The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo deserved better. David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular Swedish novel ranks amongst his most undercelebrated movies. Although it was critically praised and did moderately well at the box office (oh yeah, and it landed Rooney Mara a Best Actress nomination), it somehow still wasn’t enough for the studio to decide to continue the trilogy.
I like to think of myself as the biggest enthusiast of this film but really, I was and still am in awe at how faithful the movie is to the book. Like many others, I’m a fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and I also enjoyed the Swedish film—its sequels are debatable, but the first film is great—so when I heard that Hollywood was doing what Hollywood does best, another remake, I was unimpressed. But the announcement of Fincher as director gave me hope. Fincher’s dedication to and vision for murder mysteries has made him a royal figure in the genre, with previous films like Se7en, Zodiac, and Dragon Tattoo cementing that status..
There’s an ongoing feeling of uneasiness throughout the novel, and that’s effectively translated to the screen, largely through Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. Salander’s aloof personality meshes with the colder tracks in the score. The scene where she opens up to Blomkvist is complemented by the track “What If We Could?” which beautifully underscores the anxiety and vulnerability she feels about having an actual friendship with someone.
The beginning of the film introduces an isolated Swedish town encased snow. The track that plays alongside it (“I Can’t Take It Anymore”) adds to the eeriness of the location. And eerie is also the best word to describe the main focus of conflict—a four decade-long murder mystery in a town where everyone knows everyone but secrets are deeply hidden.
Fincher creates an even balance with all of the enterwining narratives that form around the mystery so that none of it feels rushed. In the subsequent half-decade plus since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s release, we have seen films like The Girl on the Train and Dark Places fall somewhere between being inspired by to being complete rip-offs of Fincher’s adaptation. They may present various views and note their inter-connectivity, but these films fail to the translate how important each character is to the story, rendering underdeveloped characters and muddled subplots.
Fincher doesn’t make that mistake. Every character in his film has a purpose. The main protagonists—Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander—are complete opposites that have to use their own special skills to solve this mystery. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara seem to understand everything that makes these characters so interesting in text; Craig played the charming-yet-provocative journalist with ease, while Mara not only physically transformed herself but also delved into the complexities of Salander’s mindset.
The best, and perhaps most frustrating, aspect of the movie is that while we do see glimpses of Salander’s past (which is expanded upon in the next books) , those unfamiliar with the source material will wonder why she reacted the way she did when watching Martin Vanger burn to death. They’ll realize the parallels between Vanger’s death and Salander’s reveal that she tried to kill her father by setting him on fire. They’ll want to know why she did that, because such an inquiry seems vital to understand a character who, in the vacuum of this single film, renders as somewhat unknowable. From Fincher’s perspective, that inaccessibility is completely intentional; Dragon Tattoo serves as only an introduction to Salander. There’s no way to figure out her entire story in one film so it follows the same path as the book in giving us limited but major details that have to be discussed later on.
Fans of the books understood Lisbeth’s motivation and likely looked forward to seeing it play out on the screen in the next movies. This is precisely Fincher’s films presented the perfect opportunity create a better trilogy than its Swedish predecessor and this first film should’ve been the kick-starter. Both Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace give excellent performances as Lisbeth Salander, but what makes Mara’s portrayal so striking is the fact that there’s this constant mystery that she lets herself carry. Rapace’s Salander is painted as mysterious, but this aura is achieved mostly through external features, such as her wardrobe and outcast look.
In contrast, Mara’s Salander wages an internal struggle that we see throughout the movie. Because of her childhood trauma, she’s hesitant about opening up to new people and she can offer up a cutting best death glare to anyone asking her personal questions. But when she trusts someone, there’s an innocence to her expression because she finally feels comfortable having a conversation without being judged by her appearance. She may be deadly, but there’s a vulnerability to her that she doesn’t want just anyone to see.
Details like that are hard to bring from page to screen. It’s easy for a novel to offer pages of exploration into a character’s psyche but much more challenging for a film able to capture the unspoken essence of what a particular character means to the story. Fincher and Mara together get this right. It feels as if Fincher read all three books multiple times and, since he is known for being a perfectionist, he very well might have! Despite the fact that some subplots were changed, Fincher still connected those changes to the message at hand. The story remains the same and its emotional effect is still charged because Fincher understood and loved his source material.
I held onto false hope that Fincher would return to direct The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. My heart stopped every time Rooney Mara said that she was still signed on for the films and looked forward to playing Lisbeth again. I kept telling myself that the script was being worked on. But it never came. A new director was announced and instead of continuing the trilogy, Sony decided to scrap it and adapt the fourth book, which most fans denounce because it wasn’t written by Stieg Larsson and read as something of a money grab.
I have nothing against Fede Alvarez, who has been pegged for this ill-conceived follow up, but it’s difficult trust anyone else except Fincher. How can he give us a flawless adaptation and never look back? How can anyone come close to the performances given by Mara and Craig? They’re irreplaceable.
I could go on forever—really, I could. Whenever someone asks me what my favorite David Fincher film is, I tell them it’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and just deal with their assumption that I’ve never seen The Social Network. While forever grateful that Fincher did direct this film, it’s a shame that we’ll never see the rest of the story. We could’ve had the perfect trilogy.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures