David Fincher's film of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn't the intended franchise starter. But why not?

Feature Mark Harrison

Jan 29, 2018

This article contains spoilers for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

“What is hidden in the snow, comes forth in the thaw.”

The world met Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, when The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was published in 2005. She only became more popular when Swedish production company Yellow Bird adapted the crime thriller and its two sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, for the screen in 2009.

Noomi Rapace plays Lisbeth, a prodigious ward of the state who has poor social skills and a photographic memory, while Michael Nyqvist plays Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who enlists her help in solving a cold case and later becomes involved in uncovering a government conspiracy in her past. The trilogy was well received, domestically and in limited release in English language markets the following year.

Around the same time, Sony optioned the books for what film fans have come to know as ‘an American language remake’. Producer Scott Rudin developed the project and enlisted director David Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian to mount a new adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, with plans to adapt the other two books later.

The film stars Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in the lead roles, and faithfully goes through the motions of the first story in the series. Blomkvist’s reputation is in tatters after a very public, very expensive libel case, when he’s invited by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his daughter Harriet, 40 years prior. After finding that the Vangers themselves are the prime suspects, Blomkvist drafts the mysterious Lisbeth in to help uncover the truth.

It was well received by critics and it picked up a bunch of nominations during the 2012 awards season. But the planned sequels stalled repeatedly in the years after its release and eventually, Sony announced plans to reboot the franchise with an adaptation of David Lagencrantz’s official sequel to Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl With The Spider’s Web, due in cinemas in October. So, what went wrong?

To be clear, Fincher’s film isn’t bad. We’ve previously looked at ‘what went wrong’ with other franchise non-starters like The Golden Compass, The Last Airbender, and Green Lantern, and we weren’t just bashing those films for the sake of it either. While The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is unquestionably a better film than any of those, we’re interested in the reasons why it didn’t connect as it needed to upon release, in order to persuade the studio to make the next two films.

And here, the main reason might be do with it being the right kind of film at the wrong time – a dark, transgressive grown-up movie, released at the most wonderful time of the year…

The feel bad movie of Christmas

The marketing campaign for this one kicked off earlier than anticipated. A YouTube user in the Netherlands uploaded a pirated camcorder version of the (NSFW) red-band teaser trailer shown above, several days before its planned release in May 2011. Despite Sony’s claims that they had nothing to do with the leak, it went viral and remained online for four days before being taken down, leading some to think that it was too good not to have been a viral marketing tactic for a film that concerned computer hacking.

The eye-catching key art and marketing went on like this in the run-up to the film’s release in late December, touting “the feel bad movie of Christmas.” It was a cracking campaign and there’s no faulting Sony’s marketing for that, but the timing of the film definitely could probably have been better.

December 25th is a bigger day for cinemas in America than it is in the UK and it’s a big day for families looking for something to do together after Christmas presents and dinner are out of the way. That means there’s a lot of competition for family friendly films, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is about as far from family friendly as you can get.

The Vanger family is described by their own patriarch Henrik as “the most detestable collection of people you will ever meet”: a moneyed bunch of thieves, bullies and literal Nazis who are prime targets in Larsson’s takedown of monstrous privilege. Likewise, the book’s sexual content, including its provocative rape scene and Lisbeth’s subsequent violent revenge, were talking points about both the source material and the Swedish version, and this was echoed in the run-up to this film.

Without wishing to labor the point, you likely wouldn’t want to see it with your family. While the marketing had made the dark and bleak tone of the film appeal to women and adults over 35, a lot of filmgoers in those demographics would have likely spent Christmas with relatives for whom this movie would be entirely unsuitable.

To its credit, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had a very respectable opening weekend. It made $21 million in its first five days and arrived at number three in the Christmas US box office chart. It came ahead of several other more accessible new releases that week, including Steven Spielberg’s festive offerings The Adventures Of Tintin (also starring Craig) and War Horse, but fell short of bigger draws Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in their second week. Crucially, it didn’t pick up any extra steam going into the New Year either.

All scheduling mischief aside, it seems like the film was released close to the end of the year to qualify it for consideration at the Academy Awards, following the success of Fincher’s previous film, The Social Network. If this was part of Sony’s motive in scheduling the film, then it paid off during awards season, but it seems like a poor swap for the proper box office hit for grown-ups that this could have been at a different time of year.

The awards-friendly release date is one thing that undercut the film’s subversive credentials – no amount of edginess can quite conceal those ‘For Your Consideration’ watermarks that they put on screeners for Academy voters. But outside of the way that the studio handled the film, it doesn’t help that the story had been seen on screen before either.

