The perverse magic of Stieg Larsson

How did the Swedish writer get away with turning sickening abuse into mass entertainment?
Lucy Smith | Jun 8 2010 | comment  

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth SalabderSeeking refuge from Sydney’s torrential rain last week, I decided sit out the storm in the local cinema. I consulted my usual film advisers, Roger Ebert and David Stratton, whose lavish praise for the award-winning Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo caught my attention. Based of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy, this film was released in stages worldwide over the past year, and in Australia in March of this year. It has received almost unanimous critical acclaim and rave reviews, with Rotten Tomatoes rating its popularity at 85 per cent. Persuaded by such abundant praise, I gave it a go. I really wish I hadn’t.

Before watching this film I thought most people would agree that acts such as rape, child abuse, extreme violence, sexual abuse, bestiality, torture, murder, suicide and sadomasochism are, at the very least, not good, and that they are definitely not entertaining. But now I am not so sure. Looking at the revenue brought in by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoothe book has sold over 20 million copies in 41 countries and the film, so far, has made US$93 million worldwide, – it seems that people actually are fascinated by depictions of depraved behaviour. This seems highly paradoxical in the light of the mass outrage expressed by decent people when real actions of this sort are reported in the daily media. What could be the explanation for such hypocrisy? How can such things be the content of mass entertainment?

Stieg Larsson (1954 – 2004) was a vehemently left-wing Swedish journalist whose fiction explored the abuse of the weak by the strong. His main focus was on the abuse of women by men, which was more clearly captured in the original Swedish title for the first novel in the trilogy, Men Who Hate Women.

For those unacquainted with it, the story goes like this. A young girl disappears from an isolated island off the Swedish mainland. Forty years later her uncle Henrik Vanger, the ageing head of the large and prosperous Vanger family, seeks to finally solve the mystery of her disappearance. To that end, he hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist to investigate. Parallel to this is the story of Lisbeth Salander, a highly intelligent young woman who works as a private investigator and is one of the world’s most skilled computer hackers. The two stories coincide when Blomkvist hires Salander to help with his investigation into Harriet’s disappearance, in the capacity of research assistant.

Blomkvist is a crusading journalist, driven to expose the truth. His charismatic boyishness, combined with his rugged good-looks, makes him irresistible to all women and enables him to be more promiscuous than one would imagine possible for a single human being over a lifetime (this is, however, more evident in the book than the film). Blomkvist seems more like a teenage boy than a middle-aged man, eschewing responsibility, eating junk food, sleeping in until midday, and sleeping with every female who walks his way.

It is Lisbeth Salander, however, who proves to be the much more interesting character, especially when viewed in the light of contemporary popular culture. The 24-year-old woman is short and slight, dresses like a young boy, is covered in piercings and tattoos and occasionally sports outrageous punk makeup. You would not be too far off the mark if you were to call her an emo, that is, a troubled and angst-ridden young person who subscribes to the nihilistic and depressive emo subculture of self-harm and suicide fantasies. (The popularity of the emo subculture peaked around the early to mid 2000s, and is now generally considered to be passé by young people.)

Salander is a highly intelligent young woman with a photographic memory, who suffers from Asperger syndrome and has the violent, emotionally-stunted and asocial tendencies characteristic of today’s damaged young woman. She has been severely abused by her guardian who, in one nauseating and drawn-out scene (in both the book and the film), tortures her and abuses her physically and sexually. What may come as a surprise to those not familiar with either medium is that Salander is considered by other characters in the book to be highly sexually desirable. And, what is most interesting, that she is sexy not despite her damaged and emotionally challenged nature, but precisely because of it.

Any observer of contemporary popular culture will recognise this type of character as ubiquitous in printed fiction, films and television. These characters are emotionally, sexually and often physically damaged. This damage is often a result of their childhood – in which they may have been sexually abused – of destructive relationships, and extreme sexual promiscuity. The Salanders of today are typically terrified by the prospect of commitment and a family, are emotionally stunted, dysfunctional and often even mentally ill.

In a bizarre twist, the men who are attracted to these characters are the ones who seek commitment, children and an emotional connection traditionally characteristic of women. As badly as the women behave, and as damaged as they become, this seems to only increase their desirability, not as one would imagine in the eyes of similarly damaged men, but by men generally considered to be ideal: tall, dark, handsome, successful and mentally healthy. Despite not exactly fitting this mould, in that he in no way seeks commitment or a family, Blomkvist is true to form in falling for the anorexic, boy-like, disturbed Salander, a woman half his age, and starting a sexual relationship with her.

Blomkvist and Salander’s investigation soon reveals some very disturbing skeletons in the Vanger family’s closet. These skeletons range from sadomasochistic neo-Nazi members, incest and child abuse, both physical and sexual, to bestiality, torture and mass murder. These disturbing themes are one thing, but what is entirely more disturbing is the imaginative and graphic detail they are given in the book and film. Both versions not only depict extreme violence, but revel in it and ultimately glorify it.

Larsson does not leave a single detail out of the torture and murder scenes, each one outdoing the previous in the nauseating imaginativeness of the sadist’s techniques. And the film is true to the book. There is one scene in which we see extremely graphic photos of victims kept by their killer -- not just a couple of them but a whole wall of photos of abused, mutilated and clearly sexually violated women. Surely the point could just as easily have been made with one or two examples; why the decision to draw out the scene so unnecessarily?

Both film and book left me with the feeling that, instead of having watched and read a crime thriller, I had been witness to the bizarre and disturbed fantasy life of a middle-aged man. Blomkvist is unquestionably Larsson’s idealized alter-ego, a roguish and handsome crusader for the truth and a defender of the weak. And this is exactly where the idealization occurs, where Blomkvist and Larsson part ways.

Larsson, in fact, is no crusader but a hypocrite who, while ostensibly condemning sexual violence and sexism, engages in their glorification in order to sell books. He spent his leisure time imagining more and more disturbing ways of torturing and killing people, because – by his own account – it was relaxing.

What kind of dishonest society do we live in, where in the mornings over our newspaper and coffee we express unqualified outrage at sexual violence, while in the evenings we spend our leisure time being entertained by it?

Further reference: IMDb Parental Guide.

Lucy Smith is a book reviewer for Portico Books and Fine Stationery.

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