When Worlds Collide: Why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is strange to this Swede

26 Jan

Note: You might want to check out my proper review for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before continuing reading this post.

In a filmed interview with David Fincher for Sweden’s leading newspaper Aftonbladet, the reporter made mention of the fact that the director’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the most expensive movie production to have ever taken place in Sweden. Fincher seemed genuinely surprised and expressed embarassment over this, as though the thought had never crossed his mind. For him, a film with a budget of $90 million didn’t seem like a big deal – although to be fair, he does go on to say that he hates how making a film has to be such a huge project. Regardless: In Sweden, numbers like $90 million are unheard of. This country I call myself a citizen of has never been a hotspot for foreign filmmakers, least of all those in Hollywood. When George Clooney came here a few years ago to shoot the 10 minute opening segment for Anton Corbijn‘s The American, it was enough to garner nation-wide news coverage. And that was for a short sequence in a comparatively small arthouse-y film.

Every Swede recognizes this.

So a big-time American production like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being made entirely in Sweden is rare. I can honestly say that watching the film was a unique experience for me, although not necessarily in a good way. Here we have Mr. James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, watching a news report on the Swedish channel TV4 with its classic logo on screen. Now he’s in his office, with the traditional Swedish Christmas candelabras in the windows. Oh look, now he’s bording a train with the national railways company SJ’s logo on it. At times, the framing of certain shots seemed to be deliberately emphasizing these things so iconic to us Swedes. Maybe that’s just my imagination playing tricks on me, but the end result was a mild sense of distraction. Why do all this? As easter eggs to the Swedish viewers? As I noted in my review of the film, all these details make for a very accurate depiction of Sweden, but it’s weird having them side by side with a big foreign star like Craig.

More annoying were the inconsistencies with regards to written text. Throughout the film, you see plenty of books lying around. These have Swedish titles clearly printed on the front. Fine. But then there are plenty of newspaper clippings where everything is written in English. I get that the articles and headlines are more important to the story than some random books that are essentially just set decoration, and that it’s crucial to convey their message to the audience, but it quickly became another source of distraction. There are other things as well that suffer the same fate, such a news report on TV towards the end of the film where a large sum of money is mentioned. The money is measured in euro, again to give foreign viewers some idea of the quantities being discusses. Nevermind that Sweden hasn’t adopted the euro as currency and that we still use our old krona, which is the currency money is measured in in real news reports. This is admittedly a minor quibble, though.

And then we have the spoken language, which is always problematic in English-language films set in non-English-speaking countries. I have never been a fan of the “English with an accent” approach that’s often utilized. All too often, the character gets lost in the dialect to the point where the dialect becomes the character and everyone sounds exactly the same. One example of many is The Illusionist (2006), set in Austria around year 1900 where everyone speaks English with (I assume) Austrian-sounding accents. Yes, I get why the English language is used: because Americans hate reading subtitles. But filtering English through accents adds no sense of immersion for me, because I’m still fully aware that the characters wouldn’t be speaking the language at all. I would be much happier if the actors would just use their normal voices instead, as that way they’d be able to provide more nuances to their characters. I suppose that’s why I have never been bothered by Kevin Costner‘s performance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves like so many others have. He hardly ever bothers to use a British accent in that film, instead speaking in a voice more comfortable to him which allows him to exhibit a bit more range.

So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes place in Sweden with Swedish characters who speak English. I’ll concede that this film uses the method better than most do. The Swedish supporting actors all do a fine job with this. The oldies speak English the way old Swedish people tend to speak English – with a particularly jagged accent referred to by some younger Swedes as “politician English”, after a long line of Swedish ministers who have learned the language in school but never spoken it much until they find themselves at international conferences and such. Then you have some characters in the film who speak it a bit more smoothly, such as Martin Vanger (played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård). This I can buy, as that character struck me as the type who might have more international connections than others and is thus more well-versed in English. Daniel Craig doesn’t bother with a whole lot of accent either, which again I’m fine with; his character Mikael is a journalist who has presumably spent a lot of time researching and interviewing people from foreign countries. This isn’t explicitly stated, but I can believe that. But then we have Rooney Mara in the central role of Lisbeth Salander, who is definitely heavily accented but in a “wrong” way. Hers is either a massively failed attempt at sounding Swedish, or a subtle hint at future developments in the planned trilogy. I know that nobody in this film makes any mention of her odd way of speech, though.

Another confusing language issue: nobody ever says “cheers” or “toast” when drinking in the film. They all say “skål”, the Swedish equivalent. Only to then revert immediately back to English. Puzzling. Another small thing like that is a particular greeting Lisbeth uses as she enters her and Mikael’s base of operations a few times: “hej hej” she says, which is certainly a Swedish greeting but one that A: doesn’t quite fit the character, and B: is another out-of-place Swedish expression used amid all the English.

