Feminism / Films

Rebel with a Cause: A Feminist Hero Emerges in Film ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the international phenomenon that is Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  As I often lament the lack of strong female characters in books and film, I was intrigued to descend into the world where one of the most exciting and controversial heroines resides.   I’ve been voraciously reading the books in the Millennium Trilogy (I’m currently reading the 2nd).  Having thoroughly enjoyed the book, I was curious how the film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Swedish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, would measure up.

The story revolves around the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the niece of a wealthy business tycoon, who vanished without a trace 40 years earlier.  Harriet’s uncle has been tortured by her absence all these years.  Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who’s been convicted of libel, and Lisbeth Salander, an introverted punk who’s a brilliant researcher and hacker, seek to solve the baffling mystery.  The book is a riveting twisting thriller with numerous suspects.

Blomkvist is an interesting character.  A charming and passionate journalist championing for the truth, he vacillates between cynicism and naïveté.  Dejected after his conviction, he yearns to clear his name.  He also frequently bed hops yet has enormous respect for women often befriending them.  While acclaimed Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist gives a valiant effort, he does not imbue the character with enough charisma.

But the sole reason to go see the movie (and read the book too) is for Lisbeth Salander.  Noomi Rapace, who won a Guldbagge Award (the Swedish Oscars) for her portrayal, plays her perfectly.  She stepped into the role by training for 7 months through Thai boxing and kickboxing (in the books Lisbeth boxes too) as well as piercing her eyebrow and nose, emulating Lisbeth’s punk look.  A nuanced performance, Rapace plays the tattooed warrior with the right blend of sullen introvert, keen intellect and fierce survivor instincts.  Salander is a ferocious feminist, crusading for women’s empowerment.  Facing a tortured and troubled past, Salander is resourceful and resilient, avenging injustices following her own moral compass.  An adept actor, Rapace conveys emotions through her eyes, never needing to utter a word.  Yet she can also invoke Salander’s visceral rage when warranted.

While not quite living up to the book, the film is fantastic.  It’s a very stripped down, gritty portrayal, particularly when compared to slick stylized American movies (which is I’m sure how it will be produced in the American re-make).  Seeing all of the Swedish locales described in the book on-screen plunged me even further into the story.  While the film stays fairly faithful to the book regarding the plot and the protagonists Blomkvist and Salander, there are notable differences between the book and film.  As the movie condenses the book (even as it clocks in at 2 hours and 32 minutes), it lacks the same suspense.  However Oplev does a superior job streamlining the story’s flow and evoking the tense mood.

But there are a few missteps.  The score is distracting at times (the 80s called and they want their synthesizer back) and the end following the murder mystery portion, feels rushed and thrown together.  The biggest complaint from viewers has been that the film lacks character development.  Female characters, such as Erika Berger, Millennium’s editor and Blomkvist’s best friend/lover, and Cecilia Vanger, a suspect in Harriet’s disappearance, have their roles drastically reduced; interesting for a story that focuses so prominently on women.  Yet Oplev diminishes other characters in order to put the two sleuths front and center.

Also, if you’re like me and reading each book before you see the film and you haven’t read the second book yet, be prepared for spoilers as there are scenes NOT in the first book that are taken from the second book integrated into the film, such as Lisbeth’s flashbacks and the topic of her conversation with her mother.

In the book, Larsson makes social commentaries on fiscal corporate corruption, ethics in journalism and the role of upbringing on criminal behavior.  Larsson also provides an interesting commentary on gender roles with his two protagonists.  Despite Blomkvist’s social nature and Salander’s private behavior, they both stubbornly follow their own moral code.  Both also possess overt sexualities. Yet society views Blomkvist as socially acceptable and perceives Salander as an outcast.  These themes are absent from the movie adaptation.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has received an exorbitant amount of attention for Larsson’s controversial central theme of violence against women.  It’s true that both the book and film portray graphic violence.  The movie does not shy away from the uncomfortable subject matter.  In the book, women fall prey to being assaulted, murdered and violently raped.  A pivotal rape scene, disturbs and haunts the viewer.  But sexual assault is a reality women face, albeit an ugly truth that we as a society may not want to see.  Yet Larsson in the book and Oplev in the film never made me feel as if women were victimized.  On the contrary, women, particularly in the form of Salander, are powerful survivors.  She fights back, not merely accepting her circumstances.

As Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood wrote in Forbes,

“As my friend playwright Theresa Rebeck says, “The world looks at women who fight back as crazy.” We constantly see movies, TV shows and plays where men commit violence against women. That’s our norm. Here we have a woman who is saying no more and exacts revenge. Larsson is very clearly saying what we all know and believe. Lisbeth is not crazy. She is a feminist hero of our time.”

Violence against women is a pervasive issue.  According to the anti-sexual assault orgainization RAINN, “every 2 minutes in the U.S., someone is sexually assaulted; nearly half of these victims are under the age of 18, and 80 percent are under 30.”  And in Sweden, the problem is just as pervasive.  Larsson states that, “46 percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.”  We must not continue to brush these crimes aside.  The original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (both the book and the film) is Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, which translates to “Men Who Hate Women.”  I’m glad that Larsson devoted his books to shedding light on misogyny in society.

A provocative and haunting film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is worth watching for Rapace’s subtle yet powerful performance.  It’s rare for an audience to see a strong, self-sufficient woman on-screen.  It’s even more unusual for a movie to address the stigma of sexual assault as well as the complexity of gender roles.  Watch the movie and read the book.  Get acquainted with Lisbeth Salander; she may be the most exhilarating, unconventional and surprising character you will ever encounter.


Read all my posts on the Millennium Trilogy with my reviews of the second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the third film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

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10 thoughts on “Rebel with a Cause: A Feminist Hero Emerges in Film ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

  1. Great review! I was surprised how good the movie actually was considering how little promotion the movie got here in the states (It made barely 10% here than it made in the rest of the world; Usually for a big international movie like this that number would be much closer to 50%) but I agree with you about the reduction of Berger and Cecelia’s roles. They were big parts of the first book, and they’re reduced to mere footnotes in the movie. Considering how faithful the movie is to the books (very surprising for a movie adaptation) I’m not looking forward to how the west coast will butcher the casting and story. I’ve said it before, but the only way I’d be tempted to see the Hollywood remake is if they cast Ray Fiennes in the Blomvkist role, he’s the only man I can see pulling it off. Salander? Somehow I get the feeling that one will get screwed up, but we’ll see; Rapace was too perfect to possibly upstage.

  2. But HOW, that’s what I want to know! I’ve read similar assessments of these books and this movie (although seldom any so charmingly done! you really ought to PURSUE this whole ‘writing’ thing …. grrrrrr…..), and I just don’t see it. HOW is Lisbeth Salander a ‘feminist hero’? Apart from her astounding computer skills, the character is almost entirely uneducated and not all that bright … and more importantly, she herself isn’t in any way a feminist – she doesn’t even CARE that she’s a woman! She’s been written in the books and now portrayed onscreen (and just wait until Hollywood puts uzis in her hands!) exactly like the teen-boy heroes of a hundred action flicks – a broody, lethal Zac Efron, only with boobies and a (slightly) better tushie. So how, HOW does that speak to feminism at all? Just because she can karate-kick? It CAN’T be that she’s ‘an empowering figure’ for young girls everywhere – it CAN’T be that stupid and simple anymore! In the age of Madonna, Oprah, Lady GaGa … when Germany’s had a woman president for years, when the United States has a woman Secretary of State who was damn nearly President … it CAN’T be that any budding feminist cares that Lisbeth can punch out some Eurotrash villain! So what is it? How can anybody consider this character a feminist ANYTHING, when she so clearly isn’t? I ask the Opioness for guidance!

  3. To be honest, her “look” is distracting.
    I thought the first picture was an extra from the ‘Rocky Horror picture show.’
    I’m not sure the age of the character, but the actress portraying said actor, looks too old to be rocking the, “Sullen punk rock goth, who’m just discovered an old Misfits record”.

    To a certain extent, i understand Steve’s point.
    Transferring one dimensional, male action heroe’s personas onto their female counterparts, does not equal power.
    Just because she can kick someone’s ass, doesn’t make her this liberating figure to all women.
    Real power comes with individuality, and judging a book by it’s cover here (no pun intended), the character clearly lacks on that point, alone.

    Watching the trailer & viewing the pictures, this film strikes me to be as subtle as a sledgehammer.
    You could cast Bruce Willis in the title role, and it would still equal empty calories.

