(An abridged version can be found here on The Free George’s website.)
WARNING: THERE WILL BE PLOT POINTS DISCUSSED IN THIS POST, A FEW WHICH COULD BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo“, “The Girl Who Played With Fire“, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest“) has swept the world. The Swedish author’s “girl” is Lisbeth Salander, a withdrawn, but brilliant, young woman with extraordinary hacking ability. Her counterpart lead is Mikael Blomkvist, aka Kalle Blomkvist, an investigative financial journalist, whom at the beginning of the first novel has just been convicted of libel against business giant Hans-Erik Wennerström. Some have called Lisbeth a heroine. I don’t think she is; if anything, she’s more of the anti-heroine. She’s in a situation that’s not of her making (the overall arc of the trilogy), not one she sought out (the way she did in hacking Mikael’s computer and getting involved in his private investigation with the Vanger family). The trilogy has a not-so-subtle theme of violence against women, specifically sexual violence. This is something that you need to have knowledge of going in. It’s not fluffy beach reading, or family viewing. Not at all.
It’s also worth noting, for those considering a read or viewing of the trilogy, that the correct Swedish-to-English translation of the first title is “Men Who Hate Women.” The books do not really describe the violence against women, which can be a relief for those who prefer to be spared the details, but the movie can’t help but show it – and it’s a decision I believe to be correct. In the first novel, Lisbeth is raped twice by her guardian; once orally, the second time, at least, anally. American culture shies away from any sexual content or innuendo in most situations as it is (the current editorial interference on Sucker Punch is an example of this), but European culture and cinema are different. We see the forced oral of Lisbeth, and the beginning of the second rape. However, it is vitally important that we do so.
To read what happened of that second rape, there’s only a couple lines of the actual physical attack. The movie is a different medium and hits you with it – full force. I would advise anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault, especially women, to go into this first installment with full knowledge of what you’re going to encounter. It can be triggering; it was for me, and I purposefully spoiled myself to know the degree of graphicness of the assault. And it’s brutal.
It’s this second attack that really stokes the fire beneath Lisbeth, who’s mother was a victim of sexual and physical abuse, and was beaten so badly that she now lives in an assisted care facility. Lisbeth despises men who hurt women, in any way, and when she gets involved with Mikael – both personally and in helping his investigation into the disappearance (presumed murder) of Harriet Vanger – it is her feelings that help lead to breakthroughs and save Mikael’s life.
By the end of the first book, Mikael and Lisbeth have become close – they’ve had sex, she’s fallen in love, which she vowed to herself never to do – and the mystery is solved. But it doesn’t end there. The back story of Wennerström comes full circle, with Mikael publishing an exposé that outdoes his prior one (with faulty facts) that landed him in prison. Despite the atrocities uncovered by Mikael and Lisbeth, the crimes committed against her, and their night and day personalities, the two connect.
The second installment of the story focuses on the murder of a couple; a man who was working as a freelancer at Millennium with a sex trafficking story and his girlfriend who had done the research and talked with the girls for her doctorate dissertation. In addition to these two murders, Lisbeth’s guardian and rapist is also murdered, with his own gun, containing Lisbeth’s fingerprints and she’s wanted for a triple murder. Mikael, though confused by her sudden break in contact, is adamant about her innocence and sets out to help her in any way he can, while finishing the story of his murdered freelancer.
It’s important to note that Swedish culture treats those who were in foster care and may have had indiscretions in their past very differently. They’re placed under guardianship, their money controlled and other aspects of their life under control as well. Lisbeth, when she was younger, tired of the abuse her mother was receiving, committed one of these “indiscretions” and has been declared dangerous to the state, extremely violent, and, because of her introverted-ness, mentally incompetent.
The second installment felt like that awkward bit you need to know to get to the climax. However, there are a lot of important story elements presented here and it is by no means something that can be dismissed. You skip this bit and when you get to the third you’ll probably be very confused. Lisbeth’s family is important here and you’re not going to know why or how she ends up in custody in the beginning of the third novel.
Lisbeth, if anything, is a woman who gets her revenge. She has been since she was twelve, which lead to her declaration of incompetence and incarceration by the state in a mental facility where she was abused.
The final installment of the trilogy plays out mostly in the courtroom, at least the most compelling parts of the book. It was this bit of the movie I wish had kept more from the book. The books are loaded with information and other characters – and on the first time seeing the movies, I only had a basic concept of who the periphery characters were, enough to understand what was going on in the story. In the books, however, it’s much more specifically laid out, sometimes too many pages spent on some characters. Just unneeded, it could have been trimmed down. Had Larsson been alive when the novels were published, an editor could have worked with him and that’d be less of an issue, with a good editor anyway.
We finally find out about Lisbeth’s history, why she’s been considered a threat to the state and why she’s been abused by the government her entire life – why she has such a fierce hatred for men who show no regard or respect to women. Lisbeth gets to tell her story. There are aspects to her that are heroic, but she’s not Lara Croft or Elizabeth Bennett. She uses violence to combat violence, she’s fierce and unapologetic, she’s part of a network of world-class hackers but she’s probably the most ethical and moral character within the trilogy. Maybe she’s considered a heroine because the company of literary heroines aren’t described or attributed with the same characteristics you’d find in a male counterpart: they’re destructive, suicidal, immoral (amoral, sometimes), crime. So maybe by some of those conditions, Lisbeth qualifies. But that’s not who she is. She’s a complicated character, completely shaped by her past, but fights fire with fire, sticks to who she is – regardless of the consequence.
Through the books, you get a solid idea of who Lisbeth is, with no chance of misinterpretation of an actor’s portrayal. But there is no one who could capture Lisbeth Salander better than Noomi Rapace has done. She knows Lisbeth in and out, as though she’s truly been through those experiences with her. Noomi is able to capture emotions and there are aspects of her performance that seem so understated, but she conveys so much. She’s fearless. And she brings Lisbeth to life, in full dimension – her quirks, desires, insecurities, talent and strong belief in what’s right and wrong.
I saw the movies first; part of me is glad I did. I’m not so sure I would have read the books without being familiar with the story, so that the excess story – background, history, other characters – didn’t end up making me put the book down out of frustration. The mediums complement each other well – the movies telling the story and what’s vital (and there’s still a lot of it!), while the books add information you may have missed while watching, filling out and completing the picture.
Because of our “sensitivities” here in the US, I’m concerned about the American film adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The film casts Rooney Mara (“The Social Network“) as Lisbeth and British actor Daniel Craig (our current James Bond) as Mikael. The thematic nature is sexual violence towards women. Americans treat sex as though it’s something to be ashamed of, adding to the shame sexual assault victims feel. David Fincher (“The Social Network“, “Fight Club“) is a bold director – that’s the only thing that gives hope to capturing the importance of the attacks on Lisbeth and the other characters in the stories. The film cannot shy away from these moments, especially when it comes to Lisbeth – it’s so crucial, vital, to who she is as a character and why she chooses to act the way she does. Or react, depending on the situation.
The bottom line is, regardless of the medium, this trilogy is worth the time. It brings up important, yet swept-under-the-rug, issues. It offers a different protagonist – a young woman (24 in the first installment) who has been plotted against her entire life, all because of something completely out of her control, with strong convictions, but is a bit of a loner. It pairs her with a older man, both in an unlikely partnership and in a brief relationship, but doesn’t treat it like a father-daughter relationship, but rather a relationship of different, but still equal, people.