The Girl We Left Behind: David Fincher’s Incomplete Dragon Tattoo Trilogy

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo deserved better. David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular Swedish novel is his most underrated movie yet; although it was critically praised and did moderately well at the box office—oh yeah, and got Rooney Mara a Best Actress nomination—it still wasn’t enough to continue the trilogy.

Disappointed is an understatement. I like to think of myself as the biggest enthusiast of this film but really, I was and still am in awe at how well made and accurate 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. The 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 when Fincher was announced as director, I had hope.

Fincher’s consistent dedication to murder mysteries have made him a mastermind in the genre and Dragon Tattoo is the perfect film that accounts to that truth. There’s an ongoing feeling of uneasiness throughout the novel, and that’s effectively translated to the screen through Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. There are many great things about the movie, but the score sets the mood for the entire story.


The beginning of the film introduces an isolated Swedish town encased snow and the track that plays alongside it (“I Can’t Take It Anymore”) enhances the eeriness of the location. Eerie is 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.

There are multiple narratives that come together to meet this focus and Fincher creates an equal balance between them so that it doesn’t feel rushed. Whenever I think of book adaptations that could’ve been better, The Girl on the Train and Dark Places are the first that come to mind. Both stories present various viewpoints and how they’re all connected but the films failed to the translate how important each character is to the story, so we’re left with underdeveloped characters and muddled subplots.

Fincher doesn’t do that. Every character has a purpose and 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 encompass everything that makes these characters so interesting; 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 most frustrating—thing about the movie is that we do see glimpses of Salander’s past (which is expanded on in the next books) and for any casual moviegoer, they’ll 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 it helps to better understand a character that they still don’t know very well. And that’s completely intentional; Dragon Tattoo serves as 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.

As for fans of the books, we know why and we look forward to seeing that play out on the screen in the next movies. This was the perfect opportunity create a better trilogy than the Swedish one 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 surrounds her. Rapace’s Salander is mysterious, but mostly through her wardrobe and outcast look.

Mara’s Salander has this internal struggle that we see throughout the movie; because of her childhood trauma, she’s hesitant about opening up to new people. She gives the best death glare to anyone asking her personal questions but when she trusts someone, there’s this innocence in 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 everyone to know.


Details like that are hard to find with book adaptations. It’s easy for a novel to dedicate pages to discussing a character’s psyche but rarely is a film able to capture the essence of what a particular character means to the story. Fincher gets it right; it felt as if he read all three books multiple times—and he might have! He’s known for being a perfectionist and that trait is clear with Dragon Tattoo.

Every detail is intentional and exclusive to the film. Salander’s aloof personality practically meshes together with the colder tracks in the score because that’s how she presents herself to society. Scenes where she opens up to Blomkvist are complimented with a track (“What If We Could?”) that’s just as sincere and nervous as she is about having an actual friendship with someone.

Knowing that we’ll never get the proper trilogy breaks my heart. The dedication from both acting and technical standpoints are unmatched; it truly felt like every person working on this film cared about telling the story accurately and they did. Despite the fact that some subplots were changed, Fincher still connected those changes to the message at hand. The story is remains the same and the effect that it leaves on you is still there because Fincher understood the source material.

But this is nothing new; Fincher went on to direct Gone Girl, another book adaptation, and he got it 110% right because he’s an absurdly detailed person. I held onto false hope that he 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 onto the films and looked forward to playing Lisbeth again and 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 was made purely for money. Sigh.

I have nothing against Fede Alvarez, but I don’t trust anyone else except Fincher. It’s his fault for being so talented and dedicated to the craft—how can you 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. Rooney got her nipple pierced, for God’s sake! She became Lisbeth Salander but never got the chance to tell the rest of Salander’s story.

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. They look at me like I’ve never seen The Social Network before but that movie just didn’t leave the kind of impact that Dragon Tattoo left on me. 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.