The year’s most successful foreign film isn’t from Pedro Almodóvar, doesn’t include martial arts fighting and isn’t distributed by Miramax or Sony Pictures Classics. It didn’t even play at a major international film festival like Cannes or Toronto. Reviews were generally favorable, but by no means raves; and with no foreign stars and a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, it’s a miracle that the Swedish thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” garnered some $9 million in U.S. ticket sales and has become a first-of-its-kind arthouse franchise for new distributor Music Box Films.
Based on the bestselling Swedish book by Stieg Larsson, “Dragon Tattoo” is the first in the author’s wildly successful “Millennium Trilogy.” Along with subsequent installments, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the books have sold over 3.5 million copies in the U.S. and spent multiple weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list (“Hornet’s Nest” hit #1 just last month). Hence, awareness for Larsson’s cyberpunk tough-as-nails “Girl” — the book’s central character Lisbeth Salander, written as “five feet tall, thin as a stick” and capable of an “orgy of violence” — isn’t exactly low. But a Swedish-language film is another matter.
Scandinavian films haven’t resonated with U.S. audiences in any meaningful way since the late 1980s (when “My Life as a Dog,” “Fanny and Alexander” and “Babette’s Feast” all made multiple millions). And while there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that bestselling books can spawn box office hits — “Twilight,” “Harry Potter,” “The Da Vinci Code” — there’s very few examples when it comes to foreign-language adaptations crossing over into America. “Like Water for Chocolate” was based on a popular Mexican novel published in 1989, but it was the movie’s 1992 release that spurred U.S. sales, not the other way around.
Music Box Films’ managing director Ed Arentz acknowledges “Dragon Tattoo’s” initial hurdles. “On the face of it, it’s a Swedish film that’s two-and-a-half hours long. A lot of the exhibitors were saying, ‘We’ll stick with ‘Greenberg’ or ride out ‘The Ghost Writer’ a little longer.’ But then they eventually came around.”
Timing has been crucial to the success of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at arthouses, not the least of which was because of an unprecedented kind of synchronicity with the U.S. paperback phenomenon. Because “The Millenium Trilogy” were originally Swedish language novels, it took several years for Larsson’s books to show up Stateside, and by that time, the first film was also made — breaking box office records in Sweden (the first two films surpassed both “Harry Potter” and “Ice Age” sequels at home last year).
Unlike most cases of book-to-film transformations, where the movie follows the book by years, both versions of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” hit U.S. shores nearly simultaneously. And Music Box Films — whose last breakout success two years ago was another foreign-lingo adaptation, the French thriller “Tell No One,” based on an American novel — benefited greatly from the convergence.
“The publisher was extremely interested in helping us,” says Arentz. Random House put the small Chicago-based distributor in touch with Barnes & Noble, Borders and plenty of independent bookstores. “We had a multi-faceted outreach to readers, including e-mail blasts, posters in bookstores, and Random House sent out about a 1000 mini-posters.”