Saturday, January 7, 2012

Girls, Dragons, Tattoos & Hollywood Remakes

By Steve Evans

In the entire history of cinema I cannot name a single significant foreign film that was a remake of a motion picture made in the United States. However, the number of American remakes of major foreign movies must be close to 1,000.

Sometimes the remake is only approximate. “The Seven Samurai” (1954), Akira Kurosawa’s action masterpiece of feudal Japan, was remade six years later with the story transposed to the American Old West in “The Magnificent Seven.”

Sometimes a remake is designed to resemble the original film as closely as possible, particularly when both are based on a wildly popular novel, as is the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Author Stieg Larsson died in 2004 before the books in his now-famous Millennium series were published. The three books in the series, including Dragon Tattoo, have sold nearly 30 million copies in 40 countries. After the success of a 2009 Swedish film set in Stockholm and the surrounding country where the stories take place, Hollywood smelled money.

The Swedish original was produced on a $13 million budget starring two unknowns, Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace as the titular tattooed girl. The film fairly reeks of the wickedness, terror and gloom that permeates Larsson’s first novel. This original picture, quite faithful to the book, is as gritty a film noir as anyone has made in half a century. When the wind howls through snowy woods in this film, we feel the sharp cold slice clean to our bones. More importantly, the film takes the time to present the characters so we begin to understand their motives and care about what happens to them.

Within a year of the original’s release, four studios, including Columbia and MGM, ponied up $80 million to produce David Fincher’s English-language remake starring Daniel Craig, of James Bond fame, and Rooney Mara, who appeared in Fincher’s previous picture, The Social Network. She plays the young woman who breaks up with the Mark Zuckerberg character in the opening scene, irking him enough to create Facebook. The remake of Dragon Tattoo was released barely two weeks ago, although industry insiders say the studios are already disappointed with the box office results, but still vow to film the last two books in the series.

With Dragon Tattoo, Fincher returns to the film genre that made him famous. He gets the look just right, but the story has been dumbed down – as if no one in Hollywood really trusts American audiences to “get it.” There’s also a disappointing lack of suspense, although I am willing to concede my familiarity with the material going into the theater may be partly to blame. Still, even the computer hacking so crucial to the plot is reduced to a few shots of keystrokes and blurred fingers in motion, as if every cyber genius clacks on a keyboard with that same machine-gun pace we’ve been seeing in films since well before the Matrix.

Now, I don’t really care whether Daniel Craig is more or less convincing than his predecessor Michael Nyqvist in the role of a magazine journalist investigating a serial killer. It is also probably moot, a mere exercise in academics, as to whether Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara owns the Goth look, the attitude, the disturbed brilliance and deep emotional scarring that makes the dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander such a memorable character. The point here is not even why Hollywood feels compelled to remake foreign films. Hollywood remakes foreign cinema for the same reason that studios produce movies based on old TV shows, video games and comic book characters: the source material has a proven audience and devoted fan base that can reduce the risks involved in making hideously expensive American films. There is no other reason.

Instead, I am more concerned and even a bit saddened that most American audiences will likely come to this story only through exposure to the English version of the film. They will get an expensive-looking movie with English actors speaking in peculiar Swedish accents. Worse, Fincher has subtly softened the character of Lisbeth Salander with bits of sentimentality that undermine the tone of his film and betray the ruthlessness of the novel.

Stieg Larsson wrote a terrific mystery that evolved into a trilogy exploring themes of political corruption, violence against women, female empowerment, dysfunctional families and the moral bankruptcy that seems inherent in big business. The stories are set principally in Sweden, for that is where Larsson lived and worked all his life. His novels, as well as the original films inspired by them, possess an authenticity and cultural integrity that no amount of Hollywood gloss can replicate. Stamping an Anglo-American sensibility on a story set in Sweden results in awkward narrative. Then again, judging from their consumption habits, I doubt most Americans would notice if someone mixes Swedish meatballs with Ragu spaghetti sauce, stirs in a handful of macaroni and serves the dish at Pizza Hut under the banner “Now That’s Italian.”

The world is a more interesting place because of the diversity of its cultures.

See Fincher’s not-bad remake if you must, perhaps out of curiosity as I did. But do read the books and see the original films, maybe even read a bit of history about Sweden during World War II. Then you can cultivate a deeper appreciation of what Larsson was getting at, and why culture and setting are so vital to the richness of this story.

Larsson clearly realized that to understand a nation is to know its history. The three Swedish films adapted from his books reflect this knowledge. Fincher’s English adaptation jettisons virtually all of this context in delivering a lean thriller.

Both the Swedish original and Fincher’s film tell the same story, but the differences between them are significant. In the American version, we are mere observers. Immerse yourself in the original film trilogy if you want to feel fully involved.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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