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Getting Lisbeth Salander Right

I read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and was taken by his Lisbeth Salander character—the most interesting one in his books, though she’s secondary to Larsson’s main character, Mikael Blomkvist, who I don’t get at all. Lisbeth has been the victim of both physical and sexual violence, but rather than being undone by it, she uses this to temper herself as a weapon so she can get revenge.

What I like about Larsson’s books is that he didn’t use sexual violence to be titillating; he did seem to have some purpose in using it as a plot device. According to Larrson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson, who was with him for thirty-two years before he died, the reason he wrote so much about sexual violence was because he witnessed the gang rape of a girl when he was a teenager. He didn’t do anything to stop it at camp, and when he tried to apologize to the girl later, she freaked out, screaming, “Get away from me! You’re one of them!” He carried this guilt with him his entire life, and with his character Lisbeth Salander, he tried to exorcise his demons by giving her the power to be the angel of destruction, taking out those who do wrong against women.

The books were pretty clipping reads, but I found myself bored during the non-Lisbeth parts and exasperated by the manwhore character Blomkvist, a journalist who falls into bed with just about anybody, though he seems to have no exceptional qualities. He’s presented as a doughnut of a man, and maybe that’s where his secret powers lie. Lots of people like doughnuts. Otherwise, how can this be explained:

She stopped and smiled at him.

“Do you know what I’d like to do now?” she said.

“No.”

“I’d like to take you home and undress you.”

“This could get a bit awkward.”

“I know. But I wasn’t planning on telling my boss.”

“We don’t know how this story’s going to turn out. We could end up on opposite sides of the barricades.”

“I’ll take my chances. Now, are you going to come quietly or do I have to handcuff you?”

—from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

This is just one of the many female characters who falls for Blomkvist, and while Lisbeth does succumb to his charms, she shakes him off eventually. The series was made into movies in Sweden, starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, and she’s a pretty kick-ass Lisbeth. There’s an intelligence in her eyes that I find just right for the genius-level Lisbeth Salander, who has an eidetic memory and can make abstract connections lickety-split. The only problem I had with the Swedish version is the complicated legal mess that Blomkvist falls into, which leads to his introduction to Lisbeth in the first place. It’s quite tedious stuff that doesn’t film in a very interesting manner.

David Fincher directed an American version of the first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that came out late last year. In this version, Rooney Mara takes on the character Lisbeth Salander. Her Lisbeth is quite a bit different—heavier on piercings and with a more alien-like demeanor than anything else. It’s different than Noomi Rapace’s version, but I can buy it. What I didn’t like is the way Lisbeth’s filmed in this version. There’s lots of T&A shots of Lisbeth that don’t add to the story, and the only reason I can think of for them being in the film is to titillate (no pun intended). I can’t blame the actress for this; I don’t think she made these choices. Instead, it reminds me of the photographer Otto Öse in Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde. He took the iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe on red velvet that may very well have launched her career and tells her this before the photo shoot: “I’m using crushed velvet for a candy-box effect. You’re a piece of candy, luscious enough to eat.”

I can’t say that I’m comfortable with Lisbeth Salander being portrayed this way.

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