'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

Noomi Rapace and Nils Bjurman star in the big screen adaptation of the best-selling novel. (Knut Koivisto / Music Box Films)

When a team of Swedish producers known for their TV crime dramas asked Danish director Niels Arden Oplev if he'd be interested in helming their next project, his immediate response was "Haven't you made enough of those?"

But this was to be no ordinary felony flick. This was the film version of author Stieg Larsson's international bestseller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." And after reading the dense, engrossing tale of mass murder, business skulduggery and violence against women that features the oddball pairing of a disgraced, womanizing male journalist and an angry female punk computer hacker, Oplev was hooked.

"I read it basically in one night and I thought, 'This is different from what I [initially] thought,' " he says. "This is not the usual Swedish thriller. Larsson wrote something that was unique, and I had to get that onto the screen."

First, though, the 48-year-old Oplev, who speaks fluent English and has had an extensive Scandinavian TV and film career, had to streamline the 500-page novel into a serviceable screenplay -- which also meant being aware of the expectations of a mass reading audience. He initially decided that Lisbeth Salander, the hacker, was the most interesting character in the book and bumped up her part. Then he reckoned that the scenes of violence and torture in the novel were integral to an understanding of Larsson's agenda -- in Scandinavia, the book is titled "Men Who Hate Women" -- so Oplev knew he needed to keep them in.

"I wanted this violence against women to be a profound part of the film," he says by phone from a Portland, Ore., film festival. "That's why the rape scenes are so brutal and horrific. I knew we were going to make something like a Scandinavian 'Silence of the Lambs.' It's a great [book] that dares to do darkness and drama, it is character driven, and that's what attracted me to it."

It's easy to see why the Swedish-language film, which was released in Scandinavia early last year and has already grossed more than $100 million, has been such a hit throughout Europe. Worldwide sales of Larsson's Millennium trilogy, which includes "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and two other novels with the same characters, have surpassed 20 million copies in 41 countries, and it has been estimated that one of every three Swedes has read at least one of the Millennium books. That means a seriously large potential audience, or, as Oplev puts it, "The book is an enormous locomotion for the film, and once you have a film that fulfills the audience expectation, when you have that first wave of readers that goes, 'Wow!,' you pull in the non-readers."

It also doesn't hurt that despite its 2 1/2 -hour running time, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a briskly paced affair that takes an extremely complex plot and boils much of it down to understandable visual terms. The film does not stint on graphic violence and sex (it is being released Friday unrated in the U.S. to avoid a possible NC-17), and in the previously unknown Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, director Oplev has found a perfect representation of the almost feral punk hacker -- it's a ferociously good, star-making performance.

"When I came to Stockholm to cast, I thought Lisbeth Salander would be my Waterloo of casting," Oplev says. "I thought, 'You can't find her, she's too uniquely described.' And Noomi was the second person to come in and read for the part. I had seen her in the theater, and my biggest concern was that she was too beautiful. But when I worked with her, I felt she had a tremendous, strong, dark energy. She has this seductive quality of unpredictableness. There is this tension about her as Salander, every time you see her on screen you wonder, 'What is she going to say, how is she going to react?' "

There is, however, little question about how Hollywood has reacted to Oplev and his film. He is being inundated with offers and has already turned down a big-budget action flick because "it was a stand-up thriller, and I don't like stand-up thrillers. What you have to avoid when you come here is to be frantic and accept the first offer you get." Oplev says he is juggling three projects, one of them a "kind of ghost story but with a very realistic core, which is looking pretty promising."

In the meantime, American rights to the Millennium trilogy have been snapped up by producer Scott Rudin ( "No Country for Old Men"), with Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian ( "Schindler's List") set to work on the adaptation (both men declined to comment for this article). The property is so hot that rumors are already swirling around it -- would George Clooney be the perfect choice for disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist? Does Quentin Tarantino want to direct the film? (His agent reportedly says no.) And what American actress could convincingly portray the butt-kicking heroine?

Oplev says he has heard that the Americans want to do an English version filmed in Sweden, a concept he finds "utterly stupid. The only way you can do it is to make it more like 'Twilight' and make Lisbeth into a teenage icon here."

No matter what, Oplev says he has no desire to be part of the project. "I've done this film and done it successfully," he says. "Where would the magic be to do this again?"