Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With a new Tom Clancy movie, Without Remorse, premiering on Amazon Prime, we’re looking back on other Hollywood adaptations of mass paperback novels, a.k.a. so-called airport fiction.
In the wake of Gone Girl, Mindhunter, and more, no one doubts David Fincher’s ability to take pulpy stories straight from the bargain paperback racks and make some top-shelf cinematic entertainment from them. But his adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo still felt like an unexpected return to his roots when it hit theaters a decade ago. Sure, Fincher knew his way around a serial killer story, and the early part of his filmography was essentially nothing but fast-paced popcorn fare like Seven, The Game, and Panic Room—movies that tarted up visceral thrills with thoughtfulness. But his three films prior to the bestseller adaptation—Zodiac, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network—marked a transition into more “serious,” intellectually rich work. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is many things, but intellectually rich is not one of them. As we noted in our review at the time, in contrast to his deeper, more elegant films, it’s “all surface—magnificent, arresting surface, but surface all the same.”
Luckily, Fincher excelled at combining the lurid fun of his early movies with the exacting headiness of that pre-Dragon Tattoo triptych. Like Hitchcock with The 39 Steps or Jonathan Demme with The Silence Of The Lambs, Fincher elevates the twists and turns of his tawdry source material, making its B-movie pleasures sing. Make no mistake, Larsson’s novel is awash in disreputable subject matter: rape, murder, exploitation, blackmail, all thrown into the mix with little concern for subtlety or sophistication. The book’s occasional aspirations to highbrow literature—note the old-money family at the core of its murder mystery—were always quickly dragged back down into the gleefully trashy narrative the author had crafted. It took the icy precision of Fincher’s execution to turn gimcrack wannabe artistry into the real thing.
Dragon Tattoo tears impressively through a lot of sprawling, potentially movie-sinking narrative. Recently disgraced Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is suffering the fallout from a libel suit that has torpedoed his career and the publication he runs with his married longtime lover, Erika (Robin Wright). So when wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) offers him a healthy sum—and evidence against the man bringing the suit against him—to investigate the decades-old disappearance and presumed murder of Vanger’s then-16-year-old grandniece, Blomkvist jumps at the chance. Moving into a house on the sprawling Vanger estate, interviewing the various family members, and teasing out the possibilities that led to the girl’s vanishing, Blomkvist soon requires a research assistant. Enter Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a brilliant but antisocial freelance investigator and hacker who spends the first part of the movie getting out from under the thumb of the sadistic court-appointed guardian who threatened and raped her, eventually tasering the man and carving, “I’m a rapist pig,” into his stomach.
Blomkvist and Salander uncover evidence that links the disappearance to a string of murders by a serial killer, leading to ever-increasing violence and danger as they get closer to the truth. (There’s also an awkward sexual relationship between the two.) It’s no spoiler to say that the discovery of the person responsible for all the bloodshed isn’t even the climax of the film—after solving the mystery, there’s still a whole other act that involves resolving the Vanger family situation and restoring Blomkvist’s good name. But somehow, Fincher manages to radically improve this unwieldy and overstuffed story, without even excising much of the novel’s bulk. It’s an arduous task that he makes look easy, with assistance from Steven Zaillian’s fleet screenplay and strong performances from everyone involved, especially Craig and Mara. In doing so, the director didn’t just solidify his adaptation chops (far more successfully than he did via his uneven reworking of F. Scott Fitzgerald with Benjamin Button three years prior). He also joined a proud tradition of Hollywood auteurs who have found inspiration in the gutter, fusing lowbrow and highbrow to fiendishly entertaining ends.
Availability: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apples, Microsoft, Fandango Now, Redbox, AMC On Demand, DirecTV, and VUDU.