The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Looking through some old notes, I came across some essays that I never got around to publishing, for some reason or another. Even though they are rather old, I thought some of them were well worth adding to Elegant Entropy.

December 27, 2011

I saw David Fincher’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” over Christmas weekend. I liked it; I tend to like David Fincher movies. I also liked the original Swedish adaptation. I haven’t read the original novel, though after seeing both movie versions, I’m not sure there’s much of a point now other than completionism.

The biggest flaw that I see in the story — which I’m assuming is a flaw inherent in the source material — is that there are three completely distinct stories going on here. I thought it might just be the Swedish film, but after seeing Fincher’s, I think it’s from the book. Some spoilers follow, if you care.

Story 1: Harriet Vanger

Obviously, the central story of the book is the search for what happened to Harriet Vanger. It’s an old-fashioned mystery in many ways; I could see Agatha Christie writing this story, honestly, though with most of the nastiness cleaned out.

The thing of that is that this central story of the book doesn’t actually require the participation of the titular “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at all. There’s nothing Lisbeth does in this part of the story that’s all that essential. It could have been completely recast so that Mikael did everything Lisbeth does without her having to be there at all. Lisbeth really doesn’t add all that much to the central story of the book.

I think this is a case of a supporting character coming along and taking over a narrative. Clearly, Mikael was intended to be the central character; he was obviously a stand-in for Stieg Larsson himself. To a great degree, the novel was a wish fulfillment fantasy for Larsson, who wrote the books mostly as a hobby to escape from his day job as a magazine journalist. Then, along came the character Lisbeth, who just ran rampant over Larsson’s old-fashioned narrative.

Story 2: Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth’s story, although a secondary narrative, is clearly what made the novel a sensation, even inspiring the English-language name of the book (the original Swedish title translates as “Men Who Hate Women” — you can see some of the marketing issues with that, I’m sure). And certainly, Lisbeth’s narrative is compelling. She is an interesting character, all the more because of the way she deals with the various traumas in her life. Thrust into a world that continuously tries to victimize her, Lisbeth refuses to be a victim.

Of course, in refusing to be a victim, in some ways, Lisbeth becomes as much of a monster as those she encounters. In this way, Lisbeth is a lot like Batman — as much of a psychopath as those in his rogue’s gallery, but it’s acceptable and even laudable to the audience because he directs his psychosis at those who are deemed to deserve it. And certainly, the monsters Lisbeth confront deserve what happens to them. It doesn’t make Lisbeth any less of a monster herself, though. And that’s part of what makes her fascinating.

It’s also no doubt the reason Lisbeth became the focus of the rest of the novels.

It doesn’t change the fact that Lisbeth’s story is still a secondary narrative, and the primary narrative doesn’t need any of it.

Story 3: Hans-Erik Wennerström

The novel kicks off because of Mikael’s conviction for libel against Hans-Erik Wennerström, as do both films. To some degree, it’s this event that allows Mikael to be available to be hired by Henrick Vanger; if Mikael were not so publicly disgraced, he likely would have no interest in Vanger’s proposal.

The Swedish film — wisely, I think — minimized this story. In the end, it’s resolved with Lisbeth handing over to Mikael a file of materials he can use to prove Wennerström’s criminal activities. The scene is a few moments in the film’s denouement.

Fincher, however, unwisely chose to following what I assume was the pattern of the book, allowing the film to go on for another hour after the primary storyline had been resolved. As fascinating as Lisbeth’s Mission: Impossible-esque plot that takes down Wennerström is, it really is the tale end of a story that wasn’t necessary. After Harriet Vanger’s story was resolved, I was really ready to leave the theater, and not just because of the large Diet Pepsi I drank during the movie.

The whole end of the movie basically manages to defang Lisbeth, because everything she does, she does because she has fallen in love with Mikael. This is really inexplicable because Mikael hasn’t really done anything to deserve that. And, of course, in the end, he proves to be something of a cad, which we might have suspected because of his relationship with Erika Berger — and which Lisbeth should have known, too, because she knew more about him than anyone else. You know more about me than my closest friends, Mikael tells Lisbeth at one point.

In the end, Mikael victimizes Lisbeth in a way very different from how her legal guardian does, but in some ways rather worse, because Lisbeth has absolutely no defenses against this sort of trauma. It may not make Lisbeth a pathetic figure, but it certainly makes her pitiable. It also makes the purported hero of the story considerably less likable.

In that sense, then, I argue that the ending of Fincher’s film (and presumably the novel), while powerful in its own way, is also ineffective. The story sets Mikael up as a good man fighting the good fight — and then completely destroys him as a sympathetic character. Likewise, the story sets Lisbeth up as a hardcore badass — and then completely destroys that about her, turning her into, well, something of a victim.

Overall, I liked Fincher’s movie, but its flaws, inherited from the source material though they may be, ultimately drag it down.


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