The first volume of Stieg Larsson’s thriller trilogy was originally titled Men Who Hate Women; in English translation, it was renamed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The third book was entitled The Castle in the Air that Blew Up and renamed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The book cover showed a small, white woman lying on her front to display the dragon tattoo on her naked back.
The Swedish film of the same book chose to show the “girl” head-on, and the US re-adaptation has plastered London buses with Daniel Craig embracing her protectively.
The Hollywood film and Western title predictably remove much of the feminism of the book from the mainstream advertising, and the content of the film reflects this.
I would encourage you to read the book to get the best out of it, and while the US film is very beautiful and is able to spend more time on the story, I’d also recommend the Swedish film for retaining more of the politics.
But Larsson’s politics are not complex. He draws very clear moral lines: men who hate women and men who don’t hate women; corrupt, sexist government officials and honest, egalitarian government officials; lazy, corruptible police officers and hard-working, egalitarian police officers; bad capitalists and ethical capitalists.
Dickens had similar ideas about the rich and powerful, commending philanthropy over greed and cruelty. If only the world were run by ethical people, then we’d have no problems!
What makes Larsson’s series groundbreaking is its huge success. In 2008 he was the bestselling novelist globally; which forced Hollywood to take notice, on the back of a heroine who breaks all the conventional rules. So much so, that the Hollywood adverts force the viewer to question whether the girl is heroine or monster in order to avoid sympathising with her entirely.
Larsson, however, ensures that Lisbeth Salander always has the reader’s sympathy and attention.
Salander represents a lot of things: a promiscuous bisexual, autistic goth with a talent for computer hacking and a very clear set of ethics.
Throughout the series she is the victim of sexual violence, child abuse, state mis-management, homophobia and media harassment.
She has supernatural elements to her: her photographic memory and her single-minded drive for revenge that make her a hot private investigator, and with enough determination to dig herself out of the grave.
She takes violent revenge upon her attackers using fire, sexual assault, torture, and concludes the series by nail-gunning a sex-trafficker’s feet to the floor.
Jess McCabe writes in the F-word: “I have difficulty squaring Larsson’s proclaimed distress at misogyny with his explicit descriptions of sexual violence.”
Certainly the violence is extreme and explicit, but Larsson isn’t inviting his readers to get off on it; he ensures the reader is in Salander’s position throughout in order to feel the full horror of the ordeal.
Salander’s revenge on her attacker is not only satisfying our collective blood-lust, it is absolutely necessary in order to keep reading the book without your skin crawling.
From a broader perspective, Salander’s character is right to defend herself; her actions do not alleviate male responsibility or negate the need for rape crisis centres.
McCabe does not mention Larsson’s most progressive feminist politic: he is pro-sex. Bondage, threesomes, polyamory and promiscuity between consenting adults are celebrated, particularly the long-standing relationship between Berger and Blomkvist, who see each other with the consent of Berger’s husband (this is not mentioned in any of the films).
Rape, torture and sex trafficking are clearly counter-posed to these relationships. However, Larsson does not attempt to go into detail over the issue of sex-work; the investigative journalists use the Swedish law against clients of sex workers to track down traffickers and corrupt politicians using the highest echelons of government security forces.
Larsson’s background was researching and exposing the far-right.
He published Expo, an anti-fascist anti-racist newspaper, and the book Extrem Högem (Extreme Right) a more detailed account of his research.
He received threats of beatings or death from some of the violent neo-Nazis he exposed.
But with all his dedication to anti-fascism and anti-racism, Larsson barely touches on the subject in Millenium. One character in the second novel leads Larsson on a small rant about asylum and immigration controls, but he barely features in the plot and disappears with a few thousand euros half way through.
Larsson was a Trotskyist, though he dropped out of Trotskyist activity in the early 1990s.
After his death in 2004 it was discovered he had a will signed in 1977 (when he was 23) to the Swedish Communist Workers’ League — now the Swedish Socialist Party — in his home town Umeå.
The will was declared invalid after his death and so the Millennium fortune passed to his brother and father.
However, Millennium is very soft-left on the issue of capitalism, pedalling ethical investment and legal justice for demonstrably corrupt billionaires.