The name’s Blomkvist, Mikael Blomkvist…

That said, the film itself is not without its problems, chief among which is the miscasting of one of the two leads. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Viggo Mortensen were reportedly considered for the role of Blomkvist, but Daniel Craig was able to join the cast after Skyfall was delayed by MGM’s financial troubles. Still, the shadow of James Bond looms over his performance.

This starts early and in earnest with the opening title sequence, whose nightmarish, tentacular animation, set to Karen O’s cover of Immigrant Song, weirdly foreshadows the opening of Craig’s next-but-one Bond outing, Spectre. It’s a stylish start to the film that gets you in the wrong mood for a two-and-a-half-hour cold case procedural.

Craig certainly isn’t playing the secret agent action man type here. He gained weight for the role, and he plays Blomkvist as a rumpled, idealistic but kind of hapless bloke. He’s not tough and Lisbeth does all of the heavy lifting action-wise. But the film still makes him the lead, not Lisbeth, and that feels counter-intuitive to his studied performance.

It’s also worth noting that in the books, Blomkvist is transparently an author insert character – like his character, Larsson was also a middle-aged political writer for a left-wing magazine. The casting of a 007 actor in this particular role only serves to accentuate the ways in which Blomkvist is idealized, particularly in his sexual relationships with his editor, Erika Berger (Robin Wright) and later with Lisbeth.

It’s certainly not Craig’s fault that the film can’t help but evoke Bond tropes in the process. Even if you’re trying really, really hard not to think about it, Fincher and Zaillian give us a scene where Blomkvist is captured in a bad guy’s lair and forced to listen an honest-to-goodness bad guy monologue near the end. Whether it’s an intentional subversion or not, Mara’s excellent Lisbeth (who we’ll get back to) feels sidelined by this approach, when the film badly needs her to be more central.

For comparison, Michael Nyqvist played Blomkvist in the Yellow Bird movies and followed a very conventional career trajectory for foreign breakout stars in Hollywood, showing up to play antagonists in John Wick and (funnily enough) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, up until he tragically passed away earlier this year. But Craig’s problem here is that he is broadly as unconvincing stepping into these shoes, as Nyqvist is in a knockdown brawl with Tom Cruise.

“What you’re asking me to do is a waste of money.”

Inevitably, there’s a contrast in budgets to consider as well. Niels Arden Oplev’s film cost $13 million. For the money that the Hollywood version cost, you could have made seven of them. Not that we’d ever complain about studios spending money on films for adults, but there’s little in the plot that needs to cost $90 million.

Fincher made his trademark use of seamless visual effects to tell the story, as demonstrated in this astonishing featurette, but the cost was driven up by a 160 day shoot, necessitated by the number of scenes set at night. The result is the sort of visual excellence you expect from its director, but the investment may just have been a bit much to recoup for the studio, though the cost was ameliorated by product placement deals.

To use some advertising jargon, this winds up looking like story-selling rather than storytelling. Many reviewers at the time commented upon the prominence of McDonalds, Coca Cola and Apple in the film. Making a subtle point about Lisbeth’s arrested development by having her buy a Happy Meal might have passed by unmentioned, if the point wasn’t already made crystal clear in literally everything Mara says and does in the role. It’s a concession to Hollywood financing that a cheaper film wouldn’t have to make.

Studio representatives have said that the film was intended to gross around 10% more than it actually did, but it didn’t stop Sony stumping up for development of the potential sequels afterwards. While we don’t doubt Fincher et al’s interest in the material, this feels more like a studio project than the director’s other fare, and it’s understandable that those on the creative side have since moved on.

“She’s different in every way.”

Quite by coincidence, in addition to Nyqvist’s villainous turn in Mission: Impossible, Fincher’s film also opened opposite Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, which starred Noomi Rapace in a prominent suporting role. If you credit such things, there’s a kind of irony in both of their films coming ahead of Mara and Craig’s film at the box office in the same week.

When the remake was first announced, there was an online campaign, championed by film critic Roger Ebert no less, to get Rapace to reprise her role. She declined, but that’s not the only regard in which the pre-existence of another adaptation makes the Hollywoodization of the story more apparent by comparison.

The Yellow Bird films were each extended to 180 minutes for their television broadcast, and broadcast in six 90 minute instalments on Swedish public broadcaster SVT1. These adaptations easily transitioned to television, a medium in which cold case procedurals are commonplace, but even for a filmmaker like Fincher, the 2011 film has an uphill battle to make the story feel cinematic.

On the DVD commentary, Fincher and Zaillian talk about how they reluctantly structured the film around five acts, rather than the more conventional three act feature film structure, and directly compared it to TV cop dramas. At 158 minutes, Fincher’s film is five minutes longer than the theatrical cut of Oplev’s film and the only marked difference is the reinstatement of certain beats from Larsson’s novel towards the end.

