Cultural Values in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

**Warning!**  The following post contains spoilers for both the Swedish and English film adaptations of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  If by chance you have not seen one or both of these films and don’t wish to have elements of the ending given away, read no further.

As far as I know, its a fairly rare occurrence for the same popular work to be adapted by both foreign and American production companies.  Hollywood is by far the largest movie production center in the Western world and its films pervade global theaters like no other.  The foreign market has become a massive part of Hollywood’s business model, with blockbuster films deriving most of their revenue abroad; one of the best examples of this is Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which grossed over $1 billion worldwide despite making “only” $250 million in the United States.  Thus, where there is a hot literary or other property that may spawn a successful film (or series of films), a Hollywood studio will typically buy exclusive rights to that property and create the “official” (for lack of a better term) film adaptation, even if that property has its origins abroad.  The best example of this, of course, is the case of the Harry Potter franchise: a series of novels written by a British author about primarily British characters set almost entirely in Britain which nonetheless came to be produced and distributed worldwide by Warner Brothers.  Such is the typical order of things.

The Millenium Trilogy, then, is unusual in that the whole series was first adapted into movie form in Swedish before the production studio commissioned a big-budget, English-language version directed by The Social Network director David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig, our reigning James Bond.

There are lots of interesting little differences between the Swedish and English versions that are worthy of notice: the subtle differences in the way the mystery unfolds, the handling of Lisbeth Salander’s background story, the portrayals of her rapist Bjurman, the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomqvist.  More interesting is the difference in the exact sentence Blomqvist faces for libel: In the English version, he faces a 600,000 Kroner fine; in the Swedish version, he faces a 150,000 Kroner fine and a three-month prison sentence.

(Here, I think the penalty is changed both because libel is a purely civil action in the United States and because American audiences would not recognize the Swedish version of jail.  Blomqvist’s prison is depicted in the Swedish film as essentially the equivalent of a college dorm, where Blomqvist wears sweats and a hoodie, and has access to a large library and his laptop.).

Most interesting to me, however, each film’s treatment of the climactic scene.  In both versions, Blomqvist has become suspicious that Martin is a serial murderer of women and is caught snooping around Martin’s secluded home when the object of his suspicions comes home unexpectedly.  In both versions, Blomqvist is taken down into Martin’s basement death chamber, tortured, and on the verge of being killed when Lisbeth shows up in the nick of time to save him.  Here, however, is where the plots diverge.

In the English version, Blomqvist points out a gun on top of a nearby television to Lisbeth.  She takes the gun, returns to Blomqvist’s side, and – in a moment of semi-comic relief – asks, “May I kill him?”  Blomqvist nods his approval and Lisbeth goes tearing off on a motorcycle after Martin, who is fleeing the scene in an SUV.  On the bridge, Martin tries to swerve into Lisbeth but misses and winds up crashing into a propane tank.  Lisbeth stalks up to him, gun in hand, but before she can shoot the gas tank explodes and Martin’s SUV is consumed by fire.  The scene goes black and the next time we see Lisbeth and Blomqvist they are in bed, talking about Lisbeth’s past.  Neither Blomqvist’s near-death experience nor Martin’s actual-death experience are discussed.

In the Swedish version, Lisbeth immediately gives chase to Martin; no words are exchanged between her and Blomqvist after she saves him.  On the road, Martin is visibly terrified of the girl chasing him and frustrated by some unexplained trouble he’s having in shifting the car.  In switching his focus between Lisbeth behind him and the shift knob to his side, Martin does not see an oncoming  timber truck and must swerve at the last second to avoid it.  This swerve sends him tumbling off the highway, down an embankment, and to the edge of a forest.  The camera focuses on Martin as he lies in a crumpled heap in the overturned SUV and realizes that his fuel tank is about to catch fire.  Martin sees Lisbeth, who is standing by and watching, and reaches out to her, begging for her to save his life.  A flashback of 12-year-old Lisbeth’s attempt to burn her father alive plays and then, back in the present, Martin’s SUV finally bursts into flame.  We hear his screams as Lisbeth calmly walks back to her motorcycle and returns to Blomqvist at Martin’s home.

