‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Nearly Had a Very Different Lisbeth

The Big Picture

  • Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a perfect fit, capturing the character’s edginess and vulnerability.
  • Many Hollywood stars, including Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, were considered for the role of Lisbeth Salander, highlighting the immense allure of the character.
  • Despite the success and critical acclaim of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the planned sequels did not materialize, depriving Mara of the opportunity to reprise her exceptional performance.

Lisbeth Salander is an iconic character. From piercings to hairstyle, the goth hacker proved an evocative title character for every rendition of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Not long after stealing a few scenes in The Social Network, Rooney Mara was announced to be portraying the role in the American adaptation of the Swedish novel. This came as a surprise to many not only for Mara’s then relatively unknown status but also because everyone wanted the role of Lisbeth Salander. From other then-unknowns that became big later to stars that had already made waves and received Oscar nominations, director David Fincher had many an option before reteaming with Mara. While Mara was likely the right choice, it’s interesting to imagine what might have been had Lisbeth Salander been portrayed by Carey Mulligan, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannson or so many more.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo poster

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for 40 years by young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander.

Release Date
December 14, 2011


Main Genre

Steven Zaillian

From he international best-selling trilogy.

‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Was a Phenomenon

Why did so many of Hollywood’s biggest stars and up-and-comers want the role of the inked-up, edgy, hacker? Perhaps because the books were a phenomenon. The trilogy written, by Stieg Larsson, quickly took off around the world, selling over 100 million copies across print and digital media and topping bestseller lists. The books had already been adapted into Swedish language movies (Larsson being a Swede himself). The actress that played Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Repace, made such an impression she was recruited for American-made productions like Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to the 2009 adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and Prometheus, the much-hyped Ridley Scott prequel to his sci-fi classic Alien. Sony knew what they had when they acquired the rights and they intended to make the most out of it.

Sony producers Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin were ready to put full force behind a new adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. First, they hired acclaimed screenwriter Steven Zaillian. Zaillian has been working in the industry since the 1980s and has built a resume that includes Searching for Bobby Fisher, Mission: Impossible, American Gangster, Gangs of New York, and the film that won him an Oscar, Schindler’s List. On top of that, Zaillian had just finished working for Sony on a different bestseller that proved hard to adapt, Moneyball. Zaillian was put on a strict timeline and told there could be more of these movies down the line.

Not long after Zaillian began writing, David Fincher was actively recruited. Having also just made a hit for Sony (The Social Network) and his career is built on dark films such as Alien3, Seven, and Fight Club Fincher was a perfect fit. Fincher was also building a prestige reputation, receiving his first major awards attention for The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in addition to the rapidly growing acclaim for Zodiac. Fincher had the right aesthetic, and technical control, and could deliver something that could be a hit and potentially garner awards recognition. Once signed, all that needed to be done was find the right cast, a process which took… two and a half months (per The Hollywood Reporter.)

Who Did David Fincher Consider To Cast as Lisbeth Salander?

The titular role in what was surely to be a talked about movie certainly garnered massive media attention with casting speculation oft-discussed online. Kristen Stewart, during the Twilight saga and a former Fincher collaborator on Panic Room, was reportedly considered as was recent Oscar nominee Elliot Page. There were further rumors of Emma Watson in the waning days of Harry Potter, Mia Wasikowska fresh off the billion-dollar hit Alice in Wonderland, and Emily Browning who was about to have a starring role in Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Entertainment Weekly claimed Natalie Portman had been offered the role but turned it down around the time Daniel Craig was brought on for the male lead of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Even Carey Mulligan, just breaking onto the scene with An Education, recently recalled going “all in” for an audition, including a make-up job, a nose ring, chain-smoking, and doing a lot of takes as Fincher is one to do. The Daily Beast reported a source close to casting said many actresses struggled with the time commitment and deal being offered to sign on despite the role in question and the chance to work with the esteemed director. Of course, Fincher had other thoughts.

