David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Comes to Life

I dreaded seeing David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

In particular, I dreaded sitting through another graphic rape scene like the one in Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev‘s 2009 version of the film–a scene I described in my review as disquieting, intense and vicious. Hollywood being Hollywood, I expected the American version  to take the disturbing material to a new extreme. But when my editor asked me to review it, my curiosity overpowered my dread. In the theater I waited for the scene tensely, but when it came, I found I was able to stay in my seat throughout (unlike during Oplev’s)–though I did cover my eyes at points, because there are some things that we just don’t need to see.

From what I did see, it was graphic. But not as graphic nor as disturbing as in the Swedish film. And in the end the scene was, remarkably, the least remarkable aspect of the movie.

More noteworthy was the film’s interpretation of Lisbeth Salander, the famously feminist protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novels. Many moviegoers, myself included, believed Noomi Rapace’s sharp interpretation of the seething, cunning Salander in the Swedish adaptation left little room for improvement. Her Salandar was pitiable and strong by turns, and always unapproachably cool. However, director David Fincher, writer Steven Zaillian and–especially–actor Rooney Mara created a much fuller version of Salander, one more complex and truer (I’m told) to the character in Larsson’s novels.

In fact, many of Fincher’s characters feel more developed than Niels Arden Oplev’s cut-and-dry versions. In Oplev’s hands, protagonist Mikael Blomkvist was stern and in charge, Salander confident and determined, while Salander’s sadistic guardian Nils Bjurman exuded villainy throughout.

[SPOILER ALERT: Some details of early events in the film are revealed below. TRIGGER ALERT: Descriptions of rape and violence.]

In the American version, everyone is a little more human and a little more flawed. Blomkvist, as played by Daniel Craig, can be a bit bumbling and passive, letting the women in his life steer its course. It makes sense that this Blomkvist, in a bungled effort to solve the mystery he’s been working on, sends himself into into the villain’s clutches and requires rescue. Bjurman, the guardian who beats and rapes Salander (in the scene I dreaded watching), seems mild-mannered and harmless in some contexts and sadistic in others, like many real-life villains. He viciously assaults Salander, but does so with an entitled nonchalance, and afterwards acts gentle, almost apologetic. This is the reality of abusers: They are pathetic, vacillating between violence and tenderness in an ugly cycle that can confound and entrap their victims.

Salander’s character is by far the most developed, not least because Fincher gives her more on-screen time than Oplev and makes a point of explaining her history. At the film’s outset, she’s a nervous, insecure young woman with a rage problem. Shoulders hunched, she avoids eye contact and accidental touch, and when she knows that she’ll have to interact with someone—say, at work—she carefully crafts her appearance to intimidate and distance. When a man in the subway steals her backpack, she doesn’t react immediately, seemingly afraid of confrontation. When she does decide to go after him, hitting and kicking him on an escalator and snatching her bag, she then runs away—fast—into a train car. Rather than relishing the violence, she appears upset and frightened by it.

She changes after she gets her revenge on Bjurman, the guardian. (She sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos “I am a rapist pig” on his chest and stomach.) After this, her aversion to eye contact slowly diminishes and her appearance thaws. When she once relied exclusively on computers and other technology to do her research, she now opts for face-to-face interviews.

I won’t argue, as some might, that she is empowered by raping her attacker. Rather, I imagine that her increasing confidence derives from the realization that, if the men in her society can so easily get away with victimizing women, women can just as easily get away with punishing those men. In a sick way, the playing field is leveled.

This lends all the more poignancy to Blomkvist’s first request of her: “I want you to help me catch a killer of women,” he says. Judging from Salander’s expression, it’s a “click” moment.

As their relationship develops, Salander grows increasingly self-assured and confident. By the end of the film, she acknowledges, herself, that she’s a different person than she was in the beginning—even as Blomkvist remains the charmingly clumsy man he’s always been. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the Swedish and American adaptions. In the former, Oplev paints Salander as a sort of superhero figure—an enigma with a mysterious, checkered past who has finally found an outlet for her rage. Fincher, by contrast, gives us a Salander in transformation—a woman whose personal tragedies and retaliations have set her on a road to realizing her human potential. Like many real-world feminists, she’s still figuring out how to translate her rage into constructive change and, as she does so, she begins to understand herself.


