Thursday, December 29, 2011

Englished, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Girls with Tattoos

When it was first announced that an English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was going to be made, I was irritated, without being asked to be, on behalf of all of the Swedish people who did such fine work to bring to release both the novel and the original Swedish film. I thought the making of an English version of the film was just a stupid sap to the weak people who refuse to see movies that they “have to read,” and I made up my mind not to see it. And then I was talking to Heather at work one day last week, and after stating my position on the movie, she got around to asking me what about translations of novels, from their original languages into English?

It’s not exactly the same thing, but it got me thinking. I can’t read any language besides English, other than a little bit of French—but not enough to sit down with a novel in its original French and be able to get anything out of it. There is no way that I would ever be able to consume Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment or One Hundred Years of Solitude if it were not for the translations of those novels from their original languages into English; but I can enjoy foreign films without knowing the original language because of two things: subtitles; and the fact that I can see what is happening on the screen.

I knew in the back of my mind that there were movies I had seen and enjoyed that had been re-made into English versions after the original foreign versions had already come out, including The Birdcage, The Departed, Vanilla Sky (yes, I liked it; and yes, I know that I’m the only one who did), Unfaithful, and Twelve Monkeys. Then I searched Google for films in English that had been adapted from foreign language films, and I found a list on Wikipedia that contained quite a few films that I had enjoyed without ever having had any idea that they were originally foreign films. That list includes Mixed Nuts (once again, I am aware that I am the only one who liked this film), Three Men and a Baby, True Lies, Scent of a Woman (it’s possible that I knew this one had been Englished, but I can’t be sure of that), and—hang on—The Lion King.

That was about the point when I realized that my argument wasn’t going to hold up. That there is a film in English that was originally released in a foreign language is not in itself a bad thing; but something was still bothering me about it, about this particular film. The novels have been ginormous bestsellers for years, so why did it take Hollywood so long to decide that they wanted to make movies out of them? Or perhaps more to the point, why did it take the relative success of the three Swedish films to make Hollywood realize that they should make English versions? (According to Box Office Mojo, the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the 24th highest-grossing foreign language film of all time. The two Swedish sequels are 30th and 62nd, respectively.)

You know, though, the more I think about it, the more I think that the argument is completely falling apart. Filming of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo commenced in early 2008, and the third film had been released in Europe before the end of 2009. For those of you scoring at home, that’s three films in less than two years—a fairly torrid pace, even by Woody Allen standards. The first novel was not published in the United States until late 2008, after filming on the first installment had already begun. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Paramount was contemplating a film adaptation shortly after the publication of the first novel in the United States; but filming on the English version did not ultimately commence (with the film now at Sony, not Paramount) until late 2010.

I am going to assume that there is material out there that can shed some light on why it took so long for American studios to get around to making their version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; but I’m not going to take the trouble to locate that information. There’s a concept in the movie biz called “development hell,” and it’s not just a clever name. Note the fact that it was less than two years from the time filming began on the Swedish version of the first film to the European release of the third—and that it took David Fincher and Sony over a year to get from the beginning of filming to the release of just the first film in the trilogy (and never mind the two years between the U.S. publication of the first novel and the start of filmmaking for Fincher’s version).

Based solely on the small amount of research I have done for this post, it seems plausible to me that studios in the U.S.—major ones, at that—had more than a passing interest in making films out of these novels. The Swedes just beat them to the punch. (It would not surprise me in the least to learn that it takes far less time for a Swedish studio to make a film than it does for a major American studio to make a film.) It would seem that English version of these films were inevitable, not the result of the devious behavior of American studio executives who just wanted an easy ride on the (Swedish) gravy train.

Having said all of that, I have almost managed to talk myself into wanting to see this new version of the film—almost. I’m intrigued by some of the casting, including Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, and Robin Wright—thought not by Daniel Craig or Rooney Mara; and Fincher, of course, is Fincher. Though he churns out the occasional crappy movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), his early work on dark, grisly films like Se7en and Fight Club leads me to believe that he’ll at least get the mood right on this one. I suppose the prospects for the English version could have been much worse—what if it had been a Michael Bay Joint?

I still probably won’t get around to seeing Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though not any longer because I necessarily hold a grudge against the picture or the people who decided that it needed to be made. Hollywood movies are about money, not art; and there is definitely money to be made with these films. I may get around to getting it from Netflix one of these days, and I suppose that I can hope that Rooney Mara is even a fraction as good in the Lisbeth Salander role as Noomi Rapace—but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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