“The studio pressures you to pick a name,” Fincher told W Magazine (though Scott Rudin refuted this.) In the aforementioned profile, Fincher mentioned Scarlett Johansson would be like “Marylin [Monroe] on a bike” and Jennifer Lawrence being too tall. As the process went on, Fincher even considered Yo-Landi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord, who turned down a meeting as she wasn’t interested in pursuing movies (that is, apparently, until her starring role in Chappie). But Fincher continued looking at nontraditional picks, primarily younger actresses still early in their careers. The process was hard for Fincher as he would have the actresses audition with one of the toughest scenes of the movie because “we had to see if they could do it.” (W Magazine).

By the end of July 2010, Fincher had reportedly condensed his list to four names: Sarah Lowe, Léa Seydoux, Sarah Snook, and Rooney Mara. For the highly coveted role, none of these actresses were on anyone’s radar. Lowe and Snook were referred to as newcomers from Australia by the press having only appeared in small indie films; Mara had a small appearance in Michael Cera’s Youth in Revolt and was the lead in the ill-fated 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street; Seydoux had the most pedigree with supporting roles in Inglourious Basterds and the 2010 Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchette. But Fincher had an eye for talent with Lowe going on to star in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Seydoux appearing in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, two James Bond films, and the upcoming Dune Part 2, and Snook winning an Emmy this month for her role as Shiv Roy on Succession. After a long and frustrating audition process, in which she nearly had to yell it out of Fincher, Rooney Mara was selected for the part.

Why Was Rooney Mara the Right Choice for Lisbeth Salander?

Rooney Mara instantly took to the role, telling W Magazine that before auditioning, “I locked myself in a room for a week and read all three books, and decided I really wanted to be Lisbeth.” Once cast, she began developing the skills she would need, including combat training and motorcycle riding, and the look for this iteration of Lisbeth. This included an off-kilter haircut, bleached eyebrows, and piercings on her nose, lip, nipples, and surprisingly, her ears (which Mara had not pierced.) But it wasn’t the transformation that really sold Mara as Lisbeth. As Fincher told W, “when you cast actors, you try to find the quality you couldn’t beat out of them with a tire iron. That’s where you find the character.”

Mara gives an incredible performance as this highly specific character. With her cool delivery and quiet assurance, she creates that layer of menace for Lisbeth. Of course, she never fails to convey that beneath those layers is someone traumatized who simply longs for connection. Without overplaying any of the moments, Mara’s rendition of Lisbeth is the kind of character that can be terrifying and somehow cuddly from scene to scene. It’s a high-wire act because Lisbeth is a character that would be easy to derail. If any note isn’t played just right, she could come off as a cartoonish rendition of a goth superhero. But Mara grounds her character in the realistic and cold reality Fincher constructs with all his movies, making her as believable a person as someone without any tattoos. For this performance, Mara received her first Oscar nomination, before receiving another for Carol just a few years later.

Rooney Mara Should Play Lisbeth Salander Again

Claire Foy in The Girl in the Spider's Web

There were no set plans to adapt the sequel books when making The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mara told Collider she was excited to potentially return to the character but it was up to Sony if they decided to move forward. But by 2015, it seemed unlikely for a sequel to happen. Despite making over 200 million at the box office, Sony seemed unable to put it together, which made Mara sad that she would not have the chance to play Lisbeth again promised by the books. Mara was not even invited back when Sony started planning a “soft reboot” later that year…

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is the fourth book continuing Larsson’s Millenium trilogy (though written by David Lagercrantz after Larsson’s passing) and had not previously been adapted in Sweden as the other sequels had. A new story for the screen came along with a new creative team. Fede Álvarez signed on to direct, Steven Knight would be penning the script, and Claire Foy would be transforming into Lisbeth Salander… but nobody told Rooney Mara. The Girl in the Spider’s Web underperformed and Amazon is developing a TV Series based on the character and novels.

It’s a shame sequels to Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo never got made. While it may have been difficult to keep up with Fincher and its demands helming a production, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the franchise living on with Zallian, Craig, and especially Mara. Fincher set a tone and style, much like his television work with House of Cards and Mindhunter, perhaps another director could have continued with his approach. However, it is more disheartening Mara never got the chance to return to a role she so coveted and then performed outstandingly. It is her finest role and performance to date and Hollywood shouldn’t have taken it for granted.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S.

Watch on Paramount+

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