

4 replies
  1. Rob
    Rob says:

    First off, the original movie was three hours long, so you’re seeing a heavily edited version on Netflix. That said, I thought even the edited version was brilliant.

    Secondly, Lisbeth Salander has every reason to hate men (considering the horrendous things they’ve done to her) and the thought that she might forgive one of them is laughable. This isn’t a story about forgiveness, it’s a condemnation of the horrible things men do to women and a society that allows it. Lizabeth is not only fighting back against those men, but the system that destroyed her life.

    Thirdly, we get to know the extended family and the victim as well as Mikael does. Because we are seeing the investigation unfold through his eyes, we shouldn’t know any more than he does. And because he’s an outsider who can only gather a certain amount of information, his knowledge will be limited. As to the victim herself, it’s not really necessary for us to know her. All we need to know is how she affected the man who hired Mikael and how the mystery itself affects Mikael.

    Also, keep in mind that Mikael was about six or seven years old when the girl and her cousin babysat him. It’s doubtful that anyone there would recognize him today. Besides, they all KNOW who he is. It’s not a secret. So why does it need to be mentioned?

    Finally, regarding the Nazis, you have to remember where this was set and the time frame in which the murders took place. They began in the mid-forties and continued through to the sixties (by the original killer who was a Nazi and a Jew hater). This is not an even remotely far-fetched notion, particularly in Sweden.

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a compelling, complex mystery/thriller that is beautifully acted, directed and shot. David Fincher, as fine a filmmaker as he is, will have a very hard time topping the Swedish version.

    Reply
  2. Dan
    Dan says:

    TPK,
    I appreciate your responses. Ultimately, the film didn’t suck me in such that I was willing to give it another viewing and really study every plot detail. Honestly, I was bored. Yes, I’m a tough critic, but as I said, thrillers like Tell No One, Taken and The Silence of the Lambs have sucked me in and held my rooting interest from start to finish.

    And an update, one year later, as the Fincher movie is soon to be released: I tried to read the first “Dragon Tattoo” book…and gave up! Argh. As Elmore Leonard said in an interview when asked about the book, “That was a lot of writing.” It’s not that I don’t enjoy crime fiction with a lot of detail — I enjoy Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and “The Devil in the White City” by Eric Larson was fantastic. I just found Dragon Tattoo to be tedious. To each his own.

    Thanks for reading! Feel free to post comments elsewhere. 🙂

    Reply
  3. TPK
    TPK says:

    A couple responses:

    -- We never got to know the girl who was murdered -- 1) she was not murdered 2) no character development, agreed, but we do get to see the connection to the disappearance/serial killing
    -- The nazi connection -- I believe it’s a valid connection. Remember, the first murders started in 1949 (I believe) so the original killer, Gottfried, started shortly after the war, and his murders were biblical and based on Jewish prejudice -- something Martin felt was a mistake on his part.

    I liked the film, felt it was well shot and directed. I’ve seen a dubbed copy, easier to watch and appreciate. Of course, the book had more character development and detail…but that’s usually the case.

    Enjoy!

    Reply

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