It’s hard not to like Lisbeth Salander.
For one thing, her sense of purpose is admirable.
“Horrible things happen to her. And she wanders home. And she sits there. She lights a cigarette, and she fumes. And you don’t know what’s going on in her head. The next time you see her, she’s got a Taser and a 30-pound chrome dildo, and she’s got a plan,” says David Fincher, who directed the much-anticipated movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “You don’t need her to say, ‘This is not right what’s happened to me, and I have to make it right.’ You see her at the hardware store, buying tape and zip ties and black ink.”
From its opening credits–a slick but dark montage of bodies that come together only to pull apart, dissolve, or explode–to its final, gloomy scene, this is a movie about intimacy and control reflecting the grim but central idea of Stieg Larsson’s novel: a meeting between two people is invariably a struggle over power. In this universe, most men are monsters. But even those who aren’t end up causing hurt, out of thoughtlessness or neglect.
It’s a bleak depiction of human relationships, which, when done by Fincher, is unapologetically grown-up–and utterly entertaining.
Toward the beginning of the movie, which opens Dec. 20, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of the dysfunctional Vanger dynasty, hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to solve the mysterious disappearance of Vanger’s niece from an isolated island in northern Sweden decades ago. Before long, Blomkvist shares both the investigation and his bed with Salander (Rooney Mara), a young computer hacker with a murky past.
While visually stylish in Fincher’s hands—and with a screenplay written by Steven Zaillian, who specializes in literary adaptations and who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List—the movie plays out the messy plot points of the book: ritualistic murders, aging Nazis, sexual assault, and incest. And rather than downplay the book’s most infamous scene–anal rape followed by shocking, yet gratifying, retribution–Fincher has turned it up a notch. The R rating is fully deserved.
“I don’t think I would have been interested in making another thriller if there hadn’t been a commitment to making it for an adult audience,” says Fincher, who spent months with Mara and Craig, living in Sweden as they shot the movie.
When I meet the three of them together recently at the Dorchester Hotel in London, their familial banter and propensity to finish each other’s thoughts suggest just a touch of, well, Stockholm syndrome.
“So many of the decisions to cleave things out of books which are successful have to do with levels of discomfort,” says Fincher. “Are we going to make the audiences uncomfortable? But there is no way to take out the things from the book that makes the audiences uncomfortable—”
“Because then there’s no book, there’s no story,” Craig interjects.
“It all grows from there,” concludes Fincher.
The charisma of the Salander character is ultimately the reason for the extraordinary success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. Worldwide, the novel has sold more than 65 million copies, making it one of the most popular books of all time. (In the U.S. alone, it has sold 18 million copies, and, last month, Vintage Books shipped more than 1.3 million more copies in anticipation of the movie.)
But Salander is no female action hero in a tight leather outfit. She is an outcast who bends the world to her will—in the novel, Blomkvist wonders to himself whether she has Asperger’s.
As a director, Fincher is an assured chronicler of life outside the norm. Consider, for example, one of his first movies, Fight Club, or even his most recent, The Social Network, which both revolve around people who live without regard for convention or social acceptance.
In person, he is engaging and funny, dominating the conversation but nudging Mara to speak up when she goes quiet. Having worked with her on The Social Network, in which she had a brief but memorable appearance as Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend, it was Fincher who insisted on casting the little-known actress.
For the role of Salander, Mara’s eyebrows were bleached, her hair was cut short and asymmetric, while her eyebrow, ears, and nipple were pierced. Curled up in the corner of the couch on this late afternoon in London, Mara seems younger than her 26 years, perhaps because of her deference to Fincher, which she tries in vain to hide.
She almost sputters when I ask her whether this is a feminist book.
“I think maybe the feminists see it that way,” she says. “I don’t know what Larsson’s intentions were. But I don’t think Salander does anything in the name of any group or cause or belief. She is certainly not a feminist. That’s like . . . that’s just . . . almost . . . ”
“Too easy,” Fincher offers.
“Yeah,” she agrees.
“She does everything he can’t,” says Daniel Craig.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, written by the now-deceased Swedish journalist Larsson, however, does sometimes sound like a feminist tract. Consider for example its original title in Swedish—Men Who Hate Women–or this statistic at the beginning of the book: “18 percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.”
