This isn’t going to be the kind of rant that one usually hears from die-hard Millenium Trilogy fans, i.e. the Swedish version was so much better, the American version was an abomination, adapting his work was against Stieg Larsson’s principles, so why make movies in the first place? This is simply a question of doing a comparison between two critically acclaimed masterpiece interpretations of the most original female protagonist ever written. ‘The best’ won’t necessary mean the person who is closest to the book: it could simply turn out to mean the person who best incarnates the book while bringing her own magic to the table. So. Let’s talk about Lisbeth.
Bursting onto the screen like a bat out of hell each time you see her, Rapace is brilliant at bringing to the surface the more disturbing psychological aspects of Lisbeth’s character, whether she’s running screaming after Martin Vanger’s car swinging a golf club or sporting her characteristic indifference when shoving an anal plug up Bjurman’s (deserving) ass. She is also undisputed mistress of Lisbeth’s primary on-the-ground weapon, the deadpan stare that is both a shield for dealing with scum like Teleborian and something she presents to people she’s relegated to the idiots’ club, which comprises most of the human species. But even with those she’s decided to respect or even trust, Rapace’s shield stays up: she may show part of herself to the other person, but never lets them completely in, a notable exception being the abrupt ending of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. The shield goes up and comes down simultaneously, and we know when it’s happening. She unfolds like a black lotus. We see it; we sense it. Because of it, her smiles, even her willingness to listen, are like gifts. Rapace does, however, tend to make Lisbeth’s deep-set anger and aggression something that comes pouring out of her a little too easily and sometimes with too little reason, risking her looking like a simple crazy bitch. Nevertheless, this aspect of her performance does represent a good transition from book to film. Making Lisbeth’s anger more obvious while still somehow managing to maintain the character’s spirit is good both for people who don’t know the book well and for the quintessential cinema audience that doesn’t respond well to too much subtlety. From Rapace, we get both subtlety and explosion, and her performance is deservedly iconic.
Rooney Mara steps into Noomi Rapace’s enormous shoes with bravery and individuality. Her Lisbeth is silent as a ghost and deathly soft spoken when she does speak. Lisbeth’s psychology is evoked with just as much power, but in a much quieter way, the dead-pan stare coming up both when she’s fiercely angry and when relegating somebody to the previously mentioned idiots’ club. This makes her bone chilling and frightening, something that is particularly well-evoked in her slow walk across the car park to Martin Vanger’s burning car, its (deservedly) terrified occupant watching her approach before going up in flames. Like Rapace, she is monstrously convincing as an asocial personality with strong psychopathic tendencies, but in capturing Lisbeth’s vulnerability, she’s in a league of her own. She presents Lisbeth as someone who is capable of letting her shield down and who endures shame and pain from the moments that she does so, ex: the movie’s last scene. She is regrettably at the disadvantage of appearing in a badly-written adaptation and performing the role in English with a dorky Swedish accent (I mean whose idea was that?), which can distract the viewer at key moments, notably the revenge scene.
So who’s better?
It is tempting to consign Rooney Mara to the scrap heap because the American version spent too much money on cinematography and nothing on script. In spite of all this, she is the closer of the two to the Lisbeth of the book. Her performance is more introverted, and sometimes we don’t understand her, but we still feel we have some notion of what’s going on inside her head, a privilege the books frequently accord us. She’s Lisbeth the maniac, but also Lisbeth the human being. David Fincher’s decision to end the film just as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ends gives us an insight into Lisbeth at her most vulnerable, showing us the moment of crushing humiliation that spurs her on to retreat deeper into seclusion and to cut ties with Blomkvist. She’s separate from us, but we somehow feel like we know something about her.
An audience can adore Noomi Repace, but can’t really relate to her: she remains aloof, an enigma, a mystery. It’s a totally different way of playing the character, and a brilliant one. In essence, Lisbeth remains her own ‘property’; she doesn’t lay herself open to prying eyes; she’s a stranger. This creates magnetism and a great admiration for what she does. But she’s so far away from us.
Rooney Mara’s performance is better because to a certain extent, she lets us in: we can see she’s vulnerable and susceptible to the same emotions as the rest of us, but remains extraordinarily individualistic, like no one on earth. We relate to her, but still see her from afar. This is the ultimate strength of her performance.