Noomi v. Rooney: The Rumble in the Celluloid Jungle
by Paul Berger
The challenge: Who will be the on-screen champion portrayer of Lisbeth Salander, one of the great female characters in fiction? The contestants for this career-defining role? The proven champion, Noomi Rapace, who portrayed Salander so convincingly in the Swedish films based on the Stieg Larsson trilogy, or the little-known upstart, Rooney Mara, who has been cast in the forthcoming Hollywood version. The stakes: Tens of millions of dollars. The judges? Millions of Stieg Larsson fans.
Paul Berger, freelance journalist and frequent contributor to the Burstein & de Keijzer “Secrets” series, weighs in with a ringside preview.
Anyone who has seen the Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or its sequels, knows that Noomi Rapace is the reason why the movies are almost as successful as Larsson’s books. David Fincher, who is at the helm of the Hollywood’s remake faces a daunting obstacle: to Larsson’s millions of fans Rapace is Salander. His star, Rooney Mara, has a very high hurdle to cross.
Though fans of Stieg Larsson’s three novels may find fault with the Swedish movies, few would disagree that they are faithful to Larsson’s dark and urgent storytelling. The films were a runaway success for their genre, grossing some $211 million world-wide. Hollywood stands to earn vastly more for its remake, but can Rooney Mara even begin to match the impact of Rapace’s performance?
Apart from Larsson, few people have spent as much time inhabiting Salander’s mind as Rapace, who had a strong rebellious streak herself. For her role in the movie, she refused a conventional audition. Instead, she turned up for her meeting with Oplev dressed in men’s clothing. She told the director that she wanted to own the part: to do her own stunts, train as a kick boxer, get a motorcycle license and have Salander’s piercings.
The physical and emotional sacrifices clearly paid off. “Watching Rapace burrow deep inside Lisbeth’s damaged mind, body and soul is its own sort of twisted pleasure,” wrote LA Times critic Betsy Sharkey. The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella noted that Rapace’s eyes alone communicate “something like a five-act tragedy.”
Quite naturally, Rooney Mara wants to be judged on her own terms. “I don’t categorize our version as a remake,” she said upon landing the role. “I don’t plan on ‘borrowing’ anything.” Like Rapace, Mara embarked on a punishing regimen to prepare for the role. She took motorcycle and kickboxing lessons and even out-pierced her forerunner by having not just her eyebrow and nose, but also her lip and nipple pierced.
Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was on point when he said that while the plot is important, “These films are really about personality, dialogue and the possibility that the state has placed itself outside the law. That leads to an oppressive, doom-laden atmosphere that the characters move through with apprehension.”
At this, David Fincher is a master. Three of his best movies, Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, revolve around murky central characters who are at once repulsive and magnetic, part hero, part villain. “Now they offer me Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fincher told the fashion magazine W. “They think, no one does perv quite like this guy.”
But “perv” would be doing a disservice to Larsson’s creation. Just as in the books, it is Salander who drives these films forward. So, ultimately, the success of the movies will stand or fall on Fincher’s choice for the lead role.
Noomi Rapace was an actress experienced on stage and screen who had already garnered acclaim for her award-winning portrayal of a troubled teen mother in the 2007 Danish film Daisy Diamond. Fincher’s choice is an unknown quantity who earlier starred in a forgettable remake of Nightmare on Elm Street. Though Mara did also have a short, if memorable and widely-praised, role in Fincher’s The Social Network.
The two women’s upbringings are markedly different as well. Rapace’s teens and twenties, a good part of them living in Iceland, were marked by rebellion. “When I was 14, I had piercings, I dyed my hair blonde,” Rapace told The Telegraph. “I looked terrible. I just wanted to get drunk every day.” Mara, on the other hand is a 25-year-old scion of two football families, the Rooneys (majority owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and the Maras (her father Timothy is the vice president of player evaluation at the New York Giants).
Rapace fought openly with Oplev on the set over what Lisbeth would do or say. Early indications are that Fincher is being the director with a capital “D”, making Salander, by turns, sexier and more androgynous than the Swedish version, “a mash-up of 70’s cyberpunk and spooky Eighties goth with a dash of S&M temptress,” said W magazine.
Mara will have to dig deep to come up with just the right mix of sexy, punk, dark, and unforgiving when she enters the ring—yet also demonstrate that Salander also has a vulnerable, even tender side.
Larsson’s fans won’t take their Lisbeth any other way.