There, Blomqvist is examining a wall of pictures Martin has taken of his victims when Lisbeth arrives.  There is a brief conversation in which Lisbeth tells Blomqvist that Martin has died in a car accident.  The police arrive and Blomqvist directs them to Martin’s chamber.  Later, Blomqvist and Lisbeth have the following conversation.

Blomqvist:  Martin didn’t die in an accident, did he?

(Lisbeth does not respond).

Blomqvist: Christ, Lisbeth.  His father taught him to kill when he was 16 years old.  That would make anybody sick in the brain.

Lisbeth:  Don’t make him into a fucking victim.  He nearly killed you.  He was a killer and a rapist and he enjoyed it.  He had the same chances as everyone else.  You choose who you want to be.  He wasn’t a victim.  He was an evil motherfucker who hated women.

Blomqvist:  How did he die?

Lisbeth:  He burned to death.

Blomqvist: Could you have saved him?

Lisbeth:  Yes.

Blomqvist:  But you let him burn?

Lisbeth:  Yes.

(Blomqvist heaves a heavy sigh, then lies down on a bed.  Lisbeth joins him.)

Blomqvuist:  I would never have done that, Lisbeth.  But I understand why you did it.  I don’t know what you’ve been through.  But I almost died in that cellar and you saved my life.  Whatever it is you’ve been through, you don’t have to tell me.  I’m just glad you’re here.

Lisbeth:  Thanks.

That bit of dialogue is the inspiration for this post.  Can you think of any American film with anything analogous to this?  From time to time, we may get a film where the protagonist dispatches his enemy in a way that is not completely triumphant; once again, I am reminded of Harry Potter, whose defeat of Voldemort is greeted with more grim acceptance than wild celebration.  But can you imagine if after the final battle, Professor McGonagall had scolded Harry for killing Voldemort?  Can you imagine if she had said, “Merlin, Harry.  Voldemort grew up the only wizard in a Muggle orphanage and comes from a long line of insane, evil bastards.  That would make anyone sick in the brain.”  This is virtually unthinkable, is it not?  Yet that’s precisely what happens in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Blomqvist scolds his rescuer for not saving the life of the person she had rescued him from.  In the American version, of course, the incident isn’t even discussed: the proposition that Martin is an evil person who deserves his fate is taken for granted and needn’t be broached at all.

I’m forced to wonder whether the contrast here is just one more piece of evidence that Americans are, on some basic level, a fundamentally more violent people than our cousins in Europe and the rest of the developed world.  We are the last country in the West that still has the death penalty.  We have led three full wars in the past 20-plus years and engaged in countless other air raids, drone attacks, and small, manned incursions into other countries.  The American Psychiatric Association found that by age 18, the average American has seen over 16,000 simulated murders on TV.  Our murder rate dwarfs those of other developed countries, and that can’t all be explained by our permissive attitude toward guns (which also seems to be a symptom of a violent culture).  There are sociological explanations for all of this – the vast divide in wealth between Americans, the entrenched, generational poverty in this country, poor educational opportunities that lead Americans into crime, the existence of an extremely lucrative black market created by America’s aggressive prosecution of the War on Drugs, the distance Americans generally enjoy from the horrors of war, et cetera – but most of these conditions are present to some degree abroad as well.  Perhaps there’s just something about a country that won its territory by genocide and its independence on the battlefield that is intrinsically violent.

The final paragraph is where I typically like to sum up my argument and make some sort of proactive argument; every time I write something of length about a social condition, I can hear my high school Journalism teacher telling me, “If you don’t propose a solution, then you’re just whining.  And no one likes a whiner.”  But in this case, I am content to leave this post on the level of mere observation rather than more sophisticated, positive argument. Instead, I invite y0u to ponder the question of American violence yourself.  Is it true that we are inherently a more violent people?  If so, is this necessarily a bad thing?  If it is, is there anything to be done about it?  I’m not sure.

Author: inuyesta

Law student with Josh Lyman dreams in a Toby Ziegler reality.

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