As the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Schindler's List" and co-scribe of such acclaimed films as "Clear and Present Danger," "A Civil Action," "Hannibal," and most recently, "Moneyball," there's no question that Steven Zaillian has the ability to create compelling book adaptations for the big screen.
Successful screenplays notwithstanding, Zaillian recognized, though, that he had a bit more of an onus to contend with when prepping the harrowing thriller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for the big screen. As if the fact that author Stieg Larsson's original novel was an international best-seller wasn't daunting enough, the book had already been adapted into a hugely successful film in Sweden in 2009.
Undaunted by the inevitable comparisons sure to come his way over his take on the novel, Zaillian said the best way to deal with any potential scrutiny was not to deal with the original film at all.
"The notions are sort of there in the back of my mind, but it doesn't make me do something that I normally wouldn't do in any other situation," Zaillian told me in a recent interview. "I wasn't able to keep completely out of my mind everyone who has read the book, but I could keep everyone out of my mind who had seen the Swedish version of the movie because I haven't seen the movie. I have no idea what that movie is like, so I approached our version as I would adapting any other book."
And while the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has been cut, printed and is ready to be unleashed upon audiences Tuesday night, Zaillian said that will see the Swedish version eventually -- but probably not until his screenplay isn't so fresh on in his mind.
"I'm afraid to see it now because I'll say, 'Oh, wow, we should have done THAT. That was really good,'" Zaillian said, laughing. "I didn't really see the value of seeing the other version going into our release."
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" first follows the separate lives of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and a brilliant but traumatically damaged computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Their paths eventually converge, when a successful Swedish business magnate (Christopher Plummer) hires Mikael to try to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of his niece 40 years earlier.
Utilizing their adept research skills, keen senses of perception and a little bit of happenstance, Mikael and Lisbeth discover the mystery involves far more brutality and carnage than they ever could have imagined.
While Zaillian didn't have access to Larsson, who died in 2004 ("I always want the author to feel good about the script being made from his book," Zaillian said, "And if they do object to it, I want to know why"), he's confident that when he eventually meets the author's family, they'll be happy with the adaptation.
"I guess you could say that there's a lot in book that's not in the movie, but that's because the book is 600 pages long," Zaillian observed. "But in terms of the important moments, it's there, I think. I hope they'll like it."
Zaillian's work has attracted him to several A-list directors over the years -- from John Schlesinger and Steven Spielberg, to Sydney Pollack and Ridley Scott (twice).
Working with David Fincher for the first time with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Zaillian, 58, knew that Fincher the perfect person was at the help to handle the dark complexity of the screenplay. After all, prior to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network," Fincher cut his teeth on the crime thriller genre with such riveting films as "Seven," "Fight Club" and "Zodiac."
The odd thing, Zaillian said, was the less the two worked together, the more successful and efficient the screenwriter-director relationship became.
"We talked throughout the shooting of the film, but it was more like I was on-call if David wanted something clarified or revised -- he's pretty self-sufficient," Zaillian said, laughing. "I never inserted myself into the process. I went to Sweden for about 10 days to do some revisions and talk with the actors and go through the scenes."
"Otherwise, David doesn't need anybody else there to tell him what to do. He's does his work ahead of time and we worked very closely on the script until he was happy," Zaillian added. "Once he's happy, he's on his own, and that's the way he likes it."
Now that the film is completed, Zaillian said he's the happy one -- and concluded that Fincher has proven once again that he's earned his reputation as a genius director.
"When people describe him directing 'Seven,' they might think of David as being particularly good at directing at a certain kind of story or a certain kind of scene -- but the truth is he's good at every scene," Zaillian said. "He approaches every scene as if it's the most important scene in the movie. Whether its scenes of extreme violence, scenes of tenderness or even scenes of people walking down the street, it doesn't matter. He approaches it like it's crucial to the movie to do it right."