Confession: I have owned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for over a year. I finally read it this month because I couldn’t get the sound of Karen O’s haunting song/scream from the trailer for the American version of the film out of my head, nor the relentless parade of images, all cutting back to a single continuous shot that moves us inexorably toward the entrance of a stately but remote house.
In case you’ve also tried to resist the pull of the Millenium trilogy, the series of which Dragon Tattoo is the first installment, you should know it was written by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson and then published posthumously after his death in 2004 from apparently natural causes. The central figure, Lisbeth Salander, is one of the most compelling and capable heroines I’ve ever encountered. She is a super-intelligent hacker who manages to elude the notice of general society by remaining in its lowest caste, dressed as a scary Goth chick and diagnosed as violent and mentally unstable, which keeps her under guardianship (I gather this is sort of like adult foster care). Her invisibility allows her to be an omnipotent fly on the wall and to observe others who definitely have no idea they are being watched or who is watching them. She is flanked by investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, nicknamed “Kalle Blomkvist” after the detective character in Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books. Together, they crack the case of a missing heiress presumed dead in Dragon Tattoo and as an afterthought manage to go after one of Sweden’s most successful (and corrupt) businessmen. The final two books in the series chronicle the unraveling of a government conspiracy in Sweden in which Lisbeth plays a central role. It is amazing reading–perfect for the airplane (I finished all three in two weeks).
The original title of Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. Indeed, that was what kept me from reading it until now. I had heard that the book contained so much sadistic violence against women that one could argue that it made for a strange protest novel. But after reading the work, I have no problem with Stieg Larsson being called a feminist. He created one of the most powerful female protagonists in literature, and never once does she apologize for her strength or feel the need to explain herself. This turns out to be the majestic secret to her survival. Yes, she is violated. Yes, she bears witness to the violation of others, both men and women. But I loved the fact that the moral center of this trilogy is 100% on the side of the victim, and Lisbeth seems always to manage her revenge on the men who deserve it. If only real life were arranged this way. I think that most of the book can be divided into two categories: events where Lisbeth is in control and events where she is not. When she is not in control, her life spins dangerously toward the abyss and all manner of evil happens. But when she is in control, she is the avenger and able to do almost anything. For all her quirks and social ineptitude, I think she is a much better role model for young women then say, Bella from the Twilight series (yuck!). She may not be relatable enough the reach the same status, but after a cultural barrage of such weak-blooded female caricatures, it’s refreshing to see a girl who is not afraid to fend for herself and who rejects weakness. I appreciate Stieg Larsson’s celebration of the Amazon warrior-woman–in the third book, the epigraph for each chapter is a chronicle of the history of the Amazon legend.
So now that I’ve finished all three books, will I see the films? They’ve already made the trilogy in Sweden, and the trailer mentioned above is for the first American installment, directed by David Fincher, which will be released in the United States as “the feel-bad movie of Christmas” on December 21. I’m not sure that knowing the endgame is enough for me to stomach watching what happens to Lisbeth and other characters. As much as Stieg Larsson has been chided for depicting violence against women in literature, I believe that it’s even more sensitive to depict it on film and I hope (probably in vain) that Fincher will show some restraint. The good news is that the American film already has and will continue to grow the audience for the Millennium trilogy. Rooney Mara (best known for two good scenes as the ex-girlfriend in The Social Network) is playing Lisbeth and Daniel Craig is cast in the role of Blomkvist. Craig (my personal favorite James Bond) is a great choice to help anchor what could become a very worthwhile franchise for Columbia in the next few years. My hope is that the films will succeed and that Lisbeth Salander will inspire women everywhere to kick butt when necessary.