As a follow-up to his encouraging story of how he broke into the film industry and made a name for himself as one of the great directors of our time, this week we’re going to take a deeper dive into one of David Fincher’s films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Adapted from the Swedish novel of the same name, by Stieg Larsson, this film was written by Steven Zaillian and directed by David Fincher, a powerhouse duo if there ever was one.
Steven Zaillian, himself, is an Academy Award winning screenwriter, as well as a producer, director, and editor. Best known for writing films like Moneyball, The Awakenings, Gangs of New York, and Schindler’s List (for which he won the Acadmey Award), Steven Zaillian, just like Fincher, is one of the greats.
With so many screenwriting credits to his name, Zaillian has a lot of experience not only writing screenplays, but adapting stories as well. Many of the films that Zaillian has written are either stories adapted from real life, like The Awakenings, or adapted from novels, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For Zaillian, adaptations require him to do a certain level of digging before his writing process ensues. With more non-fiction adaptations his process involves going through case files or doing research on the topic, all the while working on character development in his mind, and on the page, as it pertains to the facts of the real life occurrence. On the contrary, when adapting Larsson’s novel, Zaillian took a different approach. Dissimilar to fact-based research in non-fiction stories, novels come with much more pre-determined story work and information regarding the inner workings and thoughts of the characters. This is something that Zaillian finds useful in his writing, although it is not quite so simple as taking snippets from the book and mirroring them in script-format. Zaillian has to find ways to adapt the deep inner workings of the characters’ brains into a visual medium.
Although some people would use the screenwriting tool of a voice-over to convey character thoughts, this is not Zaillian’s preferred style of writing. Instead, he writes thorough descriptions, detailing the actions and behaviors of his characters, from full-body gestures and interactions to slight facial expressions. These details, paired with dialogue, make for a much more compelling story, and also allow that story to be better told in an audio/visual medium, rather than on the page. Here is just one excerpt that exemplifies this well:
Another element that Zaillian had to figure out when adapting the screenplay was, of course, the complicated and thrilling plot. One of his main goals while working on the script was to try and keep the plot close to the book, as it is so beloved, but also leave room to alter things as necessary. This analysis is a spoiler-free zone, but there is one major aspect of the plot that he decided to subvert. He has said about this after the fact, “I didn’t change anything just for the sake of changing it. There’s a lot right about the book, but one part, I thought we could do it a different way, and it could be a nice surprise.”
With the wide array of dark characters, whose actions as well as their very beings orchestrated the puzzling and thrilling story of the film, one of the important aspects Zaillian focused his attention on was discerning between the different motives behind different sorts of people. For example, the biggest question he posed for himself throughout the writing process was:
What is the difference between a rapist and a killer?
This may seem like a simple question, but through looking at both types of people from all angles Zaillian was able to come up with a diagnosis that subsequently allowed for a deepening of the plot and characters. He figured that what the motivation behind the rapist in this story is all power. The rapist wants to exert force over someone else in order to feel more in control and powerful. On the contrary, the killer in the story is motivated by the desire to destroy and be a source of chaos. This interesting dynamic of characters sets the stage for the riveting plot which pulses through the film.
The final element to turn Zaillian’s screenplay into a cinema masterpiece was his collaboration with David Fincher. From the point when they both signed on to the project, the two men were working together, both feeling assured and secure in the others’ abilities. Once Zaillian had a draft completed, as both men are very precise about their work, they spent lots of time together going over the script and making sure everything could be executed on screen. Character descriptions, dialogue, settings, their combined vision melded into one and for the screenplay, it wasn’t finished until both men could look at it and envision the final product. It was a mind meld in the best of ways and ultimately it’s the reason all of Zaillian’s meticulous work was transformed into the Academy Award winning film that it did.
Zaillian’s writing techniques and close attention to detail when adapting work into screenplay form are exceptionally worthy of attention. For anyone out there wanting to be a screenwriter, his methodology and ways of getting into his character’s minds, and furthermore representing that so visually but still only through the written word, is exceptional. He is undoubtably a screenwriting legend. Taking it a step further, for this film, he was partnered with another cinema legend, David Fincher. His ability and willingness to write a screenplay that is catered to the specialties of his director is uncanny. Both men are a golden example of brilliant teamwork and collaboration on a film project and the subsequent film is proof of that. If you want to make a good film, find good people, tell a bad ass story, and…
Always be writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.