The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: two movies, two cultures

A cultural approach to the comparison of the Swedish and US adaptations of Millennium I.

I am a big supporter of book adaptations into movies. I love seeing the differences, the way the director chose to show this and that, emphasize some elements, and (unluckily) leave other stuff out. I also consider that reading a book before or after watching the movie is not an issue; it just changes your experience and how you grasp the whole story. This, however, is another debate, to which you can start participating here: Read It 1st.

Here, given that the book has now been adapted into two different movie versions, the debate seems evident: which one is closer to the book, has better visual effects, will get more prizes and notoriety.

More interesting, thought, would be to make another kind of comparison, with a cultural approach, taking into account the way each movie was made, the country where it was produced, by whom, and under which circumstances. Of course, I will talk about the way they adapted such and such element, and try to point out cultural factors.

1. The general plot

It’s not a secret. The Swedish version diverges from the original plot from time to time, especially as regards the main element: the murder/disappearance of Harriet Vanger. I mean, come on, even some key clues come up in very different ways, such as the Bible references. But why would we need to always stick to the story as told in the books? If we’re going through the exact same thing all over again, what’s the point? We would be disappointed anyway, since there would obviously be some divergences from what we had pictured in our minds. I enjoy watching a movie that reflects how the director grasped the story and wanted to emphasize such and such things. In a way, he’s telling a different story, his version of that story. Every story has two versions, right? But enough of my own opinion, let’s move on to the facts.

The Swedish version shows us a simpler environment, which in fact sticks more to the book sometimes. For instance, the Millennium editorial staff and HQ are smaller and simpler as opposed to their American counterparts. This might correspond to Scandinavians’ simpler lifestyle. Most of you may not know, for example, that some Scandinavian government officials ride their own, basic cars, as opposed, for example, to gaudy hydrogen Hummers or, even closer, French Citroën C6. Of course, times change, and Sweden has become much more security-aware, coming closer to British or US security standards, especially after Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s assassination.

As regards the Hollywood adaptation, it seems sticking to the original story may have proved a wiser shot. After all, it would have been stupid to ignore the whole exploitable feedback from the Swedish movie. So this could have been a way for Hollywood to satisfy audience and get better criticism, since the Swede version was so much criticized as too far from the book (let’s not forget this film was first shot as a TV miniseries/TV movie, and was never meant to be screened on theatres, plus editing a 6-episode miniseries can result in tough edits and big cut-outs).

Although we could point out the many differences that exist between Swedish and US cultures and the consequences on the movies, we might as well acknowledge their similarities. A good example of this would be the power of consortiums (Vanger Group, Wennerström). Sweden is also the home country of companies such as IKEA (yep, Nazis there too), a first choice when it comes to furnishing our homes. Why am I talking about furniture? IKEA means simplicity, broader access to goods, consumerism… rings a bell? Those are pretty common in the US too. So the two countries are not so different in some aspects.

2. The characters

A general remark as regards the characters: obviously, the Swedish version does not worry as much about looks as the US version. Swedish, like Scandinavians in general, tend to be much more down to earth, simple people. This explains why the characters are closer to us common mortals, with wrinkles and skin issues, dirty hair, imperfect makeup… (of course, visual effects are also part of Hollywood culture).

All characters’ versions also seem to eat lots of junk food. I don’t know about the real Swedes, but I wonder if this really reflects their ways, or if Larsson intentionally made his characters junk food addicts (book, movies respect that aspect). It might be justified by the fact that all have very absorbing jobs/lives that apparently do not allow them to get proper nutrition/food. Or the author might have wanted to give an American touch to them, making them more like American heroes. For those who didn’t know (I didn’t), Stieg Larsson named his character Lisbeth after helplessly witnessing a girl being raped by a gang. We might speculate he projected himself into Blomkvist, the hero he would have liked to be in real life.

a. Lisbeth Salander

The big debate about this character is whether Lisbeth’s marginal features are exaggerated or not. The Swedish version is allegedly too exaggerated, and the US one closer to the book character. However, it must be pointed out that European cinema often diverges from mainstream cinema standards. For instance, the director could have wanted to emphasize Lisbeth’s traits, and show a great part of her personality through her looks and her behaviour and physical expressions. The director could have found there an equivalent for the omnipresent narrator in the book, otherwise needing a voice off in order to convey the whole message to the spectator. And let’s be honest, a voice off is as good as reading the book, so we might as well do that. Without a narrator, the movie needs to show this in other ways, hence the seemingly visual exaggeration of Lisbeth.