  1. I am a bit addicted to these books and movies. Currently I am in the middle of the 3rd book. While watching the American film this weekend I found myself feeling quite disturbed. I knew what was coming so it wasn’t shock value. What bothered me as a feminist and DV/SA advocate was how little I felt sympathy (and I even felt a little bit good) about someone being raped. I am talking about advocate Bjurman(side bar: it really irks me that I share a title with this criminal ass). Yes, he grossly abused his power. Yes, he should face serious consequences for doing so. In reading more of the series, I began to understand why Salander would not go through the formal process of justice with the police. She has more reasons than the all too common ones of: societal victim blaming, fear, and inaction on the part of the authorities but I will not give them away for those who wish to continue with the series.
    I was glad that she takes care of herself and that she is portrayed as an intelligent, independent, sex-positive person. At the same time though, I really cannot condone the violence. Salander pre-meditated this assualt by coming with a tazer and tattoo gun. While it wasn’t for the same reasons,this pre-meditated self-serving assault is ironically also done by the eventual villians of the film that she later goes on to fight. I am reminded of a 2005 movie entitled “hard candy” which takes revenge on a sexual predator so far that I honestly did start to feel bad for the guy. Both the Partick Wilson’s character and Bjurman were predators and victims alike; Salander just doesn’t go to the extreme of Ellen Page’s character. I consistantly tell self-blaming clients at the shelter where I work that nothing they did justifies rape; so logically this should apply to these charcters as well. I still like Salander and the series as I intend to finsih the 3rd book and the Swedish film series. If everyone were a vigilante such as Salander, anarchy would commence and society would collapse. As the saying goes, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world bilnd.

  2. Good article! But it’s missing something. This: http://natashavc.tumblr.com/post/14813977472/what-makes-a-good-rape-scene-if-we-are-to

    It’s about the rape scene in the movie and how it make rape into something more erotic rather then horrible. I wish you had watched and analyzed it.

  3. I saw the movie twice and am now beginning to read the books – so clearly I’m obsessed. @femiko – I’m sorry but I have to heartily disagree with the article you suggested. I covered my eyes the first time I saw the movie and watched in horror the second time. How anyone can say she was aroused by that scene – as Lisbeth was kicking and screaming and fighting and Bjurman so nonchalantly assaulted her and later the bruised Liabeth struggled to sit down – is beyond me. The.camera did not focus on her nudity, rather the whole room, on order to demonstrate the intensity of the situation. Everyone will have a different opinion but I personally don’t see how it was in any way erotic.

    I loved the film and I believe it’s important for a feminist, or any, perspective because a major ine is the fact that you should, unfortunately, worry more about the people you should trust betraying you than strangers. While I don’t condone her retaliation I can understand why she did it and why she is the way she is. And I still love her for her courage and confidence. Great review.

  4. I am conflicted about this film, from a gender studies perspective. I will choose two out of my several reasons. The first lies in the director’s choice to turn a rape scene into a graphic (and literal) depiction of the act. The second involves the relationship between the two leads, and how it undermines the female protagonist.

    As for the rape, displaying that much detail (the scene leaves distressingly little to the imagination) both disgusts those who understand how cavalierly our modern society continues to handle rape, and at the same time provides a show and tell for viewers who still believe, after years of seeing it depicted thus, that sex and violence are cozy bedfellows. That the following scenes of obvious physical suffering are heartbreaking and equally graphic is a poor offering when the message would have been clearer to a wider range of viewers without the peep show.

    Additionally, the female who has finally empowered herself and risen up against the forces that seek to force her into submission, is shown at the end of the film having her heart broken by the main male protagonist (who, by the way, is depicted as having ruined his own relationship with his wife with infidelity but is never taken to task for it). She knows he is in this relationship with the married woman, yet somehow she forsakes her bisexuality (if not her lesbianism) for the handsome male lead.

    I’m not sure how any of this is treated in the books, but for a movie that was hyped as a strong feminist statement (pitted against books like Twilight, which essentially depict a woman who can’t decide which cute guy to submit to), having the empowered female appear as if she really WAS just a doting girl this whole time, only enjoying the intimacy of women because she hadn’t ‘slept with the right guy’, weakens the effort.

    It was a very entertaining movie, and I enjoyed it, but I feel it could have done so much more.

