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The ‘Girl’ Is Good, but Why Bother?

Posted on Dec 20, 2011

By Richard Schickel

Here’s a paradox I’ve never encountered in several decades of movie reviewing: a perfectly well-made film that there is absolutely no compelling reason to rush right out and see—especially if you’ve been paying attention to recent developments in popular culture.

I’m talking about “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” First, there was the late Stieg Larsson’s best-selling thriller, made the more poignant by the author’s sudden death of a heart attack before the book was published in Sweden in 2005. It has basically not been absent from the best-seller lists—at least in the United States—ever since. And two years ago there was a perfectly respectable Swedish-made film version of the novel—faithful to the book both in plot and spirit though, frankly, visualizing its several brutal passages proved more upsetting than I had thought they might be. Now we have a widely anticipated English language version of the thing: A-list director (David Fincher), a more or less major star (Daniel Craig), a promising leading lady (Rooney Mara) and, again, a faithful adaptation of the source material. And, truth to tell, an almost totally unnecessary movie.

I mean, Stieg Larsson is not exactly Jane Austen, is he? There is no particular need to see how the various adapters of Austen’s work have treated the delightful sacred texts. As a matter of fact, there is nothing particularly delightful about Larsson’s work. Indeed, it is almost embarrassing to summarize the plot of “Dragon Tattoo.” Suffice it to say that a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist—temporarily and unfairly in professional disgrace—is hired by the paterfamilias of the fabulously wealthy (and almost entirely dysfunctional) Vangers to investigate the disappearance (and presumed murder) of a young woman, a family member, some 40 years earlier. Blomkvist, in turn, hires Lisbeth Salander to assist him. Herein lies the novels’ originality. She is a computer hacker of genius. She is AC-DC sexually. She is also grievously abused sexually. With Blomkvist, she forms what is surely the oddest couple in recent crime fiction. They, of course, solve the antique murder mystery.

They also became the engine driving the current fad for Scandinavian noir. The Larsson books are not the best of this breed. The veteran Henning Mankell—stolid, but solid—is a reliable performer in the field, particularly in the way he permits his leading detective to develop a wayward life of his own (when last encountered he was suffering from incipient Alzheimer’s). And then there’s the excellent Norwegian, Jo Nesbo, a particularly writerly craftsman who has been bringing his alcoholic detective along in a subtle and—rare in this field—amusing fashion. Next to these authors, Larsson seems to me pretty crude.

But that’s more or less the point, isn’t it? Mankell and Nesbo, among others, have not come up with a character matching Salander in slightly kinky sexuality and, more important, the ability to enlist our sympathy. One always feels there is something like a normal “girl” struggling to emerge from a past blighted by so much horrendous history.

There is, as well, another factor at work in the success of these books. We are pleased to think of the Scandinavian countries as paragons of normalcy—a little dull, come right down to it—wrapped as they are in their socialist ease and comfort. In some sense Salander rescues them for eccentricity, if not downright weirdness. A salvageable perversity attends her comings and goings. She would probably be right at home in American crime stories, but in these novels (and Fincher’s film) she is like a flash of lightning.

Which means that, sooner or later, a lot of people are going to see this movie. When all the football games have reached intolerable levels of boredom, when all the presents have been exchanged at the stores, all the post-Christmas sale items have been dutifully pawed through, an irresistible impulse to attend this thrice-told story is going to take us over. I find this, oddly, an acceptable way to waste two and a half hours. Most of the year’s five or six really good movies are not going to be playing anyway. And like the good little boys and girls that we are, we line up to see a slick retelling of a tale we know all too well. It is the function of fairy tales—even darkish and banal ones—to provide such mild pleasures.

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DonSchneider's avatar

By DonSchneider, December 24, 2011 at 6:39 am Link to this comment

It is called entertainment, weasels ! Do you go to the theatre for enlightenment ? If
that is the case , you are ignorant on purpose ! Long live the ignorance !

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By Gilbert, December 23, 2011 at 11:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“There is nothing particularly delightful about Larsons Work”,according to Schickel. Hmm. How about the dance and interplay of defference to authority versus defiance to authority?
  Do I need to actually spell out the global consequences and ramifications, in every area of life, of the “going along with the pack” mentality? Does Nazism, Fascism and Communism ring a bell? How about conspicuous consumerism, fundamentalist religosity, neofeudalistic too big to failism,
the elevation of corporation to personhood, the subjugation of the sacredness of life and planet to the exaltation of profit at any cost?
It could be argued these themes are not “delightful” as in “we are not amused”, but if you happen to like Truth, Justice and social relevance - David downing Goliath- then Larsons work is splendid.

