I didn’t want to read it. There’s something about yet another man writing about sexual violence towards women that brings shivers down my spine. I admit, I had been afraid of the Almodovar-esque female characters, strong yet always the victim; another series of women who fall in love with their oppressors and/or captors. The original Swedish title made me cringe, the direct translation into English being Men Who Hate Women (2005). I didn’t want anything to do with men who hate women, nor did I want to read about them for 600 plus pages. Despite all the buzz, it was easy to resist. I had heard even worse things about the Swedish film version, of which included an explicit adaptation of the infamous rape scene. Yet, when the Hollywood film was released, reviews seemed to suggest that the scene was more muted than its Swedish counterpart, and that the characters were more developed in the former than in the latter. My friends tried to convince me to read the book—“really, Lisbeth Salander isn’t a victim, but a badass heroine.” Needless to say, I didn’t believe them. Yet, I thought that I should see for myself and form a real opinion.
After finishing the book, I still didn’t feel like I had received any new, great knowledge about humanity, however gripping and unique the murder mystery had been. Yet a few days later, I found myself wondering about the life of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), as if she were a real person in my life. What made her so emotionally distant and angry? What secrets did she have locked in her past? Without even realizing what was happening, our female protagonist had gotten under my skin. My friends were right. Author Stieg Larsson hadn’t portrayed Lisbeth as a powerless victim, nor a woman in need of sympathy. Rather, he characterizes her as a strong, intelligent woman meriting your upmost respect. Yet, at the same time, Salander is portrayed as an outsider. She’s a woman suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, with severe emotional baggage and a penchant for violent revenge—not to mention, enough tattoos and piercings to make your average Joe a bit wary. In short, my pre-teen fantasy woman.
Yet, in order to be a strong, intelligent feminist, why do you have to fall so far from the realm of “normal?” And yet Larsson does do a great job of showing just how well Salander functions within the parameters of society—considering her tumultuous past, she is capable of emotional attachment after all, and she does recognize the rules of the game, even if she chooses not to follow them. Besides, as the story progresses, you realize that Larsson offers many other portrayals of sexual abuse survivors, not all of whom have taken the same path as Salander, or have made the same lifestyle choices. The book is speckled with other strong female characters who take their destiny into their own hands, often offering retribution to their male oppressors. Larsson is also careful to portray female characters who govern their sexuality on their own terms, like Erika Berger (Robin Wright) who is in an open marriage and who has chosen to take on our male protagonist, Michael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), as a casual lover—not to mention best friend and business partner—for the last few decades. These types of characters are carefully paired with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, none of whom passively accept their plight.
How did Steig Larsson become so fascinated with violence against women? Moreover, how did his female characters become so strong, particularly when compared to characterizations created by other male storytellers? For example, Pedro Almodóvar, the renowned Spanish director, is known for being a “woman’s director,” especially after the popularity of his Academy Award nominated film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios) (1988). Yet while Almodóvar’s films are full of female protagonists, many of his female characters follow the archetypical pattern of following in love with their oppressors or sexual assailants, as in ¡Átame! (1990), Tacones Lejanos (1991), and Kika (1993). I was wary to indulge in yet another story about sexual violence towards women as told from a male perspective. Yet in an ABC article, Susan James explains the traumatic experience that brought the Millenium series to life. According to Larsson’s longtime friend Kurdo Baksi, at the age of 15, he witnessed a gang rape. He never intervened, apparently asking the young woman for forgiveness, which she never granted him. Years later, his guilt possessed him to write this series of ten books, of which three and a half were written before his early death in 2004. The young woman’s name was Lisbeth, which by no coincidence is also the name of our beloved protagonist.
While I usually wouldn’t prefer the glossy Hollywood version of a film, in this case, David Fincher’s US film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) truly brings the book to life. From the moment the opening credits appear on the screen, Fincher grabs you with Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, with Karen O from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs filling in for Robert Plant’s original vocals, and with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross filling in the rest. From there, Fincher, along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian, are able to capture the thrill of the investigation without falling flat, skillfully presenting a cinematic representation of detailed revelations that appear in the book. In contrast, Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish film version, Män som hatar kvinnor (2009) does not quite accomplish the task of translating the excitement of the book on to the screen. Consequently, it is very very slow, almost hard to sit through, with too many variations from the original story and slightly more graphic representations of the sexually violent scenes. What’s more, I just don’t believe the chemistry between Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). In the US version, Craig and Mara are better able to recreate their unique, sexually-infused friendship, with Craig easily capturing Blomkvist’s charm with the ladies and, Mara, the powerful allure of Salander. It’s clear that David Fincher has casted Rooney Mara perfectly as Lisbeth Salander. Unlike the Swedish film version, Mara embodies Lisbeth’s complicated emotional layers, a medley of anger and yet affection toward the father figures in her life—a feat that has earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress. That said, Fincher and Zallian do borrow a few good scenes from Män som hatar kvinnor, including a clever scene where Lisbeth is mugged. The scene both exposes Lisbeth’s violent tendencies toward male assailants—despite her tiny figure and inability at times to match her attackers’ strength, she makes up for it in persistence—while also offering a more convenient way for her laptop to break, effectively bringing us to the next major plot point. In short, Fincher and Zallian have borrowed some of the best aspects of Män som hatar kvinnor while still using the book as their reference point; in turn, this allows them to not stray too far from the book.
Needless to say, I have finally been converted. Although Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been a slow burner in the box office so far—not that it says anything about its critical acclaim; it could, however, attest to the terrible trailers—Sony has officially decided to continue with the sequels. While Craig and Mara are contractually obligated for the next two films, cross your fingers that David Fincher will also return as director. Despite the disturbing and sexually violent content, the characters themselves are unique and engaging, and the story is gripping, yet smart—despite a few incredible moments. Moreover, it’s worth seeing on the big screen, if for nothing else then to experience the best opening credits that you’ve seen in awhile. In the end, my friends were right. Lisbeth Salander is a badass heroine. She also represents a paradigm shift in the way that we regard sexual abuse survivors in cinema. She’s certainly not a victim. I’d like to think that it will start a trend toward more empowering representations of women in Hollywood. In the meantime, I won’t hold my breath.
Follow Corinne on Twitter @CorinneGbergFeminism, Sexual Violence, Women's Rights