The Fincher Factor: Can 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' and 'Cleopatra' Survive Without Him?

David Fincher © 2012 by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
David Fincher © 2012 by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

For a certain type of shadowy book-based material, David Fincher has become Hollywood’s equivalent of carbon: An element so essential, without him a project no longer seems as interesting or alive. The director’s role as a clutch player was highlighted this week, as news circulated about the slippery state of his attachment to high-profile adaptations of Stieg Larsson's The Girl who Played with Fire and Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life.

When news circulated that Fincher had broken off his seventeen-month engagement to Cleopatra yesterday, he delivered a blow to the project more damaging than the usual surface-wound hassles involved in finding a replacement. This takes us beyond kicking up questions about whether this setback is an ominous sigh that this telling of Cleopatra’s life story also carries the same genetic mutation that plagued the 1963 version starring Elizabeth Taylor, which was besieged by mishaps and bad decisions that drove the production disastrously over budget. The real problem for the current iteration is one of perception: In the wake of Fincher’s departure, there is little that distinguishes it from any other sword-and-sandals picture.

Fincher is the rare filmmaker whose sensibility is his currency. But unlike someone like Tim Burton, it’s hard to predict how his dark vision will manifest itself visually or narratively. Fincher’s influence happens at the subcutaneous level lending an air of danger and mystery (and the inevitable intense media speculation) to a film from the moment he becomes involved. Under his leadership, "The Social Network" took on a compellingly sinister sheen, elevating it above what could have been a film about the ambitious super-nerd who gave birth to social media. And thanks to Fincher’s track record providing unblinking portraits of the depths of human depravity ("Se7en," "Fight Club," "Zodiac") "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was not dismissed as a glossy Hollywood remake. And the final result was arguably more psychologically rich than its Swedish predecessors.

There is a downside to the street cred attributed to any Fincher film: When he leaves he takes it with him. That wouldn’t entirely be the case with The Girl who Played with Fire, Larsson's twisted sequel to Dragon Tattoo, which plumbs the depths of human turpitude. But this week’s news that Steve Zaillian is still working on the script and that the studio has yet to commit to a release date suggests that the project has fallen off the fast-track.

This does not bode well for those holding out hope that Fincher will stay on as Lisbeth Salander’s creative custodian, safeguarding her from anyone interested in making her story more palatable to mass-market moviegoers. Even with "Cleopatra" off the agenda, Fincher has attached himself to direct no fewer than four projects in various stages of development -- the likeliest (and most promising) being Michael Chabon’s adaptation of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

Logistically speaking, the hard truth is that once one of these projects gets underway, Fincher will be tied up for two years or more. When that happens, he’ll no longer be eligible to direct "The Girl who Played with Fire," which is already bumping up against the far end of the acceptable window of time between installments in a franchise. Then there’s also the issue of precedent: Though his debut feature, "Alien3," was technically a sequel to James Cameron’s "Aliens," Fincher has never directed two films in a series and doesn’t seem particularly predisposed to do so.

We haven’t entirely given up hope that Fincher can be convinced to play with "Fire," but it’s probably wise to gird against disappointment and begin putting together a back-up plan. Our first choice (and, admittedly, a pipe dream) is Michael Haneke, who proved with "Funny Games" that he knows his way around the human soul’s darkest subterranean passages better than most any living filmmaker. We’d also love to see what Pedro Almodovar or even Andrew Dominick might do with this material.

If Fincher can’t be enticed to return to "The Girl who Played with Fire," name the top three directors you’d most like to see fill his chair.