This might all seem like nit-picking. It probably is. None of it is likely to have much effect on the enjoyment of the film for non-Swedes, and Swedes are but a small percentage of the total audience for this film. As I’ve said repeatedly throughout this post, I understand why most of these things are in the movie. That’s why I didn’t make any mentions of them in my review. I don’t know how much these distractions influenced my fairly negative opinion of the film. I’d like to think that I was able to look past them. I certainly had issues with the film that weren’t related to the minor details.

Should I care about these things at all when I’m often willing to look past them in movies set in other countries? Amélie is one of my favorite films, yet French people have criticized it for its lack of colored characters when it’s set in Montmartre, a highly multicultural part of Paris. I find Amélie to be a wonderful film regardless. I’ve never been to France. There is nothing in the film that conflicts with the world as I have experienced it myself. Can I justify Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s decision to not have any character in Amélie have dark skin? No. But I can easily ignore it.

Ignoring things does not make them go away, though. The difference between inaccuracies in Amélie and ones in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that I’m acutely aware of the ones in the latter due to personal experience, whereas those in the former I only learned about from external sources. As I said earlier in this post, foreign movies being set and filmed in Sweden is extremely rare. I’ve never had a reaction to a film before like I did with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is why I chose to write this blog post.

Maybe this isn’t something that interests you, but it interests me. I like finding out others’ views on films set near where they live. I would love to know what Iraqis thought of Three Kings. What Jordanians thought of Body of Lies. What Spaniards thought of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. By learning about other people’s opinions, I can see the world in different lights.

Even if it is just over small details in a film.

A closing note: Many reviews of Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compare it to the Swedish film from 2009. I chose not to do that in my review, saying that since Fincher’s is a readaptation rather than a remake, it deserves to be judged on its own merits. It does. I will say here that I liked the Swedish movie much better, although this later film has made me question whether the first one really was as good as I first thought, seeing as some of the flaws appear in both of them. I will also say that Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth, while its own character, is far less intriguing than the one played by Noomi Rapace. The American movie doesn’t do enough things different from the Swedish one to really warrant its existance. I hope Fincher doesn’t sign on for the sequels. There are better things he could use his talent on. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo felt like a big enough waste of time as it is.


Posted by on 26 January, 2012 in Misc.


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14 responses to “When Worlds Collide: Why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is strange to this Swede

  1. Amy

    27 January, 2012 at 00:20

    Any non-Swede that has family or friends in Sweden and are interested in culture, overall, might find some of the things you mentioned in your post unsettling. I do understand the inclusion of things like “skål” though – it’s like dropping you a nugget to make you feel like you’re watching a foreign film. xD

    It’s the way old hollywood used to do it, right? At least I recall doing this in a film like Ninotchka haha. Greta Garbo and her comrades talking in English~~~

    Anyway, I haven’t seen Dragon Tattoo yet. It really bothered me that the teaser seemed like such a shot-by-shot remake of the Swede version xD and the hyper positive reviews have accustomed my brain into not being into the idea that it could be a rocking movie. So sadly… I’m going into the movie in a very pessimistic state haha.

    Thanks for your Swede comments ;D

    I think the issue with Amelie or VCB – at least for me – those movies aren’t so much about where it’s made. Maybe Amelie is set in multicultural Montmartre and it got a little white-washed but that’s something that happens a lot with movies in general. (New York, I Love You?) VCB is different because the film wasn’t about Spanish people or so much Barcelona – it’s a tourist romanticized view of what they view as Barcelona… after all, Woody did it.

    • Emil

      27 January, 2012 at 00:34

      What’s funny is that stuff like the “skål” is something I must have seen hundreds of times in English-language movies set in other countries without paying much attention to them. Now it happens in one set in Sweden, and it’s seemingly all I can think about. This film was certainly an eye-opener for me.

      Fincher’s film certainly isn’t a shot-by-shot remake, although I agree the trailer gave off vibes along that way. Most major events play out the same in both versions though. I haven’t read the novels so I can’t say whether one is more faithful to the source than the other, but I certainly know which one I prefer.

      I’m not a big fan of readaptations that happen so close in time to the first one. It’s rare enough for Swedish films to garner any attention at all internationally, so I’d like for people to see them when they do. We’ve had two cases of this in recent years: the Millenium trilogy, and Let the Right One In. Both quickly got American readaptations. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has hit me particularly hard. Before its release, I saw plenty of discussions about in movie forums. People asking “Is it worth seeing the Swedish film when the US one is coming soon?” and others replying “No, don’t bother. I’m waiting for the American one. It’s David Fincher, so it’s sure to be much better.” I love David Fincher, but I still felt like screaming at my computer.