Larsson’s longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, has said he did identify as a feminist. And last year, Larsson’s close friend Kurdo Baksi wrote a memoir suggesting that the author’s preoccupation with violence against women sprung from guilt, having watched, as a teenager, three friends gang-rape a girl.
Although that girl’s name was Lisbeth, like Larsson’s heroine, Fincher seems unconvinced by motives of atonement or revenge by literary proxy.
“This whole thing may have sprung from a rape that he saw. But it may also be that he, as a guy exploring fascism in all of its political and financial ramifications, said, ‘You know what, people should be mad as hell, and they shouldn’t take it anymore.’”
A committed communist as a young man, Larsson offers a biting critique of speculative capitalism, today a less outré point of view than it must have seemed–even in Sweden–when the novel was published in 2005. Although Fincher has a few surprises for devotees of the book, he is largely faithful to the novel, spending considerable time on Blomkvist’s desire for justice after his public humiliation at the hand of the tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerström, a stand-in for evil capitalists everywhere.
In other words, this is a movie about revenge as an idea–it is not about one avenging woman. Still, Blomkvist isn’t the person fighting the bad guys or driving the action–Salander is.
“She does everything he can’t,” says Craig. “And I think that dynamic is what has made the book so successful–whether that’s Stieg Larsson writing about himself; about his ideal relationship with someone he would love to save, or whether he actually wants to be saved himself.”
“She is Pippi Longstocking,” says Mara, referring to the Swedish children’s book by Astrid Lindgren, which stars a girl who grows up alone in a big house with a horse and a monkey, the envy of every child who has ever read it.
Like Pippi, Salander makes her own rules. She is a ward of the state, but her demeanor is antisocial. Even when it’s not scrawled rudely on her T-shirt, her torn-up clothes, heavy boots, and multiple piercings carry a clear message: stay away.
“The intimacy she enjoys in her life–she picks on her own terms,” says Fincher. “At the end, she’s walking away, going, ‘You fool. Why would you allow yourself to be conventionally miserable—’”
“Which is the punch,” says Craig. “The story is open-ended, and it leaves Salander in a much more powerful position. It’s, ‘Right, well, fuck that, I’m moving on.’”
For better or worse, Salander could become the role that defines Mara, who has already had to deal with the tremendous expectations that come with the movie. (The casting has been compared to that of Gone With the Wind—something she shrugs off. “That’s silly,” she says.) And then there are the unavoidable comparisons to Noomi Rapace who played Salander in the Scandinavian movie version of the book from 2009.
“I saw that performance, but I saw it months before I auditioned for our movie,” says Mara, a tad defensively. “Once I read the books, I never looked back at that performance . . . I had my own idea in my head of who she was. And I think the performances are quite different.”
I offer that Mara’s take makes Salander appear more vulnerable.
“That was certainly one of my goals,” she says. “She is described as an anorexic waif. At the same time, she has this superhuman strength. She looks quite tough. But she’s quite vulnerable. She’s this brilliant hacker and wise beyond her years, and at the same time, she’s emotionally stunted at 12 years old and naive in a lot of ways. She is full of all these contradictions. And we never wanted to make her just this angry and violent person.”
Not surprisingly, Fincher isn’t keen, either, to talk about the other Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
“The question I asked myself is, is there room? Is there another way at this? Are we going to be walking in someone else’s footsteps? And I think–ultimately–in terms of who I saw these people as, there was a lot of room,” Fincher says, quickly adding: “That’s not to take anything away from what’s come before.”
Ultimately, he believes we like Salander for her persistence. “It’s not that she has the ability to lift vast amounts of weight. It’s that she’s indomitable; that you know that she is going to figure out a way.”
Fincher, for his part, is a famous perfectionist on the set, someone who shoots scenes over and over, and who talks earnestly about giving it his all as a director, staying behind after Craig leaves, to elucidate a point.
“Every single day you spend $250,000,” he says. “Every single day, you have people that you care about, that you’re trying to make as good a movie around as you possibly can. And you want to get everything out of them.”
Outside the hotel, darkness has fallen on the city. In the cheerless park across the street, a Ferris wheel twinkles. Shoppers clutching Christmas presents for loved ones move quickly through the emptying streets.
Fincher gets up to leave.
“Do your best with it,” he says. “Try to make us sound smart.”
Mara, ahead of him, turns in the doorway.
“He’ll probably be disappointed no matter what you do.”
“Ouch,” he says, and leaves the room.