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The Girls With the Lisbeth Tattoo.

Jose here to talk about a movie and performance that The Film Experience hasn't spent much time with.

A little over eighteen months ago, I - like many of you I'm sure - found myself completely revolted by the fact that Hollywood had decided to remake The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a few months after the Swedish version had come out in our continent. Some people adamantly took sides with the "original" before the "remake" arrived. And not so surprisingly, almost every review of Fincher's version compares it to the one directed by Niels Arden Oplev.


These comparisons brought the two actresses who played Lisbeth Salander to the center of the discussion, with people debating who was better and why, pitting them against each other. I've even heard some say that AMPAS should be embarrassed for nominating Rooney Mara for the Best Actress Oscar when they denied Noomi Rapace of a nomination a year ago.

The truth is that Rooney and Noomi play very different versions of the same character. You want proof? Continue reading, but be warned, this article contains spoilers.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies were based on Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel, with each version extracting just what they needed from the book.  The Swedish version remains faithful to the spirit of Larsson's original title (Men Who Hate Women) turning its Lisbeth into an exterminating angel sent to the world to destroy men. David Fincher's take (adapted by Steven Zaillian) focuses instead on trying to get to the essence of Lisbeth, hacking its way into her misanthropic programming. 

The one thing both movies have in common besides the plot is the fact that they tapped into what Larsson discovered while writing the novel: that Lisbeth Salander is a character that cannot be contained by the willpower of her creators. She always finds a way to get away from them and remain an enigma.

Now let's take a look at a few key moments in both films to analyze how Noomi and Rooney channel different aspects of the same woman.

Meeting Lisbeth

From our first meeting with Lisbeth Salander it becomes clear that each film is after different things: Fincher introduces us to Salander as a young woman who doesn't even want to look at people; Oplev has her defying authority from the get-go. Notice how the costume designers give Rapace spikes and aggressive makeup (she wants to scare them!) while Mara's most eye-catching trait is her hair. Not too surprisingly the first time we meet both Lisbeths we see them from behind, with Mara completely embracing the book's androgynous quality (they mention people were never sure if she was a woman or a pre-pubescent boy) while Rapace owns the goth chic.

Abuse and revenge

In one of the films' most disturbing scenes, Lisbeth is forced to perform oral sex on her creepy guardian. Fincher's new version shrinks Lisbeth in comparison to the man who ultimately overpowers her with a high camera angle. Mara's reaction makes us squirm, especially because a few scenes earlier we see her finding her former guardian a stroke. The American version humanizes Lisbeth by offering her shades of vulnerability. Conversely Rapace's Lisbeth takes the same abuse with more contempt than fear. We know by her defiant look that she will not let this go without seeking revenge.


Post Coital Salander

When Lisbeth finally opens up to Mikael Blomkvist (even if they've already had sex) she does so only after she feels they have bonded through tragedy. It's only after Blomkvist was close to dying that Lisbeth feels he might finally understand her. Both films show them lying in bed together. Fincher's cuts to each lover capturing their individual reactions (in a very Manhattan fashion) and we see Mara for the first time achieve something that resembles happiness. In a matter of seconds she changes from a tough young woman to an innocent child, confessing something only because she knows she won't be grounded for it. In the Swedish version Rapace approaches this scene with a more mature outlook, she also confesses but throughout she's aware that Blomkvist owes her for saving him. She finally feels his equal, and perhaps more than that she feels pity for him.

Lisbeth Recreating Herself

The final moments provide us with different aspects of Salander in part because the order was inverted from the Swedish to the American versions. These last scenes mark the biggest differences in the actress's work. In the Noomi version, Lisbeth realizes she'll never be a part of Blomkvist's world and decides to carve out her own destiny. She goes rogue, takes on a new identity and transfers a corrupt billionaire's funds to her own account. The last time we see her she has a smile of pride and she sends you off thinking "now this is one kick-ass lady!". The way the camera frames her evokes what Billy Wilder did with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and announces her as a femme fatale for our times. In the Rooney version, Lisbeth does all the bank transactions in order to impress Blomkvist. She is sure that this will help her gain his admiration.

