'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' goes Hollywood

Advice for the talented American director seeking to give Stieg Larsson the ‘Chinatown’ treatment

'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' goes Hollywood

James Atoa/ The Everett Collection/ Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Dear David Fincher:

So glad that you’re the one who’s doing the Hollywood adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. At this point, I guess there’s no going back to Larsson’s original title, Men Who Hate Women. People might mistake it for a Mel Gibson movie. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine a more suitable director. You, after all, are a specialist in complicated movies about diabolical predators and men who hate women, from a serial killer freak in Se7en to the Facebook geek in The Social Network. With Zodiac, you’ve already shown you can make an insanely detailed crime thriller about a journalist trying to crack a homicidal riddle. As for casting female targets who fight back, you did a bang-up job with Jodie Foster in Panic Room.

But the whole Swedish thing has me a little worried. When you began shooting in Sweden last month, you made it clear right off the bat that you are not remaking the Swedish-language movie, but doing your own adapation of the novel. You called your approach “Swedish noir” with “an atmosphere reminiscent of Chinatown.” Weird. You’ll have actors speaking English in a dark, creepy Scandinavia that’s more Swedish than Sweden.

Usually Hollywood just screws up European source material. But David, now that we’ve seen all three Swedish-language adaptations—the last instalment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, opened here last week—they serve as a lesson in what to avoid, especially if you end up adapting the other novels. It goes without saying that you’ll bring more style and production values to the screen than the Swedish trilogy, which was made as a TV miniseries. Only the first of their movies was any good, but it was shot by a real filmmaker (Niels Arden Oplev); the last two were the pedestrian work of a TV guy.

Everyone, however, agrees it’s hard to beat the Swedish casting of Michael Nyqvist as crusading journalist Michael Blomqvist, and impossible to imagine anyone better than Noomi Rapace as cyberpunk heroine Lisbeth Salander. Your Blomqvist is the aptly phlegm­atic Daniel Craig. Cool. As Salander, a role coveted by every young actress in Hollywood, you cast newcomer Rooney Mara—the girl who kicks the Facebook geek in The Social Network.

We’ll see. But even if she’s up to the job, there’s a problem with Salander that goes beyond casting, one that even Rapace’s incendiary performance could not solve. Salander is Larsson’s most powerful character, and the sole reason readers are pulled through his dense thickets of prose, as if by an invisible force. But she’s offstage much of the time. That’s especially true in the last novel, in which she spends half the book virtually immobile in a hospital bed, while Blomqvist toils on her behalf. In the books, her elusiveness only adds to her mystique: her spider senses penetrate the entire world Larsson creates. But movies are more physical; what you see is what you get. And by the end of the Swedish miniseries, which doggedly works its way through Larsson’s procedural maze, Rapace’s performance loses its momentum because her character is marginalized by the sheer weight of the plot.

The only way the Millenium trilogy will work onscreen is if the girl’s lethal point of view can be spread, like a virus, through every scene—an invisible dragon tattoo. She is a spy of sorts, a cryptic observer whose power lies in pure surveillance. She’s a one-woman intelligence agency, always a step ahead of the conspiracy, and we need to see the movie through her eyes. She’s a watcher; so are we.
But now she’ll be competing with James Bond. So Craig needs to muzzle his force and play the straight man. But he can’t just be a doting protector. Salander’s recurring barb in the novels is “f–king Blomqvist,” which gets funnier every time she mutters it to herself. You won’t find it in the dour and dutiful narrative slog of the last Swedish movie, in which the cruel erotic tension between Blomqvist and Salander simply evaporates. David, somehow you have to keep their heat alive. Even if it means making your film less Swedish, and more Hollywood. But I’m sure you’ve already thought of that.

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