‘Dragon Tattoo’ casting raises questions

Will violent, sexy actioner click with U.S. auds?

There is a lot riding on the shoulders of Rooney Mara, the 25-year-old American thesp who won the title role in Columbia Pictures’ “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s a big commitment: The casting covers a trio of high-profile pictures. In addition, readers of the three books — published in 44 countries and selling more than 40 million copies worldwide to date — have a clear picture of the iconic savant hacker Lisbeth Salander.

Sony won’t comment on the budget for the pics, but it appears that the studio, director David Fincher and producer Scott Rudin aren’t thinking cheap. According to insiders, scribe Steve Zaillian’s deal for the second pic is said to be record-breaking.

After a long search, Columbia wasn’t convinced Mara was perfect casting, but Fincher prevailed in a debate that was waged through this weekend. Fincher, who directed her in the studio’s upcoming “The Social Network,” convinced the top execs. (Mara also appeared in this year’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”)

The Stieg Larsson trilogy also includes “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” While the books’ runaway success would seem to create a slamdunk for the studio — witness the success of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” book-to-film adaptations — there are also hot books that haven’t translated to B.O. (Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” the biggest bestseller of 2002, couldn’t find much traction with moviegoers last year, even with Peter Jackson directing.)

Another hurdle for the studio is the success of the trio of Swedish-language film adaptations. That trio has grossed $202.9 million worldwide so far. After the other two bowed in the U.S. this year, “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” launches Oct. 15. Since overseas B.O. accounts for the majority of a film’s B.O., the worldwide tallies are all-important, but there’s little precedent for anticipating reaction to English-language remakes.

There’s also the question of the American appetite for a dark property that will necessitate a hard R rating for its key scenes of rape, sadism and murder. Insiders say a top Col exec twice passed on the property when it was brought to the studio by helmer Marc Forster. It wasn’t until Sony chairman Michael Lynton read the books that he insisted on the studio making the pics with Rudin producing.

Daniel Craig co-stars in the three-picture adaptation of the late Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, with Robin Wright co-starring and Stellan Skarsgard cast in a supporting role in the first installment. The studio is also in talks with Max van Sydow to play the key role of Henrik Vanger.

Columbia mulled a number of name actresses for the role of Salander, including Natalie Portman, who refused to test for Fincher, and Kristen Stewart, who worked with Fincher as a child in “Panic Room.” Ultimately, Mara — great-granddaughter of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and New York Giants founder Tim Mara as well as sister of “Brokeback Mountain” thesp Kate Mara — landed the role.

Fincher is a final-cut director whose work include serial killer pic “Zodiac,” which was critically acclaimed but topped out at $33 million domestically, and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was his highest-grossing pic with $127 million.

“Dragon Tattoo,” which begins shooting next month in Sweden, is set to bow worldwide Dec. 21, 2011.