The Swedish version (only the mini-series though, not the theatrical release) shows Lisbeth's heart being broken as she sees the man she wants leave with another woman. The next scene (the one discussed above) seems to cancel this feeling since Noomi is quick to recover. She's too strong to let disillusionment get to her. The American version turns this realization into a paradigm-shattering finale. Mara's reaction in this scene (made the more moving by the use of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' impeccable score) is an example of how to exteriorize pain using the least amount of effort. Lisbeth doesn't even know how to process this and chooses to revert to her previous state. All along Fincher's film and Rooney's performance have been uncovering Lisbeth's heart, in order to have it broken in the end.

Saying that Lisbeth Salander should've only be played by one actress robs us of the pleasure of watching two actresses at the top of their games. It reminds me a bit about Laurence Olivier's insistence that all actors should be judged by having them play Hamlet. It's difficult nowadays to avoid pitching cultural events or characters against each other. We have become accustomed to the idea that competition is all. Hopefully this will serve as a way to help analyze both movies for what they are, isolated pieces of art, and not insist that one is a "remake" and the other an "original". Lisbeth herself might be fascinated to see different directors and actors trying to decipher who she really is.

You can read more of Jose's work at his blog Movies Kick Ass or follow Jose on Twitter.


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Reader Comments (18)

Interesting article. I for one really loved Mara's Lisbeth, though Rapace's was nice too.Just yesterday I was explaining the difference to a friend of mine who has only seen the Fincher film and I gave the example of the revenge scene in which she tortures Bjurman. The best way I could explain was that Rapace is more like The Bride while Mara is more like Gogo Yubari. Rapace is more badass, and Mara is quirkier, but all the more dangerous.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNikhat

I LOVE this article. Thank you for pointing out the differences. I am a big fan of the Fincher Tattoo, but I also remember loving the original version mainly because I didn't know what to expect from it. I didn't know the scene of Lisbeth watching Blomkvist existed in the Swedish version. It's one of my favorite moments from Fincher's Dragon Tattoo.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

you nail to explain why i prefer Noomi Rapace's version (for me,Fincher's version shows Lisbeth as a victim of men) but i totally agree that the 2 Lisbeth are 2 versions of the same character (i also had the same discussion with a friend)

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercaro

It's interesting; after I saw the Swedish film, I was underwhelmed by Noomi Rapace, but it was because Lisbeth is such an internal character that I didn't think any actress could play a great screen version of her. Rapace had charisma to burn, but the fact is this is a character that NEVER lets ANYONE around her know what she is really thinking and feeling. I thought Rooney Mara didn't get that fact at all. She made it all too clear at every moment exactly what Lisbeth was feeling, which felt completely untrue to the character. I understand why she did it (or why Fincher had her do it), but I left the American version holding Rapace and the Swedish film in higher regard than I did before, despite the stronger overall craft.

I said to a friend who refused to see the American film is that the difference between the two performances is that Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth as a character, while Noomi Rapace played her as an actual person, and each actress suffered for it.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I think I much prefer the direction they take Lisbeth in the Swedish version, it just feel much more true to character for me.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

Thanks for this. I've been talking to people about Mara's take on the character and have found most people think it's played note-for-note the same, which I thoroughly disagree with.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

I felt like Mara best captured how I saw Lisbeth in the book. Rapace got the anger part, but I didn't feel like she connected that consistently to the sad damaged girl underneath. She was also much too sexy. I couldn't see how anyone could think she was a young boy like people often do in the novels. I understand how people feel differently though, if as a reader you preferred thinking of her as a badass, take no prisoners, anti-hero of sorts, the Swedish version was much more representative of that side.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Fantastic job, Jose.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMayukh

Another difference is the scene on the subway, where she gets her laptop (nearly) stolen.

If I remember correctly, in the Swedish version Lisbeth gets the shit kicked out of her. In the American, it's more of a chase scene, with less violence.

Which is truer to the book?

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

@ San FranCinema Neither are right. In the book her laptop is crushed in the parking lot of Milton Security by some random driver. She was getting off her bike and someone backed into the back of her bike, destroying the computer.

