January 13, 2012

What makes an adaptation work? or, Did something go wrong with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?


Stieg Larsson‘s trilogy of Swedish crime novels are some of the best-selling and most recognizable books of the last 50 years. There’s isn’t a literate soul in America who isn’t at least aware of Lisbeth Salander and her adventures in a very corrupt modern Sweden. And yet, with an $80Million box-office take after three weeks The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though not a box-office failure, is far from the wild success analysts or Sony Pictures were expecting.

What went wrong? The film had an incredible advertising campaign, a trailer that went viral, and an enormous target audience that surely didn’t fail to turn out because of the previously released Swedish film. This wasn’t a passion project for David Fincher or the producers, it was a movie designed to make money, and considering the exposure of the property it’s—so far, domestically—been a disappointment.

Was the market saturated? The book  has internationally sold more than 30 Million copies (visit this fascinating Wikipedia page for best-selling books to date in any language)—have those readers tired of Larsson?

Compare this release to the phenomenal success of The Help earlier this year.* The Help grossed $170Million and was a surprise box-office smash. Certainly the competition wasn’t as strong in August when The Help was released, but period dramas don’t attract the kind of audiences or buzz this movie enjoyed.

Are mysteries just less compelling once they’ve been unravelled? If so what accounts for The Da Vinci Code‘s $217Million box-office haul? Tom Hanks?

To those of us in publishing, and most likely in the movie industry as well, success is a riddle. Any insight readers can offer will be most appreciated.

*Interestingly these two titles are currently #1 and #2 on the NYT Bestseller List. And the films have been reviewed both by audiences and critics pretty similarly—Rotten Tomatoes gives Girl a score of 86% compared to The Help’s score of only 76%—though the audience rating was 91% to 90% in The Help’s favor, meaning audiences were marginally more taken with The Help.