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mackTN's avatar

By mackTN, December 23, 2011 at 11:39 am Link to this comment

There is one compelling reason to see this film but it comes at the very end and
features Stellan Skargard and Enya’s Orinoco Flow (Sail Away, Sail Away). That
scene alone is worth the price of admission and one of the standout scenes of the

Otherwise, the reviewer is right. The movie is good, in some ways—atmosphere,
cinematography, score—it’s better.  But it’s not award winning and it’s not as good
as Fincher’s truly awesome flicks like Seven, Zodiac, Button, Social Network.

Having seen the original twice and read the book, there was hardly any suspense
there especially so soon after the original was exposed to American audiences.

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By Scott, December 23, 2011 at 9:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


You’re not kidding anyone by suggesting that you and the reviewer are smarter than everyone else; countless other sites have found the capability of actually reviewing the content rather than writing an overlong screed on the movie’s pointlessness (for example, MeHere’s link to AO Scott’s NYTimes review). As I eluded to, that criticism is about one year too late.

Anyway, with the prerequisite of not having a stick up my ass, I saw it Wednesday night, and Fincher’s version is far superior to the very average Swedish version. No, it isn’t Oscar material, and yes, the source material is flawed (but millions seem to enjoy it anyway, like myself), but it surpasses the limpness of the Swedish version in almost every way; even the one factor that I didn’t think possible, which is Rooney Mara supplanting Noomi Rapace for ownership of the role, wound up coming true. Mara dominated it.

If I ever become as pompous as people like the reviewer, I’m going to shoot myself.

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By D Leroy, December 22, 2011 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve read all three novels. OK, maybe they are a little rough in places but bear in
mind that Larson never had much chance to edit them after submitting them
because he died.  Still, they are pretty damned good just as they are.

As to the Swedish films, please note that two of them, Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo and Girl Who Played with Fire, are available with dubbed English.
Hopefully, Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest will be available dubbed as well.
I’m quite comfortable with subtitles, in fact watched all five versions of the films
because I like to hear the Swedish language even though I understand precious
little of it; it is the music of the language I like to hear. I should also mention
that the Swedish movie soundtracks are very effective in setting the mood
without all the boom-flash-bang which afflict Hollywood movies too much.

I haven’t gotten myself to see the American film yet, but definitely will. I think
one likely shortcoming of the Americanized version will be that it won’t be as
culturally nuanced and the Swedish originals. I would also urge everyone who
sees or has seen the films to at least read up on Steig Larson on Wikipedia. He
definitely had more claim to knowing the background of his stories that Mr.
Schickel or any of rest of us for that matter. Finally, it is important to know that
the three novels are indeed a trilogy and the story lines connect nearly
seamlessly. When you read/see all three stories, you will come to really care
about the characters.

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By William, December 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Terrific review. Yes, most moviehouse movies are schlock for the masses. But good to hear at least that this book adaptation doesn’t wander far from the original work.

Commenters here are up in arms about this review, cannot understand why it lacks depth. The reviewer makes his point quite clearly—there just isn’t that much there to review. The film copies an existing work of art, and a mediocre one at that (I read two of the three books in the series—yep, basically an enjoyable waste of time when I had some time to waste). Simple.

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By William, December 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Terrific review. Yes, most moviehouse movies are schlock for the masses. But good to hear at least that this book adaptation doesn’t wander far from the original work.

Commenters here are up in arms about this review, cannot understand why it lacks depth. The reviewer makes his point quite clearly—there just isn’t that much there to review. The film copies an existing work of art, and a mediocre one at that (I read two of the three books in the series—lots of filler to flip through). Simple.

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By jdean, December 22, 2011 at 11:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Don’t understand this article. In a comparison with the garbage Hollywood generally produces and the inane plot lines contained how this production can be negatively viewed is beyond me. I have both read the book and seen the Swedish film and how either in themselves would compare as lesser to a Grisham or other comparable popular story is absurd. Likewise any derivative film from other domestic popular novels and these novels themselves. The problem is not the story but why hollywood felt the need to make it.I would agree in waste of time from this respect.

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By montels2, December 22, 2011 at 10:01 am Link to this comment

The Swedish original was much better.  If
you had not read the book you would be
lost most of the time in the Hollywood
version.  The film messed up a lot of the
story line in the book.  If you want to
see a version that makes sense don’t waste
$15 on the Hollywood version, spend one
dollar on the Swedish version.  My wife
and I give this version TWO THUMBS DOWN!