Swedish Lisbeth is also shown as much more independent and even aggressive (again, exaggeration). But we could ask ourselves if this does not reflect the general opinion about women in Europe, and especially in Sweden, where they are deemed much more equal to men than in the whole American continent. It might be pertinent to point out the irony of this equality policy, which is tackled and contradicted in the second and third tomes of Millennium. The fact that women are considered equal to men leaves real issues unsolved, as such issues seem only to happen abroad, and to other people.

As regards the American version of Lisbeth, we come to see that US movie standards still have some of their own pillars: beauty. Beauty sells, especially in the US. So no wonder Rooney Mara was the one. Or rather not? After all, we are expecting a normal-looking girl (not that Noomi Rapace isn’t beautiful, right?). But again, Hollywood makes miracles, and that also works for anti-beauty. Even though she keeps her natural attractiveness, the way American Lisbeth Salander looks and behaves tells us something is off about her. If you ask me, she sometimes even seems to be in a trance or something.

b. Mikael Blomkvist

Super Blomkvist is also entitled to his own debate: must he be handsome? European filmmakers will tell you that it doesn’t matter (in fact, I wonder if that answer is still valid today, given the influence of Hollywood). Michael Nyqvist might be handsome to some, but we have to acknowledge the fact that he has some hair and skin issues, plus some 40-something fat. And that’s fine. In any case, the book shows his charming and attractive personality, nothing about good looks. But the fact is that this doesn’t really matter. What the story needs is a fine, brave reporter.

It matters in Hollywood, though. Who better that David Craig to play the gorgeous, intelligent and reading glasses player Blomkvist. It’s still a bit odd to see James Bond jump into Millennium head reporter’s shoes, but he actually does quite well. Maybe the Bond role even helped get the charm needed, plus the skills required to do all these off-contract tasks. And it’s not as if he didn’t have any European cinema knowledge (remember Layer Cake). He even knows how to drive! This differs greatly from Swedish Mikael, who not only doesn’t drive unless needed, but also reflects the Northern European average citizen, who will prefer public transportation. This shows us that to some extent, Swedes are less individualistic than Americans, even though Hoftede’s cultural dimensions seem to show both cultures as quite individualistic.

3. Photography, visual elements, accessories and props

The American version does quite well here! We could have expected Hollywood to rip off the story up to the point at which Mikael Blomkvist becomes Peter Parker in some US city. Or a British city, just to make it more European, you know. After all, Europe is a teeny tiny continent that you can consider a sole entity, right? But no, Mikael Blomkvist remains Mikael Blomkvist (cuter), in Stockholm, and every single element is written in Swedish. Even magazines. Nice, isn’t it? Gives more realism to it, and people appreciate that. I guess Hollywood knew they had to stick to the original story as much as possible, especially based on the criticism about the Swedish film.

But this re-adaptation also shows what happens in Hollywood nowadays. Directors are growing apart from ancient Hollywood standards and experimenting with other schools (European, e.g.). Or maybe I’m wrong, and Hollywood’s greatness went to the point of being prefect in every possible way, even if it now means sticking to the real places, names, or even languages to some extent (wouldn’t it have been great to hear David Craig speak Swedish?).

Finally, Swedes may be more simple people, but let’s also keep in mind the Swedish adaptation obviously had a smaller budget, which could account for the difference in photography, visual elements and shooting sites. But budgets are not everything!

_____

To finish, I wanted yet again to remind you that, should you need to compare both movies, the Swedish adaptation was a TV miniseries at first, which meant a different approach to the story. This, along with the final movie edition, could explain some of the biggest element exclusions in the film. As regards Hollywood’s tendency to re-adapt foreign productions into blockbusters shows the general lack of creativity and profit orientation, but also the need and will to impose itself as the worldwide reference of (blockbuster) movie production.

If you wonder which one I preferred, I would instinctively pick the Swedish version. But again, there’s always more than one side to each story. I enjoyed both. I twitched every time something got extremely far away from the original story, and I mentally noted differences, emphasis, and cultural background. If you haven’t seen both, please do. And read the books. And check the soundtracks; they’re great. And culturally representative.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to post a comment or contact me on Twitter!

Further reading:
If you have read the three books and want some book/movie comparisons, take a look here:
– The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest: comparison between the theatrical version and the extended version: here;
– The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: book to movie differences: here;
– 8 Biggest Differences Between The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Book & Movie: here;
– The Girls with the Dragon Tattoos: here. The best comparison between the two films that I have read so far.

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