Friday, March 16, 2012

In defense of GwaDT2011: Alex throws the book at me.

Hey there, sports fans. In response to my (what I hope read as) generally positive but somewhat lukewarm review of Fincher's DRAGON TATTOO movie, Ms. Alexandra Dickinson responds with a fan's passion and a doctoral candidate's diction. She's approaching it as someone who has read the book, and appropriately wrote a book-length response which was too long to fit in the comments section. So here's a differing opinion by the person who convinced me to see the thing to begin with.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Dickinson:
I wrote too much and it won't fit in comments and I'm too lazy to figure out why I can't successfully make more than one comment your blog... but, here are my thoughts:
Being a creeper more than a speaker – this whole commenting business is a little foreign to me. So as a preface I will say: please, dear internet world, treat me kindly as I fumble through this response.
At the end of your review you astutely point out that “If you’re gonna cover a song, you gotta at least know why.” – I really couldn’t agree with that statement more, particularly because it touches on something that I think was missing from your analysis of the importance of cover songs or movie remakes (and in turn, why I think Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was worthwhile, functional and important).
Part of the beauty of a remake of any kind is that it says more about the culture and time in which it was being re-made than it says about the importance or vitality of the work itself. Sure the careful analysis of any replication can help you isolate the structural elements of a piece in a way that makes it possible to more completely appreciate the form in its naked state – but without the context of the surrounding world you’re never going to figure out why it’s being made, or what it’s trying to say.
With that in mind, before I address the films themselves, I feel as though the story needs some defense: I actually think that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (or Men Who Hate Women, if you will) is a serviceable narrative in that it is a decent vehicle for cultural introspection. I definitely agree that Stieg Larsson’s original Millenium trilogy is not the “multifluously rich fount of humanity” that it could have been, but it still provides a decent dose of humanity. Additionally it has clearly endeared itself to millions of people – and why?  Because every day people understand it.  It’s an easy message.  Larsson was a journalist who devoted his life to fighting and exposing extremism and his weapon of choice was this straight-forward, no-nonsense, simple sentence filled style. So basically, Larsson was all about saying: extremism is bad, equality is good – but because he wasn’t going to make any money writing “extremism is bad” over and over again. So he threw in some morally complicated characters, at least one of which is truly unique (Salander),  and some Nazis – which are a pretty big flash-bang taboo topic in Scandinavia (and have not been fetishized in the same way in literature or film there as they have  been here). 
The first book in the trilogy (it’s difficult to say trilogy that, because the second two are really just the same story with a half-time in between them) is obviously the flashiest. It draws the audience in which then allows the rest of the trilogy to really go at it with hammering that extremism point without as much of the flash. We know he wanted to write more – but alas, that whole death thing caught up to him first.  Either way, he was super successful in getting people (millions of them) involved in a story about the cultural ills of extremism, moral ambiguity and relativism and all of this without bringing systemic terrorism into the plot (no small feat for a book written in 2002). And I think any time people are reading a book where they have to really consider any of those things is a good time – and is way more than just a trashy nazi serial killer mystery thriller.
Onto a defense of the film…
The more I think about it, the less I think it makes sense to compare the Swedish screenplay to the American one. In fact, the films themselves are so fundamentally different in form and function that I think the whole comparison business may do a disservice to them both – but that’s for another paragraph.  The Arcel/Heisterberg screenplay - which definitely takes some bold liberties with the plot of the story – is definitely more straightforwardly entertaining than the Zaillian screenplay. Ultimately, I think that the differences exist because they were both written with wildly different intents. I agree that when the Swedish film came out they were interested in getting  the “goods out of the material.
The goods, in this case, being a highly marketable and universally palatable rendition of the story (the plot can lend itself to that kind of treatment) in true Swollywood production, without really addressing what it was actually all about.
Essentially the Swedish screenplay cuts the sinews out of the novel and delivers the beating heart, in contrast the Fincher/Zaillian version provides a full body – sinews & all. The Zaillian screenplay does have all of the appearances of being a closer rendition of the plot of the book – but in reality, they both take serious liberties.  I think the difference lies in the fact that the choices Zaillian made were much bigger statements than the ones Arcel/Heisterberg did.  That black sheep religious daughter? She’s a pretty good complicating factor when considering themes of religious extremism. Comparatively downplaying Salander in the American version? I think it paves the way for some excellent growth in the follow-up films and highlights what the film was actually about.
Which leads me to the next point – while the first installment of the Millenium trilogy is obviously pre-occupied with Larsson’s concern with misogyny – I don’t think that is what it’s all about. It’s truly all about the effect of extremism – extreme violence (the rape), extreme inequality (falling through the cracks of a welfare system), extremist beliefs. So what the Swedish version does is it takes the sexy action and highlights that, while the American version is digging deeper.  Fincher is all about statement stories. I think he has made a brave choice by opting to give this story the kind of treatment he has given it. He is moving beyond the obvious marketable benefits of a badass female heroine, and beyond the obvious offenses of a brutal rape and a f--d* up system - and onto the far darker depths of extremism, which is a story that has a ton of utility in our culture today.
Fincher’s GWTDT was marketed in a way if you hadn’t read the books, or were not already invested in the story in some way  you weren’t necessarily going to hop into theaters (which if you look at the box office – proved to be true.) Which wasn’t such a bad choice if you consider that it allows him to  1) rightfully distances it from the Swedish film 2) tap into the audience of Americans who gobbled up these stories in print and 3)pave the way for a solid first step into what promises to be a really good trilogy.
So, sure, maybe the Swedish version works better as a classic action-thriller, the American version works better as a sleek film with a message. That’s why Rooney “I wish she was my girlfriend” Mara’s performance is really beautiful in its unnerving instability and why it looks so frail compared to Noomi Rapace’s Salander. I think that’s the more interesting choice – and the more worthwhile one when it comes to developing an actual film. I’ll be really interested to see how Daniel “I wish he was my boyfriend” Craig chooses to develop Blomkvist in the subsequent films – while I thought he was obviously brutally awesome (if someone could arrange for him to be typing in his underwear on my macbook for my birthday – uh, I’d be down with that) – I think that Rooney Mara played Salander in a way that will grow way more interesting, whereas I kind of think Craig may have maxed it out this time.
So to sum it all up, while we are talking about essentially the same story – they aren’t comparable products.  For the same reason you cannot just say “well we can compare apples and oranges because they are both fruit” I don’t think it’s fair to say we can compare these films just because they are both based on Larsson’s books. And with that comparative separation taken care of – I think that Fincher’s film is a really decent beginning to what will prove to be a solidly epic (perhaps subtle) reflection of extremist tendencies in America.
In the end sometimes two different covers of the same song are too different to compare, and require the context of the rest of the world to really appreciate what they are doing out there at all.

*fucked -- editor.

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