The Rise of Stieg Larsson on the Page and Screen
Dynamite, the centigrade scale, IKEA, the safety match—now we must add dark, socially engaged crime fiction to the list of Swedish accomplishments that have had a global impact. Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy is definitive Swedish noir. Our look at the first installment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and its progress to the world stage includes a handful of real-life characters who might have walked right out of the pages of Larsson’s fiction.
Most of Stieg Larsson’s friends little suspected that his most lasting legacy would be a trilogy of internationally best-selling crime novels. Few even knew that the prominent journalist, born in 1954 in a small town in northern Sweden, wrote fiction. But after years of delving into Sweden’s shift toward right-wing politics, in the summer of 2002 Larsson began writing what would become The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005). Larsson sold the novel and its two sequels to a Swedish publisher in April 2004. Seven months later he died of a heart attack.
One of the novel’s two main characters, Mikael Blomkvist, is, as Larsson was when he died, a middle-aged investigative journalist. Blomkvist pairs with the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander. Hacker by trade, bisexual by nature, distrustful and vengeful by temperament, Salander has met no injustice she could not—or would not—expose. A friend of the author has said that as a teenager Larsson stood by while his friends raped a girl named Lisbeth, and he never got over his guilt. The pairing of the loyal Mikael with the fearless, avenging Lisbeth in these staunchly feminist novels might in part have been Larsson’s way of righting that old wrong.
“Their characters lived in a world gone wrong,” noir novelist Raymond Chandler wrote of American crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. “The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.” He might have been describing Sweden during the past two decades, especially as it is portrayed by the country’s most prominent crime writers, Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
Larsson’s contribution to what may be called Swedish noir is the Millennium series: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007). Mankell is best known for a series of novels, beginning with Faceless Killers (1991), that follows the career of gloomy detective Kurt Wallander.
The two authors, leftists from youth, are well known in Sweden for their political views. Larsson’s efforts as a journalist concentrated on exposing and eliminating neo-Nazism, racism and other ills in Sweden, while Mankell has taken on oppression around the world, most recently championing the cause of Palestinians in Gaza (he was a participant in the 2010 and 2011 Gaza aid flotillas).
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was originally published in Sweden in 2005 as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (“Men Who Hate Women”). Each section of the book opens with a statistic on violence against women, the novel’s focus and theme. Its protagonists—Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker—have separately been hired to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of a young woman. Blomkvist convinces Salander they should work together, and the two uncover a serial killer who has been raping and murdering women for years. Neither the violence nor the vengeance ends there. Salander has been the object of serious, repeated sexual aggression; in one of the book’s most gripping scenes she executes a terrible vengeance on one of her attackers.
Violence against women and vengeance are also the focus of many of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels. In The Fifth Woman (1996), Wallander investigates a series of savage murders of seemingly respectable older men. The victims turn out to be not so innocent—each is guilty of having at some point victimized women. An interesting contrast to Larsson’s dynamic, sexually active duo, Wallander is depressive, unattractive, diabetic and incapable of sustaining an intimate relationship.
David Fincher, whose early career is peppered with noirish thrillers, directed the English-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on the best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson. It is the second film adaptation of the book; in the first, a 2009 Swedish-language version, Noomi Rapace delivers a memorable and critically hailed performance as Lisbeth Salander. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher’s fifth book-to-screen adaptation, following Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Among Fincher’s other films is Se7en (1995), in which a serial killer counts off the seven deadly sins with a murder for each in a grimy, rain-soaked metropolis, while police detectives played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman try to stop him.
Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo stars Daniel Craig (the most recent actor to portray James Bond) as crime-solving investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Rooney Mara, who played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s college girlfriend in The Social Network (2010), is Salander, Blomkvist’s waifish, pierced, tattooed and computer-savvy partner. Christopher Plummer plays Henrik Vanger, a wealthy patriarch who hires Blomkvist to investigate a decades-old murder, and Robin Wright is Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s business partner and occasional lover.
In David Fincher’s Se7en, Kevin Spacey plays John Doe, a serial killer who sees himself as a messenger sent to warn humanity of its impending damnation. Doe stages each of his murders to illustrate just how lethal the seven deadly sins can be. An obese man is force-fed to death (gluttony). A grasping lawyer must carve a pound of flesh from his own body (greed). Each slaying is more gruesome than the previous one, and as critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times noted, Fincher renders the crime scenes “in sickening detail.”
Likewise, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which Fincher adapted for the screen in 2011, revels in the macabre crimes of a serial killer, an unknown sadist with religious fixations who has raped, tortured and murdered his way through most of the past four decades. One of the first clues to the perpetrator’s identity is an enigmatic passage written in a victim’s journal. Just as John Doe’s “deadly sins” are traceable to early biblical writings—though his pound of flesh is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—the villain in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo takes his cues from the book of Leviticus.
Both protagonists in Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander—distrust authority. While Blomkvist has a journalist’s natural cynicism, Salander has developed her worldview the hard way: When as a young girl she tries to protect herself and her mother from a physically abusive and powerfully connected father, she is declared legally insane and becomes a ward of the state, and that is only the beginning of her trials. Eventually Salander grows into a talented computer hacker and private investigator. As Larsson describes her in the novel, “She enjoyed digging into the lives of other people and exposing the secrets they were trying to hide.”
The same could be said of Julian Assange—editor in chief of WikiLeaks—who seems to revel in his role as the world’s most prominent whistleblower. Assange had a troubled youth, and by his early 20s he had become a skillful hacker and self-styled subversive. Like Salander, he instinctually questions authority and believes his hacking activities serve a higher purpose—to expose the corruption and injustice of the powerful. Both Assange and Salander are secure in their ethical codes and the righteousness of their actions—even as they test the limits of the law.
Before Stieg Larsson wrote The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, he was a left-leaning investigative journalist. In 1995 Larsson cofounded the magazine Expo, a quarterly dedicated to exposing the racism and fascism he believed was infecting Swedish society at the turn of the millennium. Neo-Nazi groups in Sweden responded to the journal’s first issue with death threats and vandalism, which only fortified Larsson’s resolve. Expo continues its work after Larsson’s death from a heart attack (suffered after he climbed seven flights of stairs to the magazine’s offices when the elevator malfunctioned). Its website states, “The Expo platform safeguards democracy and freedom of speech against racist, right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic and totalitarian tendencies throughout society.”
As the editor in chief of WikiLeaks—a web-based clearinghouse for the publication of classified information—Julian Assange has made available hundreds of thousands of secret government and corporate documents. The most famous of these are a video of a 2007 Baghdad attack by U.S. helicopters, in which two Reuters journalists were killed, and more recently some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Like Expo, WikiLeaks operates on the premise that the best check on the powers of government and business is a fearlessly free press.
Before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), David Fincher directed The Social Network (2010), a biopic about the early career of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In the movie, Zuckerberg’s goal is no less than “taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.” As Facebook grows, it encompasses more and more of people’s lives, well beyond college, spreading their data into cyberspace in ways many don’t foresee. Zuckerberg has stated that personal privacy is no longer the “social norm.”
Julian Assange has called Facebook “the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented.” This may seem ironic coming from the founder of WikiLeaks, an organization whose sole mission is publishing secret documents. The distinction, of course, is between institutional secrecy and personal privacy. Assange has spent his adult life fighting against the first and much of the past few years clinging to the latter. Besides changing his e-mail address frequently and maintaining no permanent address, Assange has managed the operations of WikiLeaks so that many of its key members know each other only by code names. If the idea behind personal privacy is protecting citizens from government and corporate intrusion, there’s little contradiction in Assange’s stance.