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By MeHere, December 22, 2011 at 9:37 am Link to this comment

Please, if you love film, ignore Schickel. If you’re interested in a real review on this movie, see A. O. Scott’s in the NY Times. He is one of my favorite film reviewers.
Here’s the link:

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who'syourdebs's avatar

By who'syourdebs, December 22, 2011 at 8:57 am Link to this comment

What a laugh. This is why I don’t listen to movie reviewers anymore. Just re-read the title of this piece. Maybe I should see the film BECAUSE it is good. Duh. It’s like the deconstructionist literary critics—controversy for its own sake, just to stir things up and get noticed. Truth, honesty, and straightforwardness be damned. Or the new boss who makes unnecessary and silly changes to the workplace just to prove that he IS the boss. And this is one of the top critics in the nation, right? Hard to see clearly with your head so far up your ass. As to the comments about the Swedish version being better—how about people (like me) who haven’t seen the original? Perhaps I’m a prole, but I find subtitles annoying and most European films boring and slow. I also think the preference for foreign films is more often than not pure snobbery.

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By Twain, December 21, 2011 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Have read all three books and loved them. Brilliant
writing. Can’t wait to see the movie. Didn’t see the
Swedish movie because I hate subtitles.

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By Scott, December 21, 2011 at 9:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


Do you not understand reading comprehension? The Film has been reviewed. In summary, Richard sees this remake unnecessary and a waste of time. Read the last paragraph for the full review.”

If you consider this an actual ‘review’, then your reading comprehension should be called into question, not mine. This is seven overwrought paragraphs of why the movie shouldn’t exist solely on reasons independent of the content of the actual film itself. Nothing of Fincher’s direction, Jeff Croenwerth’s cinematography, Trent Reznor’s score, any of the performance from the actors, the storytelling, ANYTHING regarding the work of the people who crafted the film. This is not a film review, this is a general editorial from a curmudgeon who makes two admissions that the movie is good, just merely pointless. Of course, that itself is an exercise in pointlessness. The movie exists, and it’s existence has been established for well over a year, and people bemoaned its existence then and certainly weren’t willing to allow themselves to possibly enjoy what could in fact be a superior telling of the story; it’s time to get over yourself and get on with the actual ‘review’.

It is quite amusing the denigration this film has received from the litany of those who haven’t even watched it yet (I am reserving judgment until I actually see it tonight); all accounts I’ve heard have suggested that Fincher’s version is in fact superior and truer to the source material than the Swede’s. The Swedish films were average at best, nose-diving spectacularly in quality after the first film; subtitles alone do not grant deference to quality, despite everyone’s assurances that they do.

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Project Mayhem's avatar

By Project Mayhem, December 21, 2011 at 4:03 am Link to this comment

“Having seen the Swedish original film version, which, by the way, was very good. I was puzzled by why this new version had to be made at all.”

Couple reasons:

1.) Hollywood is a greedy whore. Re-making dubious American versions of quality foreign films with established reputations is about the easiest money there is. The Japanese horror classics “The Ring” and “The Grudge”, and the Swedish vampire noir flick “Let The Right One In” come to mind here. And now, of course, there’s this one.

2.) Americans flock to these remakes because they’re culturally sanitized, and, hey, no pesky subtitles to get in the way of pure, mindless entertainment.

When’s Schikel going to review whatever installment of “Mission Impossible” they’re on? Dragging out these silly ass franchises for decades is what Hollywood moviemaking is all about!

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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, December 21, 2011 at 2:14 am Link to this comment

If you came here looking for a film review, well, Schickel doesn’t bother with that either.

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By M.Hoffer., December 21, 2011 at 1:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


Do you not understand reading comprehension? The Film has been reviewed. In summary, Richard sees this remake unnecessary and a waste of time. Read the last paragraph for the full review.

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By rumblingspire, December 20, 2011 at 8:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I had the guilty pleasure of seeing the Swedish original.  this movie is for those who like to see the very dirty parts of the underside. 
that said i expect the american movie will be far inferior to the original like so many american copies before it.  for instance; The Vanishing.  see the Dutch version of The Vanishing for some real thrill.

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By Pat, December 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This review is more entertaining then most movies.

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By grokker, December 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm Link to this comment

Having seen the Swedish original film version, which, by the way, was very good. I was puzzled by why this new version had to be made at all.

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By Scott, December 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Where the fuck is the “film” review? I know those of us who actually enjoyed the books are a bunch of philistines who should be ashamed of enjoying it rather than reading Pride and Prejudice, but I just want to actually know how good the film was.

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