A well trod story is a well trod story. A story once told can be retold over and over again with the next teller adding flourishes and brushstrokes that take the material into whole new directions that the original author might never have conceived. It’s the whole purpose of adaptations taking a novel, a comic book, etc. and morphing the original story to fit into an all new medium. And that story once adapted, continues to morph thanks to Hollywood’s dearth of original ideas and continuous lapping at the remake pool. If a story is truly great, it should hold up to any and all of these transformations at its core, even if execution finds itself lacking. A story can be retold over the course of years and decades and its effect won’t necessarily ebb. However, a story told at a constant rate over the course of just a few short years, each telling more hyped and popular than the last, may hinder whatever effect the story had in the first place.
Stieg Larsson’s original novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is not that great story. It’s not even particularly good. It’s at best an OK thriller with a fascinating central character in Lisbeth Salander. But it is that well trod story. Niels Arden Oplev’s original Swedish adaptation of the novel from just a few short years ago was fairly unremarkable but hewed close enough to the source material and has its ardent fans. Noomi Rapace was an outstanding Salander and is probably central to making that role so iconic. Director David Fincher, coming off the near masterpiece of The Social Network, and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, have taken up the unenviable task of adapting an extremely popular novel only a couple of years after an almost equally popular film made in Sweden.
The source material certainly seems in Fincher’s wheelhouse. A crackling investigation into a missing girl case that dovetails into a series of unsolved murders from the director of Seven and Zodiac, this movie should be so much more than the sum of its parts but there is just far too much holding it back, much of it stemming from the novel itself. Story problems plague the book and there’s little the filmmakers can do but steer into the skid. Like the book, the film ends about a half hour after it probably should have. The mystery itself feels stagnant and almost mechanical. The main crux of the story involves the dark and terrible secrets of the Vangers, a family of Nazis and perverts who happen to head one of the bigger corporations in Sweden. Much of the novel involves sifting through old records and getting to know this family one by one as we get to know their sordid history. If anything, it might be the most interesting part of the book. Unfortunately, despite Fincher’s best efforts, these same scenes end up feeling cinematically inert and devoid of character.
Having both read the novel and seen the original Swedish film, Fincher’s film can’t help but feel rote. That’s not to say there aren’t some improvements and special Fincher flourishes that pick the film up and certainly spike interest. It would all be so great if it was for source material that was just a bit better. Fincher builds harrowing scenes around the superb Rooney Mara, ably picking up Rapace’s torch for the tortured Salander, and this is where the film really finds its strides. During much of the first half, Mara is living in her own separate film that only superficially connects with anything that Daniel Craig is doing involving the Vangers and that section is so much better for it.
Because in the end, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is little more than a procedural crime drama that wouldn’t seem out of place on the CBS schedule: CSI: Stockholm. Craig is given the thankless role of Mikael Blomkvist, a scandal plagued financial journalist. The character is the bland hero of the piece but of course all of the “cool” and interesting moments are given to Mara. Craig is fine with the role but there’s only so much one can do while looking studiously over papers and computer screens. Mara, on the other hand, takes the Salander role and truly makes it her own. Rapace was great in the Swedish version and Mara meets that previous iteration beat for beat. She finds new facets of the character and is a worthy successor to Rapace’s performance. Mara emanates control, a strong theme throughout the film. In control of herself and those around her. It’s a fantastic performance and makes the film worth watching on its own.
There is a lot to like in the film but it all feels so unnecessary. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s propulsive score with its low hums and harsh beats pushes the film forward and, as with even Fincher’s lesser work, there’s a certain level of craftsmanship one expects behind the scenes and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t disappoint in this regard. But when as bland and uninteresting story as this has been told already, it all feels a waste of a talented filmmaker and cast. But this is the well trod story they chose to tell and it’s not particularly bad. But, unfortunately, it’s a far cry from their best work as well.