      Good point on VCB, how it’s about specifically tourists’ view of Spain and is tehrefore afforded more creative leeway. Still would be interesting to hear what Spanish people made of it.

      Thank you very much for your comment, Amy!

  2. Amelie

    27 January, 2012 at 01:10

    I enjoyed your article a lot because of course in the time when everyone is praising the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo it’s almost impossible to get a different view. And your view on it is extremely interesting because it’s something almost never discussed about American films being filmed somewhere else (there’s not that many to be honest, and as you notice- even if, not the whole film). I come from a non English speaking country myself and although the country I’m originally from is not usually portrayed by anyone else but it’s nation (I guess, because it’s in Europe it might not seem ‘exotic’ enough), but if I come across one, then I would be looking at it from a completely new perspective.
    Great article! I enjoy your blog!

    • Emil

      27 January, 2012 at 09:19

      Seems like you’re in a similar position as me then, in that your country rarely gets attention from foreign film-makers. It was definitely a strange thing to see these everyday concepts mixed up with a foreign eye. Fascinating in many way. I hope you’ll be able to have a similar experience yourself at some point.

      Thank you for the kind words, Amelie! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Movies - Noir

    27 January, 2012 at 02:05

    Interesting, very interesting. I’m surprised you found the Swedish details in the movie to be a distraction. It’s set and shot in Sweden, so why wouldn’t you see the SJ logo, IKEA furniture, Volvo cars etc. ? Or did I misunderstand you ? Did you feel it was overdone ? That these things were too obvious in some way, like they shouldn’t be there, but were put there “just cause” ? Like I said, interesting and a bit surprising to hear this.

    I agree with you on the written text in newspapers and books. It was strange to see the covers in Swedish, but the inside in English. However, this was nothing that took anything away from the movie experience for me, just something one obviously notices ;)

    The euro part you mentioned in the news on TV, where they speaking about something that happened in Sweden or outside ? I don’t remember, but if they talked about the affair that took place in Switzerland, it wouldn’t be out of line to use euro. However, they would always say how much it was in Swedish crowns (kronor) as well, that’s true. Either way, again, this was nothing I thought was annoying.

    The accents however (mainly by Rooney Mara and Robin Wright) did bother me. Since it wasn’t explained why they talked like this while others (Craig and Plummer for instance) spoke pretty much normal English, it didn’t make sense. This was one of the things that bothered me in the movie. A fellow Swedish blogger had read somewhere that this was made because the Mara and Wright characters come from a different part of the country, and in Mara’s case also from a different and difficult upbringing. I don’t like it, but can accept it a bit. Still don’t know why they had to do it though.

    The “skål” part I had no problem with. And the “hej hej” thing was something I enjoyed quite a lot actually. I think it was a way by Fincher to give it a foreign feel, but also like a salute to Sweden in a way. Again, I had no problem with this and found it to be a nice addition.

    All in all I enjoyed both movies. I saw the Swedish original first and thought it was a good one, especially for Swedish standards. And I feel Fincher and co. did a good job staying faithful to the original work, but also giving it a bit of his own touch.

    Obviously you didn’t enjoy this version as much as the Swedish version. The question is however, would you dislike it as much if you hadn’t seen the Swedish version first ? Obviously you’d still be annoyed with some of the stuff you mentioned, but still…

    • Emil

      27 January, 2012 at 09:39

      Part of why I found all the Swedish things so distracting was that, yes, in certain shots they seemed a bit too obvious, and I couldn’t figure out why. Non-Swedes won’t recognize all these things, so the slight focus on them wouldn’t make sense to them. And to Swedes, it distracts from the narrative and takes us out of the story, if only for a split-second. Every time I noticed one of these things was one I became reminded that I was watching a film. Immersion took a hit.

      But the main distraction came from the fact that they were right there on screen along with a big international star like Daniel Craig. It’s something I’ve never seen before. Swedish cinema in general is so far removed from that kind of star. Plus the fact that I found it hard to buy James Bond as a Swede. There is one scene in particular where Mikael is talking to, I believe, Martin Vanger. Martin says something about how something is “the old Sweden meets the new Sweden, don’t you agree?”. Mikael affirms that yes, he knows exactly what he means. And I don’t buy it for a second.

      I don’t think they would use euro even in that situation in the news report, especially considering who it was about.

      I was actually ready to write a big paragraph about Mara’s accent alone, until I realized what happened in the Swedish sequels. As I said, her weird accent still doesn’t make sense in this film, and nobody makes any mention of it. But it could make sense with future installments, so I’m willing to give Fincher and Mara the benefit of the doubt here. I don’t specifically recall Wright’s accent.

