Friday, December 23, 2011

I have not seen the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Today, I'm going to continue a theme from my last post, Complaining About Media I Have Not Actually Experienced. Last time it was Mass Effect 3, a game I have not played, and this time it's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the Fincher version), a movie I have not seen.

In my defense, I'm really going to complain about the Swedish film based on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Fincher's movie reportedly resembles). I liked certain things about that movie, and was disappointed with it in other ways. Part of the reason I'm not thrilled for the new version is that I find it unlikely the Fincher film fixes the particular thing that bothered me most about its predecessor.

That thing, to come to the point, is the treatment of Mikael Blomkvist. Obviously the book was titled "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (in English, anyway), and Lisbeth Salander is the most iconic character. She's fascinating in her own right, and the Swedish film does, I thought, a pretty fair job with her. But to me, Blomkvist is vitally important in making the story - and the character of Salander - really sing. The original Swedish title, of the book and movie, translates as "Men who hate women." Mikael Blomkvist is our principal masculine beacon in the book's dark world, the one man in the story who just loves women. I mean that both snidely and seriously: yes, Blomkvist is a lover and a Casanova, but he also seems to just really like women as people. He has a soulmate in Erika Berger, a great friendship that transcends sex and even romance (and boy does that important and unusual connection get short shrift in the movie, but I get it, they can't do everything). He sees past Salander's brutal exterior and can't resist what he finds there - and he's willing to put forth the incredible gentleness and patience necessary to get even a little close to her. While he's comfortable dealing with men, none of his male relationships has anything like the same level of intimacy or intensity. The guy just really likes women.

Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist - I know, right?
At the same time, there's a lot of ambiguity to him, because he can also be very selfish. He gets into an affair with Cecilia knowing full well that it will end with her getting hurt. He's upfront with her about what he can and can't be to her from the start, but it's still a serious failure of compassion. His sexuality morality is complex and imperfect, especially compared with his flawless professional ethics and journalistic devotion to justice and fairness.

Blomkvist in the novel is also important as Salander's ideal working partner. Their skills and temperments complement beautifully as they work the case together. They are equals, but they aren't the same, and they both need each other. Salander is a brilliant analyst, Blomkvist is a brilliant communicator. Salander is a woman of decisive action, Blomkvist is a man of patience and subtlety. Salander, with her varied skillset and ruthless outlook, makes things happen in the shadows; Blomkvist, with his raw charisma and straightforward reputation, shines in the spotlight. They work incredibly well together, and the respect that grows out of this working relationship is very important in building the difficult intimate relationship that's really the point of the whole exercise.

I found that the Swedish film seemed to abandon this beautiful balance. Blomkvist became a much more typical macho hero like you've seen in countless thrillers, emotionally distant, blandly moral, and somewhat plodding. Against this lesser foil, Salander becomes less a traumatized person working through terrible pain, and more a sort of magical girlfriend, capable of (and in fact, usually necessary to) solving all of Blomkvist's problems but not always available due to seemingly irrational hangups - almost a nastier, more violent "I Dream of Jeannie."

No scene captures the difference as much as Blomkvist and Salander's first meeting. This is an incredible sequence in the novel. Blomkvist has tracked down Salander, the hacker who secretly investigated him early in the story, and in doing so he realizes that she's very good and he could use her on his side. He shows up at her door early in the morning; she gets out of bed to answer his knock, and she's sullen and irritated. But Blomkvist barges in and merrily starts cleaning the kitchen, talking a mile a minute about how much he admires her work and could use her help. He offers her a bagel for breakfast. As it happens, this is exactly the right way to approach Salander; she's use to cruelty, selfishness and abuse, and she knows how to handle those things. She's caught utterly off guard - for the first time, in the reader's experience - by this bubbly ray of sunshine. She listens to him instead of kicking him out on his ass, and their awkward, halting, intense relationship is off with that first slightly lowered boundary.

In the Swedish film, Blomkvist shows up at Salander's door threatening her because her investigation was illegal. He uses this as leverage to get her to listen to him as he asks for her help on the case, and suggests that she owes him something. She  decides to help him. Frankly, it's a terribly out-of-character scene for Salander. The movie has very effectively demonstrated her big hang-up at this point: if you hurt Salander or threaten to hurt her, she has to hurt you worse. It's a kneejerk response, she really has very little choice, no matter how stupid hitting back is in the given circumstance. Blomkvist implying he could get her in legal trouble should have resulted in her inviting him inside so she could get a metal bat and strike him repeatedly in the head with it. Instead she's cowed by it, because, I guess, the plot has to keep moving. Later they have some sex.

I'm sure that Fincher's movie is a great thriller - the Swedish film certainly is. But by sacrificing Blomkvist on the altar of the Generic Male Hero Guy, the Swedish film lost a great foil for its famous protagonist and a lot of the book's most compelling thematic elements. I'm guessing that Fincher's movie still won't let me see that part of the story realized on screen, and that moves it out of "must see now" territory for me.

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