Outside of the densely plotted cold case, the film is extended at the front, by the separation of Lisbeth and Blomkvist and their respective screentime before they meet at the 76 minute mark, and at the back, by a rote epilogue that was more economically adapted first time around. It also unwisely restores the novel’s final scene, in which Lisbeth goes to give Blomkvist a Christmas present but gets sad that he’s with Erika and rides away on her motorbike instead. It’s the sour note that caps an overlong final act and leaves a bad taste before the end.

The Swedish adaptation isn’t much shorter, but it feels pared down to the bone. Meanwhile, the American version labours over details and meanders away from the central mystery. This may be a cultural difference, but fans will already know the story from either the page or the previous screen version.

The Millennium trilogy was as popular as anything available in print or in TV boxsets during the Scandi-noir trend that Larsson’s success helped to kick off, so many of those who would be interested in the film, released so soon afterwards, probably knew the score by that point anyway. Ultimately, it just wasn’t different enough.

What went right?

As we’ve said, it’s not a bad film. Lisbeth Salander has always been the main attraction, and Mara is extraordinary. It’s a different interpretation from Rapace’s, but they’re both energetic, intelligent and compulsively watchable performances. In this case, wherever the film slows down, Mara animates the plodding procedural parts magnificently, and was deservedly nominated for Best Actress awards across the board.

It’s mostly well cast throughout too, from old hands to up-and-comers. Plummer provides the only twinkle in a pitch black film and Wright reliably does a lot with the little the script has to offer, but there are also appearances from the likes of Donald Sumpter, Tony Way, David Dencik, Geraldine James, Goran Višnjić, Elodie Yung, Joel Kinnaman and the mighty Alan Dale. And in amongst that supporting cast, the standout turn is Stellan Skarsgård’s odious, two-faced turn as Martin Vanger.

We’ve taken the piss out of the bit in the villain’s lair, but as part of that monologue, invented for the film, the film uncovers a disturbing subtext that’s not so prominent in other versions and Skarsgård knocks it out of the park. Henrik’s nephew is revealed to be the serial killer Blomkvist is looking for, and throughout the climactic scenes, he gloats about the human condition at his bloodied captive.

“It’s hard to believe that the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain,” Martin snarls, revelling in the way in which sadistic criminals can prey upon moral people, all while Enya’s Orinoco Flow blares in the background. The procedural aspect may not be cinematic, but the reveal is suitably skin-crawling and feels like pure Fincher. The original twist that Harriet (Joely Richardson) survived and escaped in secret is still a good one too, even if it plays out as part of the over-extended epilogue after Martin has been dispatched.

Finally, it’s pleasing that they didn’t transplant the action elsewhere, recognising that Stockholm is in the bones of this particular story. They could more easily have distinguished this version in that way, but not for the better. The frosty climate is complemented perfectly by the captivating score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it all adds up to a film that’s chilled to the touch.

Aftermath

After the film’s release, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest were set to be filmed back-to-back, with the first sequel pencilled in for a 2013 release. Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker rewrote Zaillian’s draft of the film, and Fincher and Mara were both happy with his reported departures from the novel, but the projected release date came and went with no signs of movement.

Around the time she was promoting Carol in 2015, Mara was still enthusiastic about reprising the role of Lisbeth, telling E! Online: “I’m doing it unless someone tells me that I’m not—and then I still might do it.”

Sony have sent that message fairly definitively by skipping Larsson’s two remaining books altogether and drafting Fede Alvarez and Steven Knight to adapt The Girl In The Spider’s Web, starring Claire Foy as Lisbeth and Borg/McEnroe’s Sverrir Gudnason. Keep an eye on how it does, because it’s not coming out at Christmas, it has a director known for low-budget thrills (in Don’t Breathe and his surprisingly good Evil Dead remake) and most importantly, it’s based on a story that has never been adapted for the screen before.

Meanwhile, Fincher moved onto a more universally acclaimed adaptation in 2014’s Gone Girl, on which he worked closely with original author Gillian Flynn, and looks set to throw his hat into the studio ring again for a sequel to World War Z. It will be interesting to see what unique perspective he intends to bring to that franchise that he didn’t bring here.

His Girl With The Dragon Tattoo didn’t do enough differently from the previous adaptation, except costing nearly $80 million more to make. For all of its unflinching faithfulness to the text, it still plays like a ‘one for them’ movie than one for Fincher himself, and ideally, it would have been nice if the script were more polished, and the film itself a little rougher around the edges, rather than vice versa.