I still have reservations about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. David Fincher is one of my favorite directors working today. We’ve all seen that actress Rooney Mara has undergone a radical transformation to physically embody female protagonist Lisbeth Salander. But the issue still remains: it’s not a good story. It’s a standard mystery yarn but it has a stand-out character, and even Lisbeth doesn’t impress me much. She’s a mish-mash of various ideas that don’t seem to add up to an actual person. More than anything, she’s how a male author writes a strong woman: as if she had the personality of a man.
But in a recent interview, Fincher and Mara have helped to assuage some of my fears about the new adaptation. The director and his star talk about the difficulties in adapting the best-selling novel, the casting process, and the story’s most brutal scene. Hit the jump for more. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo co-stars Daniel Craig, and opens on December 21st.
“Look, there are parts of the book that I don’t love, and parts of it that make it a maddeningly difficult story to turn into a movie. We are walking in other people’s footsteps, and we have to be careful.” He is referring to the fact that a lot of people already love the Swedish film versions*. “I am a contrarian by nature, so all it does is make me want to take real risks. I am like, ‘If we are not out on the ledge juggling chain saws, then we are doing ourselves a huge disservice.’”
Mara points out that one element Fincher’s version will have over Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation is that she looks much longer than Swedish star Noomi Rapace:
“One of the things that make our version that much more heartbreaking,” says Mara, “is that even though I am playing a 24-year-old, I look much younger. I look like a child.”
You may recall that the casting process went on for months as countless actresses vied to play Lisbeth. However, Fincher had some unusual requests:
She mentions a time Fincher said, “Go out and get really, really drunk and come in the next morning so we can take pictures of you.” He wanted to show Sony that she could look strung out. “And I did it!” says Mara. “Threw up all night!”
Fincher added that he wasn’t just looking for great performances, but the look of his lead actress was also important.
“Look, we saw some amazing people. Scarlett Johansson was great. It was a great audition, I’m telling you. But the thing with Scarlett is, you can’t wait for her to take her clothes off.”
The most memorable scenes are the rape and revenge of Lisbeth Salander. What Fincher means by “you can’t wait for her to take her clothes off,” is that Johansson is too sexy for the role. You can’t be titillated by the rape and while I don’t think anyone would be, I can understand his perspective.
Fincher then walked Vogue’s interviewer Jonathan Van Meter through the lead-up to the Lisbeth’s rape by her parole officer:
“I think people generally don’t relish, sort of, evil fun,” he says. “They tend to think you are ghoulish if your interests run in that direction. But I don’t pretend for a moment to know what it’s really about. I know what I like about Hitchcock movies. I like that sense of uh-oooh.” He swivels around to his laptop and scrolls through a list of files on the screen, trying to decide what to show me first. We watch four or five random clips, coolly gorgeous, filled with dread, and set to a Trent Reznor score. Then he double-clicks on something and realizes that it is a rape scene and hits the stop button. “I’m not going to show you that,” he says. “That’s too heavy to drop anybody into. You gotta get there!” Scroll, scroll, double-click. “I’ll show you this,” he says. “It’s pretty heartbreaking.” It is the scene in which Salander goes to the office of her new social worker, Nils Bjurman, played with shuddersome menace by Yorick van Wageningen, and it slowly dawns on her that he is a monster who has total control over her money and her life. The scene is agonizing to watch as it slowly becomes apparent that he is going to sodomize her. Nothing is left to the imagination.”
And that’s where my reservations kick back in. The way Van Meter describes the scene makes it sound exploitative. It’s also a simplistic approach. Her parole officer is an awful guy who is clearly going to rape her and that’s terrible. But I can’t do anything with that. There’s no subtext, and at least from the Van Meter’s description, there’s no nuance.
“It’s reductive to think of her that way. She’s not the Terminator. And you know, it’s not Dirty Harry, either. It’s way more feminine. Revenge is too easy.” Mara added, “Lisbeth lives by her own set of rules. She does the violent things she does for a reason, because it goes with her moral code.”
People who have read the book can help me out on this, but isn’t the gist of these scenes that Lisbeth gets raped and she rapes the guy right back? Yes, it’s a moral code, specifically the Code of Hammurabi, but that moral code is revenge. She’s not playing a long-game. It’s simply an eye-for-an-eye, a rape-for-a-rape. And narratively, it’s distracting and it really only relates to the larger story if you tie it back around to the larger message, “Harming women is bad.”
However, Fincher has earned my trust and hopefully The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lives to this promise:
“I saw this not as a blockbuster that appeals to everyone,” says Fincher. “I saw this as an interesting, specific, pervy franchise. The only chance for something like Dragon Tattoo to be made in all of its perversions is to do it big. I think The Godfather is a pretty good fucking movie. You can start with a supermarket potboiler, but it doesn’t mean you can’t aim high.”