      I have no idea if I would have enjoyed this film more had I not seen the Swedish one first. I wrestled with similar issues with Open Your Eyes/Vanilla Sky in a blog post some time ago. As I said, I tried to avoid comparing the two as I watched and reviewed this one, but it’s hard to stay 100% unaffected. I’d like to think I would have had roughly the same opinion on both films no matter what order I saw them in. And I’m glad I saw the Swedish one first.

  4. Movies - Noir

    27 January, 2012 at 13:58

    I see what you mean with the distraction. I for one didn’t see it that way though. Because it was set and shot in Sweden, I felt pretty much everything was natural, even when Craig brings coffee and sandwiches from Wayne’s Coffee.

    Thinking about it, it DOES feel strange to see Craig and the others play Swedes. But since I knew this would be the case before watching the movie, I wasn’t surprised. It almost sounds like you weren’t expecting them to portray Swedes :) But I know what you mean, even though it didn’t bother me a bit.

    The euro thing, well I actually do think that if something happened in a country that uses euro, they’d say something like “100m euro was stolen today, which is around 900m crowns”. But otherwise, I agree they’d never talk about money in any other currency than Swedish crowns. Though since the news was in English, using euro made some sense. It’s for an international audience, so a change like this was natural.

    With the accents I agree with you 100%. They didn’t mention why and there was no reason to use them.

    • Emil

      27 January, 2012 at 15:00

      I was fully aware that foreign actors would be playing Swedes in Sweden before I sat down to watch it. The striking colliding of worlds still hit me, however.

      I still disagree with you on the news thing, though. Since the “victim” was a Swede, I think they would just mention the money in crowns. But it doesn’t matter much.

  5. Jessica

    27 January, 2012 at 15:10

    You’re capturing a lot of what I felt as well. I couldn’t stop paying attention to all the Swedish details. I loved the thing they did with things such as items, what to eat and drink, the environments overall. The news thing was kind of weird but didn’t put me off completely. However those inconsistent accents did.

    I didn’t care for the movie but having a Hollywood specacle thing like this going on in our little country was cool, that’s for sure. So for that reason I’d be happy to see a continuation.

    • Emil

      27 January, 2012 at 15:37

      Yeah, they certainly were very accurate with all the little things. Which was a nice touch in theory, even if I found it all a bit distracting personally.

      I have no interest in seeing the planned sequels myself, but if it brings money and business to Sweden, I suppose it’s hard for me to object to them being made. Too bad they’re violent thrillers, as I doubt there’s going to be a boom in tourism due to them. :P

  6. Colin

    2 February, 2012 at 19:46

    What an excellent piece. I share your opinion and your concerns, but there’s a frustration. English-speaking films with recognisable actors attempting non-English accents are *always* distracting – one quick look at the new Cronenberg will confirm that (if you can get past the unintentionally hilarious chin-jutting). Keira Knightley, bless her, attempts a Russian accent that comes off as hopelessly generic and, because she’s Keira Knightley and we all know how she sounds, is distracting in the extreme.

    This particular case would have been settled so much more easily had they not remade this damn film to begin with. I have similar fears for the English-speaking remakes of The Secret in their Eyes and your fellow Scandinavian movie, Headhunters.

    • Emil

      2 February, 2012 at 22:49

      Yeah, that’s part of the problem, as you mention with Keira Nightley (not that I’ve seen A Dangerous Method yet): the accent sticks out so much and occupies so much space that it overtakes any other character traits the role is to exhibit. There are some performances that overcome it, of course. One that comes to mind – speaking of Cronenberg – is Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. But it’s the rare exception.

  7. iva

    6 November, 2013 at 14:17

    I only recently got to see the American version of the Girl with a dragon tattoo. And I was curious as where anybody else found their way of speaking weird, and so I stumbled upon this post. It was really interesting to read your opinion as a native speaker. I myself had trouble understanding what they are saying, since Croatian is my native language. At first I thought that there was something wrong with the dvd. :) After giving it some consideration, I just concluded that ‘English with accent’, is rather childish approach; it ruins the experience since the actors don’s sound natural. That approach had sense in ‘Alo ‘Alo for example, because it was supposed to be funny. In this move it was like children playing and pretending to be Swedes. Since is so hard for Americans to enjoy the original movie, they should have just made it as if it were synchronized in English.
    Anyhow thanks for the post,

    • Emil

      7 November, 2013 at 13:41

      Sounds like we’re on the same page here. Accents can be a big headache, I agree. And they don’t even have to be non-American for that to happen. For example, I was very thankful for the subtitles when I watched Winter’s Bone, which has thick dialect from all the characters.

      I too would have preferred if they hadn’t bothered with the accents at all in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nothing but a distraction.

      Glad to hear you liked the post, iva. Thank you for commenting!


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