    • i too am conflicted with the amercian version… hollywood romanticized it… they changed major parts of the book, leaving lisbeth marginalized and down played. starting with the scene where mikel enters her home and starts telling her what to do “get dressed and lose the girlfriend”… she complies…
      in another scene, she asks, “can i kill him?”.. blatantly out of character.
      and the scene after sex, she has breakfast ready for him???? as if????
      lisbeth was not credited with figuring out the biblical quotes, nor was she given credit for locating Harriet, nor was she the one who gave mikel the information on wennerstorm. overall Mara did a great job but i feel that her inexperience allowed the director to put too much of his own stuff into the film. can’t help but wonder how would Deepa Mehta would have directed this film.

    • Natalie says:

      I have to politely disagree, at least with the part about how Blomkvist is never taken to task for being unfaithful. He lost his wife, which tells us that he has lost something for his infidelity. Although our culture sees infidelity as taboo, often in other cultures it can be accepted, such as the unorthodox relationship between Blomkvist and his lover and also coworker, who is married. The man she is married to is fully aware of his wife’s affair, and while he admits that it does hurt him somewhat, he moves beyond it.
      Salander is portrayed as bisexual in the books, having sexual relationships with both men and women, so she does not forsake lesbianism for the handsome male lead. I actually saw her heartbreak at this as one of the ways she was relatable. She does not often let people in, and so it is that much more devastating for her when she is so utterly disappointed by Blomkvist. She proceeds to ice him out for over a year, until he begs for her help solving another mystery, and even then does not talk to him face-to-face.

  5. Any movie with a rape scene is not worth my time. Its a sickening way to get viewers and attention and very few can portray the horror of such a vile act.

  6. I have to respectfully disagree with your analysis of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth. You can read my full review for Heroine Content here http://www.heroinecontent.net/archives/2012/01/girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-2011-rooney-mara.html but I’ll just say that a lot of Lisbeth’s agency and drive and sheer charisma are missing from the U.S. version. I haven’t seen the Swedish version, but I’ve read all the books and heard enough about the Swedish version to disagree.

    Not only is Lisbeth less than herself, so is just about every woman in the movie. Her “girlfriend” Miriam Wu has literally one line, Erika Berger is portrayed as some kind of lonely married philanderer, and Harriet Vanger is seen as a broken victim finally accepted back into the fold of her “loving” family after hiding from them for 40 years in complete isolation and solitude. In the books, these women are SO MUCH MORE than this. And it would have been simple to portray them that way, instead of dumbing them, and Lisbeth, down for a U.S. audience that apparently can’t handle strong women who are too strong.

  7. Red Cedar Cat says:

    I saw all of the Swedish films and have not read the books or seen the American version. I anticipate it is sufficiently watered down so as not to shock the American sensitivity.

    I oppose rape in any form. Having said that, I do have a strong concept of justice. Treating abusers to the abuse they inflict on others somehow seems the only way a strong message can be delivered to sociopaths like her abuser.

    While both rape scenes were disturbing, people NEED to be disturbed to wake up to what is a reality for millions of women across the globe.

    We Americans live in a sanitized world where out TV dishes out pablum served up by our corporate masters. And keeping women “in their place” is really the agenda of the woman-haters in Congress.

    Good for Lisbeth. The Swedish films left me cheering for the good woman who triumphs over evil.

    • I am sorry but I do not understand how viewing a graphic rape scene will help me wake up to the reality of millions. I watched this film, and I work as a victims advocate, so I know the reality. Why do people need to wake up? Are you saying that people won’t believe that rape is wrong without having scene the event. That people will be less apt to rape someone having scene the event? That’s ridiculous.

      Nothing in this film will help me, or help victims. Some things people shouldn’t have to see to believe. This I think is one of them. I am still having nightmares, this scene ruined the entire movie for me. I wish I had known about the content before watching it.

      • I have spoken with people who know that rape is bad but claim it’s not “that big a deal”. Then when a friend, relative or they themselves are raped they truly understand the horror of it. Not everyone should see such a graphic scene, but I do believe that some people may benefit from it. I met a man who said “Women have a hole for that, so what’s the problem? It won’t hurt them.” They don’t understand, and they need to in order for us to stop rape.

        • Keeping in mind that most people wouldn’t see this scene through the eyes of a victims advocate (in as much that one makes their living advocating for sexual assault victims), the scene is quite jarring. However, I have seen images that are not as explicit and have affected me more. (And please forgive me for not knowing the title…starring Liam Nielson in a movie about sex trafficking…) The sex trafficking took me quite awhile to get out of my brain. The situation in this movie seems even more hopeless than what Salander experiences. There are so many misogynistic males, so many female victims, and the knowledge that most of these girls will ever see justice served. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at least gives me a little closure in knowing that she was able to kick this man’s ass…a bit of catharsis, if you will.

