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'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo': Zaillian Streamlines, Improves on Detective Duo in Larsson's Neo-Noir

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 27, 2011 at 3:49PM

Hollywood studio execs consider Steve Zaillian to be their number one literary adapter. He won the Oscar for "Schindler's List," after all, and could wind up with an Oscar nomination for "Moneyball" as well this year, which he serially co-wrote with another alpha Oscar-winner, Aaron Sorkin (the two have agreed only to talk about the film together).
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"The Girl the Dragon Tattoo."
"The Girl the Dragon Tattoo."
Steve Zaillian
Steve Zaillian

Hollywood studio execs consider Steve Zaillian to be their number one literary adapter. He won the Oscar for "Schindler's List," after all, and could wind up with an Oscar nomination for "Moneyball" as well this year, which he serially co-wrote with another alpha Oscar-winner, Aaron Sorkin (the two have agreed only to talk about the film together).

Zaillian's a ruthless cutter who knows that throwing as much away as possible leaves you with the core of a two-hour movie. In the case of the first installment of the Millennium Trilogy, David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," it was two hours and 32 minutes (TOH review here). "With some projects, I only see the problem solving," Zaillian says. "This didn't feel that way."

As he read the book, he took notes and focused like a laser on the procedural mystery and the two central detectives--unusual in your standard film noir--and "let the other stuff go."

Larsson took an Agatha Christie classic locked-room mystery-- a certain number of suspects are locked into an enclosed space, a Swedish island owned by the wealthy Vanger family-- "and modernized it in a way we hadn't seen before," says Zaillian. "They're very modern detectives."

Muckraker journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk hacker Lisbeth Salander are "both in in my mind one character split up," explains Zaillian. "You have a male character with feminine traits and a female character with masculine traits. One is uncivil in her own space, doesn't play by society's rules. The journalist plays by the rules and gets screwed. We get the two characters to the point where she asks, 'can I kill him?' She wouldn't ask permission if she hadn't met him, and he'd never say 'yes' if he hadn't met her."

Zaillian was happy to make changes in the novel that he considers improvements, such as eliminating one too many sexual entanglements for the womanizing Blomkvist--who does not get involved on the island with Cecilia Vanger. This way, "he isn't too much of a Lothario," says Zaillian, who also moves one of the Vanger sisters (SPOILER ALERT) from a sheep farm in Australia to London. He simply didn't see the character marooned in the outback. Nor does he have any intention of letting Salander augment her breasts. "What was [Stieg Larsson] thinking?" he asks. "Come on, that's ridiculous. It's so out of character."

The movie does not streamline the sequence in which Salander is brutally anally raped by her new State guardian. "It's the pivotal scene in the movie, it has to be done," says Zaillian. "Exactly how much you show or don't show, that's David Fincher's domain, you wouldn't want to not have it, even if people don't want to watch it." As Fincher explained on Charlie Rose: "It should be offensive. It's a rape."

What readers and moviegoers around the world have responded to is the way Salander deals with the injustice meted out to her. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" "crosses over to young and old people in a remarkable way," says Zaillian. "She's a big part of it, a modern heroine we haven't seen before."

The book devotes way more pages to Salander's computer hacking and crime-solving, but Zaillian and Fincher leaned on more visual flashbacks and moving photos. "We made visual what we could," says Zaillian. The generational divide between the older journalist and his younger partner is revealed beautifully in a scene where he takes over the computer to show her something. "I love that scene," admits Zaillian. "I's painful for her to watch him use the computer."

But there is warmth and sexual attraction between the two characters. With the shorter movie, it was tricky not having Salander climb into bed with Blomkvist too soon after the rape. Tending to his gunshot wound helps to make that transition feel more natural. "She was a 12-year-old taken care of by the state who hasn't been allowed to grow up normally in teenage culture," says Zaillian. "For her he's a high school crush."

Thus the ending of Book One is bittersweet for Salander (SPOILER ALERT), when both characters return to their old lives. Neither Zaillian nor Fincher intended to go for "an emotional story," says Zaillian, who is already at work on the second screenplay, even though the first American movie got off to a rocky start at the holiday box office (which could pick up over Christmas week) and may do better overseas.

Zaillian describes the second book, "The Girl Who Played with Fire," as "a different animal" from the first, which takes place over a year, while the second unfolds over five days. Zaillian is working on some other projects as well, including a low-budget American remake of Nacho Vigalondo's "Timecrimes."

This article is related to: Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stuck In Love, Awards, Awards, Oscars, Interviews


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