  4. Pingback: Good Girl Gone Bad: Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander Burns Up the Screen in ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’ « Opinioness of the World

  5. Thank you all for your comments!! I love it!!

    @Steve, you raise some interesting points. Yes, I fully believe that Lisbeth Salander is a feminist hero. Many people define feminism in myriad ways. At its core, feminism, or being a feminist, is about equality between women and men. She despises misogyny and violence against women. It’s exhilarating to see a character who’s been abused say “enough.” She’s not a victim but a fearless survivor. Do I love the fact that Salander kicks ass, yes. But you’re right; that’s not entirely what makes her a feminist. When I describe her as a “warrior,” I mean that she’s one emotionally. She’s resilient and self-sufficient, not relying on any man (or woman for that matter) to save her.

    And she’s quite intelligent. You’re mistaken about her lack of education as she’s self-taught. (In the second book, Larsson describes how she learned the multiplication tables in one week and couldn’t understand why the teacher kept droning on about them.)

    @Julian, it’s interesting that you find her look distracting as I find it quite interesting. And while her look may not be that unique (actor Noomi Rapace said in an interview that she wanted her to look emo as that’s big in Sweden now), her personality is quite inimitable. I completely agree with you in power coming from individuality, which is precisely the reason I love her so.

    @Gianni, thanks for the box office info!! I should’ve posted in the review that I went and saw the film with you too 🙂

  6. She wanted her to look “Emo” ?!!
    And she decided this because, “Emo is big in Sweden, right now.”

    This actress just proved my point!

  7. @Julian, that was PART of the decision for her look. Author Stieg Larsson also describes her as having a “punk” look. But another reason actor Rapace emulated this look is that with emo, both women and men wear this style of make-up and she wanted to incorporate physical traits that bordered on androgyny. That was how she envisioned Lisbeth. You keep harping on her appearance but with regards to individuality, as well as intelligence and power, her looks shouldn’t really matter. As I said before, it’s her personality that makes the character truly unique.

    • I’ll harp all i want, thank you very much!

      I still believe the actress should have portrayed her in a nice, summer dress, with a pink bow in her hair.

  8. Pingback: Enemy of the State: Heroine Lisbeth Salander Fights Back in ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ « The Opinioness of the World

  9. I’m quite surprised that someone who liked the books in large part for their strong feminist rhetoric (and Larsson was certainly a feminist when he was alive, though he primarily dedicated his journalistic career to fighting right-wing extremism/neo-nazism in Sweden), would also have a high opinion of the films. The message of the trilogy was distorted enough through the translation of the titles into English and the way they’ve been marketed for an Anglo-American audience, but the films are a disaster. As I’m sure the Opinioness is well aware, the first book is titled “Men Who Hate Women” (“Män som hatar kvinnor”) in Swedish, a title symbolic of the strong feminist views behind the books. As well as writing a good thriller, Stieg Larsson was trying to tell an incredibly important and urgent story about gender and the legal system of a country which is considered one of the most equal and free in the world. He was a well-known Swedish journalist famous for his critical and dedicated work against right-wing Swedish political groups, and it’s a great tragedy that he died suddenly before the books had been published. Had he been alive I doubt the films would have been made in their current, crappy Hollywood action/thriller, format. It’s a shame that when he died the rights to the book manuscripts went to his father and brother (who he wasn’t particularly close to) rather than his partner of several decades (who were denied the rights to his work as they had never married). I couldn’t even sit through the the whole of the first film, it’s shameful the way the political messages of the story, the social commentary on psychiatry and the law, and on the law and gender, have been distorted or written out. And I personally think the actor playing Salander couldn’t be more wrong for the part. That’s not saying she’s not a good actor, it’s the casting I disagree with.

    These books are so important, and because they are also quite accessible they’re able to reach a wide audience. But this is equally part of the problem, as they way they’ve been marketed (purely as crime fiction/thriller) has distorted their political significance. The relationship between psychiatric (and other medical) knowledge and the law is one of the most pervasive yet most elusive (and therefore also one of the most efficient and powerful) ways in which gender inequality and the violent structures upon which it rests are maintained. It’s not just the overt, explicit sexism we need to worry about, but (and much more so in fact) that which is not generally considered sexism at all. The harder something is to pinpoint, the harder it is to critique, and the harder it is to change. This is what makes Larsson’s books so important – he manages to strike an incredibly powerful yet sophisticated blow against an apparently benevolent structure in an apparently democratic, free, and equal society. And finally, to call Salander a feminist hero, is, I think, to trivialise her, to make her into a charicature of herself. If we must have hero in this story (though to be honest I think the very concept of “heroism” has a problematic gendered history and meaning, and shouldn’t be thrown about so carelessly), it’s the author, though unfortunately he is no longer around to carry on the debate his books *should have* ignited.

    Åsa

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