(Tattooed is now an ongoing series.)
As popular as the Millennium series has become, my impression is that these books are a startling portrait of their author, Stieg Larsson. Hailing from northern Sweden, Larsson worked as a writer, editor, activist, photographer and graphic designer, among other jobs. He was an avid feminist and campaigned against racism and the Swedish right.
You may have noticed I’m writing in the past tense. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 of a heart attack. He was 50 years old.
In his wake he left three books, and as of now I’ve only read the first, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2005). Are best-selling crime novels usually my bread and butter? Not by a long shot. What drew me to the series was the author himself, particularly how he has chosen to handle the subject matter of misogyny, abuse and rape.
Now, this is usual for me, since whenever pop culture or art try to tackle these subjects, I don’t just show up to the party, I crash my Jeep into it.
To say the least, I was stunned with Larsson’s accuracy. I have already sifted through accusations that Larsson sensationalizes or exploits these taboos. I really couldn’t disagree more. As I read through Tattoo‘s most difficult passages, all I could think is, “This guy is actually holding back.” Larsson’s narration is deeply rooted in journalism, and the most heinous acts are described in a clinical, straight-forward way. They are a report, not a fantasy. If there is any emotion in the text, only his own disgust is palpable. This might be due to its translation from Swedish, but I don’t think it’s likely. Larsson truly knows what he is talking about, how it is breaking the law and how it physically effects its victims.
How Larsson actually feels about these acts is reflected through the series’ male protagonist, journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He is a sensitive and moral, albeit imperfect man. And he loves women. He really does. Larsson indulges the Blomkvist character with several lovers over the course of the novel (which made me smirk a little), and he fits the author’s ideal of the feminist male.
But that isn’t what makes the book memorable. In my opinion what sets it apart is the nature of its heroine, Lisbeth Salander, and how she deals with her own abuses. I am no stranger to the rape/revenge genre, but there is something almost groundbreaking with the detached yet logical way she exacts her revenge.
This is where Larsson breaks the mold. Lisbeth doesn’t snap. She doesn’t get enraged. She sits around for several days, thinking. Then Larsson introduces his new idea: “What Happens When You Rape The Wrong Person?” I mean this. And Lisbeth Salander simply is the wrong person. When you commit an act of violence against that wrong person, you reap what you sow.
This leads to the 2nd idea: “Sorry Sir, But I Can Rape Harder Than You.” I’m not the biggest fan of this idea but I understand its vigilante logic. In reality, Lisbeth’s revenge was one of my least favorite parts of the book. However, in the hypothetical sense, I couldn’t help but laugh because if victims reacted just like Lisbeth I think rape would happen less often.
The thing is, these first examples of sexual violence become a small part of a big picture. As Tattoo progresses and the mystery surrounding the Vanger family unfolds, you feel as if you’re walking into a nightmare. What Lisbeth and Mikael uncover is absolutely awful. Some of it was quite familiar to me, and other parts were unfathomable. The scope of this family’s deceit, violence and abuse becomes the real tragedy of the story, as well as the painful circumstances that keep it covered up. Everyone suffers, and I don’t know who to feel sorriest for, the dead or the living.
Even worse, a lot of the bullshit in this novel comes from real life, which is pretty damn shocking. It also brings me back to Stieg Larsson.
Larsson’s reasons for writing the Millennium series are well-documented. The most striking was an experience he had at fifteen, when he witnessed the gang rape of a young girl and didn’t intervene. The young girl’s name was Lisbeth. One of Larsson’s friends claimed that he asked for her forgiveness; she refused. The guilt he carried from this incident haunted him for the rest of his life. His longtime girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson, wrote after his death: “Stieg couldn’t have had any better therapy for what ailed his soul than writing his novels.”
And now all of these issues Larsson tried to purge have become quite lucrative. The book sales number in the tens of millions. Film adaptations have already been made in his native Sweden, and to say the least they were successful. An American remake is due for release in December, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig.
After finishing Tattoo I saw the first of the Swedish adaptations. I… hated it. Other than the skillful casting of Noomi Rapace, the film was rather emotionless and is the worst example of filmmakers changing things that were fine the way they were. It’s like they sat down and said, “All right, we’ve got this really intriguing, suspenseful book to adapt. Let’s cut out some of the characters. In fact, let’s kill some of them off. Let’s change names and the chronology of events. Hey, let’s change most of the dialogue! Let’s change the character’s motivations and actions, too.” The worst part of the film is that I felt like I didn’t really get to know anyone- particularly Mikael- the only exception being Lisbeth, who is supposed to be enigmatic in the first place.
Also, they needlessly threw in spoilers from the second book. I was like, “Thanks a lot, guys. Thanks a lot.”
This is why I’m banking on Fincher’s adaptation this coming winter. If anyone can handle a complicated story about solving murders, Fincher is the guy to do it- he directed Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007). Also, if anyone was going to painstakingly recreate violent events, Fincher already proven his capabilities with Fight Club (1999) (I’d argue for Zodiac as well, perhaps more). Lastly, some directors would balk at Tattoo‘s expository style, but Fincher’s last film was The Social Network, where he turned a bunch of boardroom meetings into an engrossing roller coaster ride.
Rumor has it that this adaptation will take some liberties as well, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It seems to be in very capable hands.
For one thing, I was surprised that actress Rooney Mara (the new Lisbeth Salander) was instructed to watch Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) before shooting her rape scene. I thought, “Oh my God, they are doing this right.”
This movie is going to be absolutely brutal.
(For more information and the trailer for the 2011 film, visit here.)