Lisbeth Salander has taken the world by storm. After premiering on Swedish screens in February of 2009, the slight heroine can be found on DVD shelves stateside with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and in select theaters with the release of the follow-up film, The Girl Who Played with Fire; plus she'll be soon seen in an upcoming English-language remake of Dragon Tattoo. Many call Salander a strong and rare action heroine who takes matters into her own hands. Those on the other side of the fence discuss Salander's opinions of her own body, and equate the story's frank discussions and glimpses into violence against women as misogynistic.
I find Salander to be a strong, capable, and engaging female heroine. She might make some questionable body readjustments, but they are in line with her character. To link that to a desire to draw more attention to her body is ridiculous. And, there might be much violence towards women in the story, but that's what the story is about -- the many ways women deal with violence and injustice, how horrific it is, and how often it goes unsolved and even unnoticed. Tattoo was originally titled Men Who Hate Women, and the book is completely riddled with statistics and the ways this hate manifests.
But there is a problem with Ms. Salander that doesn't seem to get much play. Her voice and humanity are completely and utterly stifled in the cinematic adaptation, reducing a dynamic character into a lips-zipped arse kicker.
In the book and film, Salander is a woman of few words -- a natural result of her experiences and autism. But the film stretches this silence beyond the usual extremities cinema lusts after. Why give her shoulder a fist-sized dragon tattoo when it can cover her body? Big, big, big! The big screen wants everything to be large and dramatic. It goes without saying that aspects of any book will be adapted into something more explosive. But there's a difference between increasing a tattoo's size and reducing a character's self.
It speaks a lot of Lisbeth that even in as a whittled-down cinematic character, she can evoke such love and praise. In the slight shadow of Salander, the masses seem to forget that there's a long line of slight and unexpected female heroines, from Linda Hamilton and T2, to Hit Girl in Kick-Ass or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If there's one tough heroine we always get -- it's the small-but-feared female fighter. But Salander has made the idea seem new, and as Jenni recently pointed out, some are digging the "newly empowered petites."
In the film, Salander is abrasive but endlessly engaging. Though she says little, in Noomi Rapace's hands, her expressions speak the world, and while we might not completely understand her, we want to. In the book, however, Ms. Salander is a much more impressively flushed out character you can understand and root for -- she's not just a cold, seemingly emotion-free fighter. She is a well-rounded, smart, and struggling young woman, who has had it "imprinted on her consciousness that every action has its consequences."
Some of the changes are understandable. Since Lisbeth is wary of the outside world, much of her character development and self are revealed through inner thoughts. This is no better exemplified than in her decision to turn the tables on her new lecherous caretaker, Nils Bjurman. She doesn't just take his sexual assault as a reason to enact her own vicious, tattooed revenge. Lisbeth carefully researches and plots. She thinks about going to the police, and what it would mean for a girl in her position. She remembers her own run-ins with the law, and imagines their reaction to Bjurman's actions. Lisbeth wants to ask for someone's advice, but has no one to turn to. After much contemplation, she takes the daring course of action outlined in the book and film. Lisbeth is not a hot-headed revenger. She's methodical, making the best judgment and decision for her position.
Thoughts are harder to relay cinematically, but conversation is not. In the film, Salander is practically monosyllabic, rarely if ever speaking a word that is not related to the case, choosing to answer everything in terse, short sentences. In the book, she's also brief, but Larsson also allows her some personality and non-work dialogue, whether she discusses "Salander's Principles," or simply has a normal conversation with the non-threatening people she comes across. Through even the minimal (by the book, not the film's terms) interactions she has, you can get a sense of Lisbeth -- how she's hardened, but still human, and how she still feels compassion.
Director Niels Arden Oplev and the screenwriters, however, seem mesmerized by her silence and loneliness, rather than the action and emotion, and Salander loses out because of it. In the film, she's so isolated that her growing relationship with Blomkvist is stunted, and her family is used as a wrap-up plot device, rather than a continuing example of her heart. Lisbeth's jokes are removed, as well as her superfluous dialogue. That might help the pacing of the film, but it doesn't help such a beloved character.
But perhaps the most damning change is how she meets Blomkvist on screen, which goes against the distinctly plotted friendship in the novel. On the page, he cheerfully walks in to her flat, disarming her with his demeanor and invoking her to lose her cool: "Stop! Stop at once! Damn it all, you can't come barging in here as if you owned the place. We don't even know each other." With warmth, he convinces her to take a shower, and in her words, she "passively" obeyed. It's not that she was following orders from a man, but that for the first time, a person had made her act without her shield. She was shown kindness and it made her passive and almost comfortable. By the time they have a conversation, she's even able to take and give a compliment: "'You have beautiful eyes,' he said. 'You have nice eyes yourself,'" she replied. At once, it's immediately obvious that her reactions are a result of how others have reacted towards her. Such a simple blip of in-your-face, genuine kindness makes her react similarly ... as much as she can.
In the film, however, he's another man who comes at her with threats. The door is barricaded, he cannot come in, and he threatens her with his knowledge of her activities. She is forced to let him in and deal with him through danger, just like the many other men in her life. When they talk, she says almost nothing, often being content to say nothing more than "and."
On screen, Lisbeth loses the extra dimension that makes her more than a body for revenge. In a way, her strength is what is sexualized and objectified, rather than her body. On screen, she's lethal. When the mystery wraps up in the film, the powers behind the camera allow her to play god, in a sense. They make her more dangerous and threatening and unfortunately, treat her as much of the people in the trilogy's world see her: as this almost inhuman shell who is hard to communicate with and dangerous to cross.
While it's partially true, it's not the only truth to Salander, which is the magic of Larsson's source. She's hard, and troubled, and makes some informed decisions and some really bad decisions. But she's also a person with a heart who's struggling to survive. Watching the film and then reading the book, it makes me hopeful -- for once -- about a U.S. adaptation. If they recognize the disconnect between these two Salanders, and find a way to incorporate her voice and humanity, the film has the chance to give moviegoers an even more iconic female heroine who truly challenges what the world thinks of women on the screen.
Note: I watched the film and then read the book. I really enjoyed the film, and if not for the questionable adaptation of Salander's character, would have little, if anything, to say against it. It's a solid, and very worthy of your time, thriller.