          What makes me truly angry is the continuous and willful exploitation of women in film and media, and young a women’s belief that totally subjectifying themselves for fame, love, respect…whatever…these women HAVE choices, yet they choose to submit their bodies to this kind of abuse. And this is why I do not find the depiction in this scene nearly as traumatic. Salander is not willingly giving herself, a bad thing happens, and yes it pisses her off. There is a difference in exploitation of women for money and getting the male persuasion to drop cash on Hollywood’s continuous exploitation of women, and a film that aims to exploit the misogynists and the institutions that enable them. A rape scene is a rape scene in no matter what setting, but it is a fact of life, of which I’m not sure leaving the scene out to avoid violating the sensibilities of the audience does women any justice either. People block things out to avoid confrontation…and blocking out a rape scene does not solve the problem of rape, either.

  8. I won’t be seeing either film do to my inability to justify paying to have violence, especially sexualized violence, put before my eyes. I can’t then removed it from my head and enough “real” violence against women in history and day-to-day exists. I don’t know yet how I feel about that in general terms, but that is my personal choice.

    Having said that and given other comments, I continue to find it frustrating, even alarming, that ao many seem to think that creating scenes such as those in the film is what people “need” in order to understand the realities of injustice and violence against women in our world in general. I do understand different people have different sparks for beginning to create change and I don’t know if perhaps something like this film–or these books–is in that category. However, as someone who reads the news, exposes myself to the realities of life–good and bad–and is aware of the global as well as personal aspects of violence, I find it hard to make the argument that a film is what creates change in terms of issues of feminism, violence, and the equality of women and girls.

    I also cringe when thinking of the realities of filming those scenes and what is involved in thinking up and writing them. And a man wrote the books and screenplays, as I recall.d Do we honestly not have enough “real” descriptions and experiences to make those realities visible?

    I remain open in terms of all aspects of what many consider art, as well as the many vehicles needed to create change, but I am not yet convinced that actually creating graphic, disturbing scenes of violence against women is the way to go or necessary.

  9. I consider it enormous progress that such an atypical female could become a lead in a major U.S. movie. “Lisbeth” is not an easy character for the average Hollywood Producer to even get behind as she is no man’s fantasy of a woman. She is complex, hard, feisty, seemingly invulnerable and ceaselessly non-conforming. So, I say hurrah for women that his even got made!

  10. When someone rapes you, your only consolation left is to make your rapist feel what you felt, give him a taste of his own medicine. Raping your rapist is a cathartic moment. There’s little justice for a woman in a patriarchal, victim shaming/blaming society, which idolizes males and lifts itself up by opressing and degrading half of people, just because of their sex. What Lisbeth Salander did to her rapist, is the best therapy and healing a rape victim can experience.

  11. I saw the Hollywood version and thought it was very good but flawed. In some ways, it was less sexist than most films but in other ways, it was the same ole same ole.

    The most distrubing thing about the Dragon Tatoo phenomenon was Rooney Mara and David Fincher’s feminist bashing in virtually every interview they’ve done. The driver of the book was feminism and that movie could have NEVER been made without a resilient global women’s movement. And yet, Mara and Fincher refuse to give the feminist movement the credit it deserves.

    It’s time to feminists to stop being so polite and start standing up to Mara and Fincher’s bashing.

    • Do you have some links to interviews where they’ve said this? Not denying they did, I just want to read it. Because that is ridiculous. Steig Larrson wrote the books to explicitly champion women who have been abused. He identified all his main characters as feminists.

  12. Fantastic movie! Shocked by the explicit sex scenes. Overall great move; made me purchase the book to see how much was left out. Loved the way the character evolved and how she asserted herself.

  13. Thank you for a coherent and well-put-together article. You’re a good journalist, and I don’t throw that title around lightly at all.

  14. Cedar Woods says:

    I love Lisbeth Salander. I think she’s a great role model for older teen girls (and boys too to some extent). She never lets any man get away with giving her any shit. She either lights him on fire (as with her dear old dad) or shoves a dildo up his ass and gives him a nice tattoo on his chest (as with her legal guardian).

    If you want my opinion, the revenge scene should be shown to all rape victims. Then they should be given a tattoo needle kit, and let loose.

    Lisbeth Salander rocks.

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