@Jose Excellent article. Well researched and thoughtful argument. While I loathe to agree with you about Mara's performance, it was good (most certainly not better) but good. I felt that the hype behind the American version was too much and keeps me from liking the film as much as I want to.
Both performances are good interpretations of one of my favorite characters ever. I am personally drawn to Rapace's performance more because of Noomi's more confident, almost arrogant version of Lisbeth. Everything she did was because she wanted to do it. There was no hesitation. No regrets. Her bisexuality was apart of her as much as her computer skills were apart of her. It was not something that she actively though about; she just did it. And the ending to the Swedish movie was more palatable to me that the book and the American version. Her walking off into the sunset with that lopsided grin was everything. Even though she was hurt by Michael's actions she did not let it stop her from moving on. It was a positive end for Lisbeth. I will forever love the Swedish version's ending for Lisbeth more than the book and the American movie because it fit better (for me) with the strong brilliant female that they built up throughout the story. Her happiness was not defined by the man she was with but on her own terms.

Mara's performance was just too perfect for me to believe. I did not really believe that she really understood what this character was about. Her hair and face were so clean and every hair was in place that is distracted from the story. Plus I felt the camera work and dark lighting helped a lot in making her creepy instead of letting Mara stand up on her own. One can argue that those were not Mara's choices but Fincher's, and I will acknowledge that is a fair criticism, but it goes to any even bigger argument that DF just did not give a shit about this character at all. Her Lisbeth came off as less self-assured and antsy. Wary of everyone and is a shut in not because she doesn't like people and more because she was afraid of them. Her sexuality is more a product of that lack of confidence and need to be accepted than it by being her choice. I NEVER got that from the book.The ending of the American version just reinforced the fact that she was a victim and not a strong woman who was learning to cope with her past.

One thing is for sure the last part of your article is more than likely never going to happen. lol

@ nikhat You did see Kill Bill 1&2 right? If so, you do remember what happens to Gogo, right?

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkhadija

@Khadija, I totally agree. Mara Lisbeth seemed like a victim and Rapace Lisbeth was a strong kickass woman. Mara's interpretation was physically more accurate, but attitude wise, I much much prefer Rapace's version.

My huge gripe has to do with how "Lisbeth" was marketed for the Fincher film. There were a series of ridiculous photoshoots that seemed almost to glorify violence against women and Lisbeth was way sexified in that creepy couture sort of way. I feel a lot like the author of this article.

Here's one of the pictures. A pink shirt and tutu? It just looks strange and coutureish, not Lisbeth. I feel like Lisbeth would roll her eyes at couture.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSel

I thought Rapace was good, but Mara embodied so much more of who Lisbeth was. I am thankful for both films, but I prefer Mara over Rapace. Great read!

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShawn

My sister and I also had this discussion. My sister (who read the book) told me the scene where Lisbeth in Fincher's version confess to Blomkvist about her past was really off-character. She argues that Lisbeth is very anti-social, she would do anything to keep her safe from everyone else, making her talk about her past is not really "her style".

I for once was more impressed of Noomi's performance than Rooney's. For me, the Swedish version is raw, while the American is simply better and more accessible.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

Noomi is the real Lisbeth. That's it.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPablo (Col)

Noomi's Lisbeth was completely one note, the angry goth chick, that's it. I was completely underwhelmed when I saw the Swedish movie after reading and loving the novel. I could only hope that Fincher - a far superior filmmaker to Oplev - would find the nuances and layers and vulnerabilities that existed in Larsson's Lisbeth, and choose someone who could embody that. Lucky for me, he did. It was also a pleasure hearing the way Fincher - and also Daniel Craig - spoke of the relationship between Salander and Blomkvist, my favorite aspect of the books that was totally glossed over and reduced to a convenient hook-up by the Swedish filmmakers. Fincher and Craig loved their relationship as much as I did, which was really nice to hear and which really came across on screen. I leave out Mara because her press questions have most been about her own transformation rather than the relationship. This was a no-brainer for me on which film is superior, and I honestly feel like a lot of people have a knee-jerk "NO REMAKES!" trigger which makes them biased against the American movie. Shame.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

But, what do we think of both performances place within their year's actress race?

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim B.

Rapace was awesome while Mara - well, nothing special IMO.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

Fantastic post. Thanks for this. I'm an admirer of both performances actually, and the differences made for a much more interesting viewing experience if you're watching the exact same story twice. I think both interpretations of Lisbeth can happily exist without the viewer having to choose which is "better."

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNoelle
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