Sexual Violence in "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo"

JULY 22, 2010 4:46PM

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I recently finished reading Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular trilogy starting with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I thoroughly enjoyed all three books. Although they share characters and are installments of the same story, each is quite different. The first is a complex weave of multiple story lines, some of which resolve and others which hang, to be picked up later. The second is mostly headlong action. The third begins a little slowly with a confusing exposition of secret agencies within secret agencies, but then picks up. Major divergent storylines resolve into as satisfying a conclusion as we can expect from a series that would have had enough steam to go on for at least ten books if the author hadn’t died before publishing them.



It’s said that you can make great movies from mediocre books (The Godfather) and ruin great books with mediocre movies (too many examples to cite). This movie is unique: a great book transformed into an even better movie. Now two warnings:






I saw Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev’s movie on NetFlix instant, so I missed the full impact of his skilled depiction of Sweden in winter. That’s too bad because it might have cooled me a little in the brutal heat wave we’ve been suffering here in the Northeast.

In another sense I’m glad to have seen it low-res on a laptop screen, because that shielded me from the full impact of a number of violent scenes, particularly those involving sexual abuse.

The Swedish title of the movie is “Men Who Hate Women.” And do they ever. What was disturbing to my jaded sensibilities was not the graphic nature of the mayhem –I saw no genitalia, though maybe I missed them, because I found my eyes sliding away from the action. These scenes are the opposite of Hollywood mayhem, in which people are burned and shot and blown to bits, all so unreal that we never think to stop enjoying our popcorn. What they’re missing is feeling.

As I watched the scenes in this Swedish film –and heard them, because the sounds are actually worse than the visuals –my stomach turned as I felt feelings of terror and rage leap from the screen into me. Thankfully a third feeling –sick lust – stayed on the screen.


The victim of this –Rape?  Violation? Atrocity? No word seems strong enough –is Lisbeth Salander. She gives as good as she gets, and as she exacts her revenge I felt something I’ve dreamt of, but never felt before – the sadistic pleasure in revenge. Part of me wanted to join her.

Noomi Rapace nails the Salander of the book. She’s diminutive to the point of being child-like, a goth with extreme aspergers and a photographic memory, a master hacker, and, yes, covered in lurid tattoos. She’s fierce, scary - and surprisingly sympathetic. Which is the hook of the whole series. Hollywood is working on their version of this movie. I’m sure they’ll tone down the violence. I also doubt they’ll quite get Salander right. That’s because she doesn’t fit any comfortable American stereotype of a victim.


Lisbeth Salander is like her name –no elegant Elizabeth, or friendly Beth, (like our dear Mann) let alone Bethy. No, the sibilance of her first and last names hints at the ophidian.  She’s one cold blooded creature, at least when it comes to love. Which ruins Lisbeth for our favorite American protagonist role: the victim of horrors who goes on to therapy, if not on Oprah, who finds a partner who truly loves her, and thus attains the coveted Closure, who moves on, who learns to love again. The Salander in the movie is too damaged for that. Strangely, given what she’s suffered, she can do sex. But she can’t do love and will never be capable of it.

Strangely, that does not make the movie a downer. Because what she has done is make a life for herself. And if she can’t do love, perhaps she can do more than get laid. Perhaps she can learn to be a friend to Mickael, which is less than what he wants, but more than the disconnected sex they have.

I should mention that here is a crucial difference between the book and movie. In the book Salander is willing to give love a shot, then flees in anger and despair when she finds her lover Mickael in the arms of another.  In the movie he’s willing to try, but she refuses, leaving him with a hard kiss.


The movie includes another love story involving a long lost relative. It achieves its Hollywood ending.  I found this surprisingly moving, I think because it comes in such contrast to the sad ending of the love story of Lisbeth and Mickael. What it somehow adds up to is emotional truth - most fairytales don’t come true: mostly we find a way to get by, and that’s enough. But every once in a while one does, which makes it all the sweeter.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that those early violent scenes were necessary to set up the happy ending by raising the emotional stakes.


What I think has made Stieg Larsson’s series the rage is that it’s a new breed: the thriller with teeth that we can feel. We are used to two extremes. Heartless thrillers whose mayhem we can enjoy from a safe remove, sure they’ll never evoke dark things in us. Or brutally honest memoirs – like Angela’s Ashes, or Jesusland –which deeply upset us, yet don’t leave any positive residue.

What Larrson tries for is the same thing real artists have since Shakespeare if not the Greeks –a riveting entertainment that also touches our hearts, and not merely to upset us. Artists work their alchemy on violent and tragic events by creating something that has the power to reach inside of us, transform the residue of our own tragedies, and bring a little healing.







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Thank you for your understanding of the power of art to transform difficult human situations and feelings. Suffering, as the Buddha said, is inevitable in the human realm. Thank goodness we also have the power to see and understand our situation. I read the book but will not see the movie because I know the images will be too much for me. I admired Lisbeth's power and persistence. And I admire your courage and understanding in posting about this difficult subject
(I'm late too). 
I know of the series through my daughter and the newspaper. It sounds intriguing. The sex and violence combination is hard for me is tough to consume. I place my hands over my eyes as I do for most horror.

Eventually I may watch the movie. Thanks for the warning.
"a riveting entertainment that also touches our hearts, and not merely to upset us." - I think this is absolutely right. 

This is also the first time I'm getting word that Hollywood is trying to do their own version... I won't want to watch it. I saw "Man som hatar kvinnor" last week with a friend whom I've gotten hooked on Stieg Larsson. I was really impressed with Rapace's performance of Salander. I believed she was her. I was also really impressed with the filming.

Great books and great films are not always easy to get through but that shouldn't stop a person from knowing a great story. 

I did enjoy the fact that with the book, I could pause when I needed to catch my breath. I'm glad I went to go see it in the theater but I longed for an old school intermission.

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