Shakespeare famously asked “What’s in a name?”, a quote that surely resonates with actress Rooney Mara, whose name is her lineage. Unlike the warring families of Romeo and Juliet, however, Ms. Mara represents the joining of two families. Her great-grandfathers, Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr. and Giants founder Tim Mara, are her namesakes, which makes Rooney Mara football royalty. She made a regal impression on filmgoers this holiday season in her breakout role as Lisbeth Salander in the American adaptation of the crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a murder mystery based on the best selling first novel in late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Disgraced liberal journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the 40-year old mystery of his favorite niece’s murder, most likely perpetrated by another member of his reclusive, dysfunctional family. Blomkvist teams up with Lisbeth Salander (Mara), an enigmatic young computer hacker who is antisocial, goth, and completely brilliant, and together they begin to unravel a decades old pattern of misogynistic serial murders.
This film is the second movie adaptation of Larsson’s book, preceded in 2009 by a very well received Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth. I admit to feeling somewhat cynical when I first heard Fincher was remaking Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish film utterly blew me away, and an American remake seemed redundant: a blatant cash grab and obvious pandering to the portion of the American cinema-going public that isn’t willing to sit through a subtitled foreign-language film. That said, Fincher somehow manages to add something more to Dragon Tattoo, and the only reason I wasn’t totally blown away by it is that I was already familiar with the plot.
Fincher deftly directs The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a thinking person’s thriller. It plays not as a bunch of high action set pieces strung together by a loose plot, but rather as a meticulously crafted intrigue that unfolds precisely, richly, and moodily. No film has ever made hacking e-mails and researching records in musty old archives quite so sexy or exciting, either. But at the core of the film’s success is the tenuous relationship between Salander and Blomkvist. Craig’s Blomkvist is bookish but with a slight James Bond edge, and Mara plays Lisbeth as a guarded, wounded soul who only allows Blomkvist to get close because he respects her as a woman. The original title of Larsson’s novel is Men Who Hate Women, and misogyny and violence against women is a theme of the Millennium Trilogy.
Something of a phenomenon has arisen around the Millennium Trilogy in recent years, particularly the cult of Lisbeth Salander, and comparisons between the two films, especially the two Lisbeths, are inevitable. Lisbeth’s goth getup is her armor, protecting her from the world, and though Mara gets more “uglied up” — with piercings and punk hair — than Rapace did in the role, she also plays Lisbeth with a little more youth, which makes her seem more vulnerable in her waifishness. In comparison, Rapace’s Lisbeth seems both older and more hardened. Likewise, Craig’s Blomkvist is a little nerdy but more proactive than his Swedish counterpart, played capably by Michael Nyqvist.
Except for divergent endings, there are only minor differences plot-wise between the American and Swedish films. In both films, the genealogy of the Vanger family gets tedious and confusing, but the Swedish film gives some tantalizing glimpses into Lisbeth’s tortured past, which only warrants a brief mention in the American version. Both films are dark and violent, including two graphic rape scenes, but I find Fincher’s film to be more sophisticated in its moodiness. He also adds a few points of levity in interactions between Blomkvist and Lisbeth that endear me even more to the characters and their evolving relationship.
I lean toward endorsing the American version of Dragon Tattoo over the Swedish original, though only by a very thin margin. I have not read Larsson’s novel, but the fact that two almost equally excellent adaptations of the same book could be made in such a short time is a testament to the strength of the source material. There are two more books in the Millennium series, both of which have already been adapted into very good Swedish films. Hopefully The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does enough box office to warrant making the American sequels, and Rooney Mara will have the opportunity to take another star turn in what is sure to become one of her defining roles as an actress, and another chapter in a great family history.