My thoughts on the two Salanders – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies

*The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be abbreviated GWDT to save time.

When looking at the difference between Niels Arden Oplev’s original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and David Fincher’s American interpretation it is clear that Fincher made an engaging, dynamic, and visually stunning movie, however the American interpretation of GWDT also changed the gender dynamics in a way which made Lisbeth Salander a very different character. This is not to say Noomi Rapace’s original performance was better than Rooney Mara’s Salander – only that they were very different. Much has been said already about how Rapace’s Salander was more stoic and Mara’s more vulnerable so I won’t emphasize that point as much. However the thing which made the gender dynamic so dramatically different was the difference in Michael Nyqvist’s Mikael Blomkvist with Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist and the directors’ framing of their relationship with each other.

One of the things that made Oplev’s GWDT so exciting to me was to see a female protagonist who was self defined. For all the abuse Salander has been subjected to she refuses to be a victim. Her detachment keeps her in a position of power, and while she’s shown in pain in many parts of the film – trying to cleanse her self after being sexually harassed, physically limping after being raped, frustrated with her lack of fiscal control – ultimately she asserts control and doesn’t ever ask for help. She brings a camera to record the rape, sodomizes the assaulter, tattoos a warning to all future women, blackmails him and reclaims her life. With Blomkvist she knows everything about him before he meets her, and while she’s initially surprised to find him in her apartment, she knows about the case and has already engaged by researching the case and emailing him a clue he’d missed before he invites her to join in solving it. If he didn’t offer – she’d still be looking at the case and working on solving it. Her role wasn’t defined by him. Even when they have sex, he is basically her human dildo and while he consents, he’s not in control of the situation. The recurring flashbacks to her lighting the match and throwing it onto her gas soaked father continually show us Salander has been taking control of her life since her childhood and has no qualms with serving a harsh justice to those who seek to hold control over others.

However in Fincher’s GWDT this Salander is much less in control. It is not just Mara’s performance of a more vulnerable and emotionally expressive Salander, it is the construction of the film around the character. We don’t see the young Salander’s defiant match striking – and that visual reminder of her strength is lost. When we are introduced to the history of abuse, it is in a much quieter more vulnerable moment after Blomkvist has been attacked by Martin Vanger when he asks her about her past. That element of her story is introduced to us not in relationship to Salander and her motives, but in relationship to Blomkvist and his question.

This dynamic is repeated in many instances throughout the film. When he enters her apartment he immediately takes control of the situation having the element of surprise, ordering her to send her girlfriend out and then within the same meeting saying, “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” It is once again Blomkvist with the control, Salander’s desire for justice being used to convince her to join the case. He already knows that it is a killer of women, and uses this as bait to enlist her help – rather than Oplev’s interpretation which puts Salader in control as her natural desire to solve puzzles leads Blomkvist to learn about the other deaths.

When Salander and Blomkvist begin to have a sexual relationship – she already knows about his open relationships and doesn’t care. Oplev show’s Salander initiating the relationship, Blomkvist consenting but not taking much control, and the emotional bond is more his fondness for her growing with her gradual trust. It is he who wants to sleep in her bed, smiles more and is left desiring more than what they have. In Fincher’s interpretation while it begins the same way with Salander undressing and getting in bed with Blomkvist, Blomkvist clearly takes control, and as he consents he turns over and becomes the dominant partner. While Oplev leaves Blomkvist as the human dildo, Fincher has a much more assertive and masculine Blomkvist.

In both interpretations after Martin Vanger nearly kills Blomkvist, Salander saves him. In Oplev’s interpretation she stays just long enough to make sure he’s okay before chasing down Vanger. After Vanger drives off the road, the adult Lisbeth lights a cigarette, tossing the match and watching the killer burn visually connecting her actions to the childhood motif. She is once again in control. In Fincher’s interpretation she asks, “May I kill him?” After she gets permission she begins the chase which results in the crash. When she watches him burn she does so without lighting the fire. This once again is a fundamentally different interpretation of Salander. Core to Salander’s strength in Oplev’s film was that she doesn’t ask for permission, she takes action and does what she thinks is right regardless of others. Furthermore when in Fincher’s film she doesn’t light the match – she ends up being once again the spectator of violence, not the acting agent responsible for ending it.

Later when the Wennerström plotline is resolved – the same dynamic appears again in Fincher’s interpretation. Salander asks Blomkvist if she should help before acting. He doesn’t know what specifically she’s doing regarding the hacked account– but he approves her participation before action is taken. Whereas in Oplev’s interpretation she’s already begun to follow that case and just gives him the evidence. She’s solving the case because she wants to – not for Blomkvist, though she gives him her research to clear his name while she goes off to hack the accounts. In Fincher’s film Salander asks for his permission and works with Blomkvist – and their relationship continues as they work together. She acts as his partner not a free agent.

The ultimate difference in how I left feeling about the films came to the closing impression of Salander. In Fincher’s film Blomkvist is with his editor Berger again, and it is Salander who backs away hurt, throwing away the jacket she’d specially made for him before racing off into the night as the film ended. Meanwhile in Oplev’s film Salander has just finished resolving the Wennerström affair, and Blomkvist smiles seeing the security footage realizing it was Salander. She meanwhile walks along a sunny promenade on the Cayman Islands. In Fincher’s closing Blomkvist is happy as his life has been restored to where it was before he was sent to jail while Salander once again a sad loner. In Oplev’s film Blomkvist is happy as he’s restored his name and he’s also happy for Salander for being the one to take things into her own hands. Salander is also left in a better place as she’s now made millions, served justice and is left in an island paradise. Both characters in Oplev’s film have success in their objectives and are completely independent at the end. In Fincher’s film Blomkvist has his plotlines happily resolved whereas Salander’s happiness is dependent on Blomkvist and so she is left without.

The cumulative effect of all these moments made Oplev’s Salander a much stronger character than Fincher’s Salander. Not because of the interpretations and quality of the acting of Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara– but because of the framing of the story. If Mara had been in Oplev’s film and was vulnerable but didn’t ask for permission it would have more strength and control over the narrative than if Rapace had been equally strong in Fincher’s film while asking for permission.

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