If you’re a follower of my blog (which evidently you are) you’ve noticed my header image is from one of the best moments in David Fincher’s American adaptation/remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I chose this image because it is one of my favorite, powerful moments in cinema, it is one of my favorite films, and because I kind of look like Rooney Mara. So my love and admiration for this film is obvious right from the start. So today’s post is going to be a little different. I don’t need to review the film and tell you it’s good, that’s already obvious. I want to examine the film in terms of its place within cinema as both an adaptation of a novel and a remake of a foreign film.
I recently came across Smartling, a translation software company, and since I’m obsessed with movies, I immediately started thinking about movies and their relationship with language, particularly in foreign remakes. David Fincher had a very difficult task when it came to remaking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. First, he had to adapt the Swedish novel written by Stieg Larsson. This necessitated the challenge of translating the novel into an American screenplay, preserving the themes and Swedish setting of the story, all while making it more appealing and understandable to Western audiences. But then Fincher also had the challenge of remaking a film that had already been very recently made in Sweden. The three Swedish Millenium films were all released in 2009, just two years before Fincher’s. So Fincher had to remain faithful to the novel, make it more cinematic, and differentiate his film from the already successful (even to American audiences) Swedish version.
Language is an extremely important tool human beings have for communicating. In today’s internet driven culture different cultures can now communicate with one another seamlessly and more easily than ever before. It is integral to get the best, most accurate translation in order to not misconstrue what someone is saying. The makers of the English Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would have had to rely heavily on translators of the Swedish novel. One key difference of the English and Swedish versions of the novel and films is in its title. In Sweden, Larrson’s Millennium trilogy is known as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women). This title coveys a strong feminist message and perceives society (particularly Sweden’s) as misogynistic. English publishers decided to discard this title and instead went with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This title is much blander, free of any social commentary and in no way attempts to convey the message of the novel. This was a conscious choice made by translators and the publishers. It is a good example of how translation can have such a huge impact on a work of art.
The biggest and most obvious choice Fincher and the American producers made when remaking TGWTDT film was to have the characters speak in English. This is essential to adapting a foreign film for American audiences. There are three key actors to Fincher’s film and the relationship each of them has with language is noteworthy. First, there is Rooney Mara, an American actress, playing the heroine Lisbeth Salander. Rooney is a native American speaker, but in the film she speaks English with a Swedish accent. This helps to reaffirm her character’s nationality and the setting of the film while making sure English audiences can easily understand her. Then we have Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist. Daniel is an English actor (helloooo James Bond) speaking in his natural, English voice. He chooses to not affect any kind of accent. Finally we have Stellan Skarsgård, a very famous Swedish actor. Here he speaks English (his second language) with a Swedish accent (his native language). An interesting little soup isn’t it? Why did Fincher allow his actors to make these choices? In order to imbue the film with a hybridity. It successfully straddles both the American and Swedish worlds. It isn’t realistic, but it is effective in communicating the story to English audiences while staying true to the story’s setting.
The setting of the film and its place in Swedish history is integral to its plot. This isn’t a story that you can adapt to an American setting, it would lose much of its commentary, particularly that on present day Nazism. So Fincher keeps the film in Sweden and mixes the two languages together. None of the actors speak any Swedish in the film (apart from the odd Herr Blomkvist), they only speak in English. But the texts that they read are both English and Swedish, enhancing the hybridity of the film. Television news crawls are in English as are store signs and Millennium magazine. But everything Salander reads on her computer is in English, as are most of the newspaper clippings she reads, and the bible. It’s a great way of submerging the viewer in Sweden while still making sure that they understand the integral elements of the story. The things that Lizbeth reads are extremely important to her investigation, thus they are in English while cans of cat food are not so important. This hybridity is one of my favorite elements of the film.
Another example of hybridity is evident in the opening sequence of the American film. This opening is stunning both visually and musically, I remember seeing it in theaters and thinking that it was nearly orgasmic. It is just such a rush, especially on the big screen. The images conveyed are symbols that can be understood no matter what language you speak. But with his choice of music Fincher again emphasizes his films hybridity. “Immigrant Song” is an infamous song, originally done by Led Zeppelin. It is a song about Swedish immigration sung by an English band from their perspective. Fincher twists the song for his opening sequence by making it a cover sung by Karen O, a South Korean/American artist. So Fincher is appropriating the song by giving it a female voice/perspective as well as imitating his own remake with the song cover. It’s a powerful sequence that mirrors the entire film perfectly both visually and musically.
As you can see when you examine David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a little more closely, language, translation, and intention are extremely important to how a remake of a foreign film will be perceived by American audiences. Fincher may tweak the story here and there, but it only serves to strengthen the thematic messages of the novel. He also combats the language challenge by employing a hybridity of language, creating a time and place that is both Swedish and English. This is strengthened by the choices his actors make with their Swedish accents or lack thereof as well as his use of the “Immigrant Song.” The audience and the film itself are both aware of the film’s status as both a translation and a remake. The ways Fincher faces this challenge make this film an incredible cinematic work.
Big shout out to the following video which helped inspire this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNAGsOw8e0M
6 thoughts on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)”
Great review and article. I loved this film, too. Have you seen the Swedish original? I really loved Noomi Rapace and the Stieg Larsson trilogy.
No, I haven’t seen the Swedish films. I keep meaning to since it looks like there probably won’t be anymore English ones. I’ve been a little reluctant because I really like Rooney Mara. And I also didn’t love the last two books as much as the first one.
I read all three books, and keep wondering if the hassle will be resolved and the fourth one will come out. Superb review. Real insight.
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I think there’s a fourth book coming out soon, but it’s by a totally different author.
Hmmm. I’d heard he’d started the fourth but died before he finished it. It will be interesting to see the direction in which they take it.
Excellent commentary about the use of English in the Swedish setting. I did a joint review of this film and I don’t believe we touched upon language or accents. If you get a chance, have a look at it.
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