Friday, February 3, 2012

Is the New Lisbeth Salander a Problem?

Well, I've finally seen the new American version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I came away with mixed feelings. The film was well made, the actors were good, and it did some things better than the original Swedish version, but I don't think that director David Fincher and his collaborators really added much that was new or different that necessitated another adaptation so quickly. What I do find interesting, however, has been the ongoing debate over the portrayal of the film's heroine, Lisbeth Salander, who is played by Rooney Mara in the American version. And now I can finally weigh in. Spoilers ahead.

I haven't read the book, but I love the version of Lisbeth Salander from the Swedish film, played by Noomi Rapace. She was physically and intellectually intimidating, visually arresting, didn't give a damn about social norms and niceties, and enjoyed an active sex life on her own terms. She was provocative and damaged and weird and easily one of the most interesting female characters I'd seen onscreen in a while. So I took notice when criticisms were leveled against a sexy teaser poster for the new film several months ago. It featured a topless Mara along with her fully clothed co-star, Daniel Craig, who plays reporter Mikael Blomkvist. Fans were unhappy with the prospect of Lisbeth being sexually objectified, which they viewed as contrary to her personality and her actions in the story. I was willing to dismiss it as marketing gimmick that probably wouldn't reflect the actual film, but I was a little worried.

Those fears were not unfounded. Fincher did make some changes to the plot of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and to Lisbeth Salander, and I do think that they make her a less interesting character than she was in the Swedish version. But before I get into the dissection, I want to stress that I think Rooney Mara's performance was very strong, and she deserves all the accolades that she's been getting. She easily carries the film and creates a very distinct, very different Lisbeth Salander, who has more depth and more dimensions to her than Noomi Rapace's take on the character. Her Lisbeth is more human, more vulnerable, and more relatable. And this is my biggest problem with Fincher's approach to her, and to the film in general.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is pulp fiction. It's a story of rape and revenge, sordid family secrets, serial killers, Nazis, hackers, and a lot of men abusing their power over women. The first film reflected this, creating a skeevy onscreen universe where young women were constantly in danger of being victimized by the men in their lives, and had to learn to fight back to survive. Lisbeth, with all her damage and all her brilliance, was a product of that hellish world, and perhaps could even be considered a response to it. She was a heroine that matched her surroundings, a creature of violence and extreme measures, because that's what her situation demanded of her.

Now the American version tones down all of this considerably, to the point where it changes the dynamic of the story and the place of Lisbeth within that world. There are deviants and monsters still, but the setting is much more mundane, and the constant anticipation of violence and unpleasantness is gone. Oh, the movie's still got its tense and exciting scenes, but a lot of the sordidness and the illicitness has been cleaned up. Lisbeth is not attacked randomly in the subway by a group of young men, but rather gets her bag snatched by a single attacker. Mikael Blomkvist is shown to be a womanizer, but also has pleasant visits with a teenage daughter who seems perfectly normal and well-adjusted.

The different environment makes Lisbeth seem stranger and odder, more of an alienated outsider than someone who is doing what she must to survive. Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth wouldn't work in the new film, but Rooney Mara's version, who is younger and less hard-edged, suits this version better. I didn't like that Fincher changed the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael to be more explicit, and added cutesy touches like Lisbeth's penchant for Happy Meals. In the context of this film, though, I think it's fine. Mara's Lisbeth is a different creature from Rapace's with some very different dimensions, but she stands on her own.

The trouble is that this more subdued, more realistic version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and its more well-rounded Lisbeth Salander kind of misses the point of the original. The Swedish title of the book is "The Men Who Hate Women," and was written by Stieg Larssen in part to address the culture of abuse and violence against women. These themes remain in the new film version, but Fincher doesn't really do anything with them. His villains are anomalies, not part of a larger system of ingrained corruption and misogyny. Maybe this would have come out more if the new film had gotten into Lisbeth's background, but it doesn't. So Lisbeth too, seems like an anomaly.

Ironically, it's the more sexual elements in the film, like the rape scene and the lesbian encounter, that I don't have any problem with. From the reactions I've read, it seems that some observers took exception to the rape scene, and found it was made to look visually more appealing than in the first film, but considering the different aesthetics of the new version and Fincher's considerably better technical chops, this is no surprise. Lisbeth sleeping with Mikael Blomkvist didn't bother me as much as her developing much warmer feelings toward him subsequently than she did in the earlier versions, where it was less clear whether she was using him, or whether she had really formed an attachment to him.

I still like Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth better than Rooney Mara's, though I know she's less complicated and nuanced, more vicious and sometimes borderline cartoonish. But I think that simplicity is what makes her more iconic, that makes her come across as a stronger, uncompromised heroine. There's nothing wrong with Rooney Mara and David Fincher's version, but they chose to downplay the parts of Lisbeth that I liked, in favor of a more realistic portrayal. But really, this is one of those instances where an argument can be made for either version, so your own mileage may vary.

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