Sunday, January 08, 2012

There's Something about Salander...

The world can't seem to get enough of Lisbeth Salander, the main character of Stieg Larsson's
books (The Millenium Trilogy; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), whose adventures have resulted in international bestsellers, three Swedish films, and one new American remake (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or 'Men who Hate Women', as the book is titled in Sweden). Salander is one of the most interesting literary and film heroines to appear on the landscape in years, a goth hacker and Ward-of-the-State turned vigilante.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I will be careful not to reveal all its secrets - they are worth unraveling on your own. The first book/film tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist trapped at the epicenter of media scandal, accused of libel. He finds an unlikely ally in cyber hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth, who believes he has been set up. The duo team together to solve the mystery of a tycoon's missing niece, believed to have been murdered 40 years prior by a member of her family.

Author Stieg Larsson met an untimely death at the age of 50 of a heart attack, himself having been an investigative journalist like character Blomkvist. The books were written as a hobby and were published posthumously to massive acclaim (Larsson was in the middle of the 4th book when he passed, and had supposedly outlined 10 books total for the series, forever leaving audiences curious about Lisbeth Salander's future). Larsson witnessed the brutal gang rape of a young girl he felt powerless to stop, which haunted him for years and supposedly served as the basis for his creation of Salander, a youth who falls through the cracks of a broken system and suffers a lifetime of abuse at the hands of family, guardians, and doctors. Lisbeth Salander doesn't see herself as a victim, she chooses to fight back, and exacts revenge on those who have harmed her (or seek to harm others).

There are countless reasons audiences are so drawn to the mysterious female protagonist of the books and films; Lisbeth is altogether different. Unorthodox and unapologetic, Salander is in a class all her own. On the exterior, she is anything but conservative - her gothic design seems to be a reflection of a life of hardship - her dark clothing, piercings, and tattoos intimidate while offering an inner glimpse at Salander's physical and emotional pain and societal disdain. Described as "boyish", about 4'9", with small breasts, anorexic weight, and the occasional mohawk, Salander seems to defy convention yet is accepted whole-heartedly by the mainstream, who seem to overlook her peculiarities and love her, regardless - and despite being an unlikely heroine or sex symbol, finds her place in the public's favor as both, quite the accomplishment.

Salander's piercings and tattoos are her personal wallpaper - her war paint in a seemingly neverending battle of personal and societal torment.

In fact, Lisbeth physically dons war paint in both the American remake of Dragon Tattoo (in the infamous scene with character Bjurman) and in the Swedish film The Girl Who Played With Fire, while interrogating a suspect. It is as if Salander has to visually transform to mentally detach and work up the intensity to serve up her own dish of personal justice against societal predators.

How she is written in the books versus the Swedish and American screenplays differs slightly. Having seen all versions, my personal favorites are the original Swedish film trilogy -notably the first film, all portrayed to perfection by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace in one of cinema's most electrifying performances of recent years. I wondered if any actress could live up to such a tour de force - American actress Rooney Mara breathes an altogether different energy into Salander that while unique, does not quite capture Salander as pictured in my mind (I anticipate an Oscar nomination). Sweden's Rapace brings the unpredictability, uncertainty, frightening intensity, and a social awkwardness to this complex character while Rooney's Salander is overly matter-of-fact, perhaps a bit more designed for mainstream likability (telling the occasional one liner for audience kicks) and overall, more action hero than believable troubled girl. Both portrayals are noteworthy and intriguing, but Noomi Rapace seems to understand Lisbeth and inhabit her skin to an uncanny degree - her Salander is strong and guarded yet fearful - she reminds me of a squirrel - small but incredibly muscular, ready for anything, and convinced an attack is inevitable so she must be prepared - a ticking time bomb ready to detonate. The sculpting of Rapace's body for the role makes a great deal of sense and everything right down to her dragon tattoo is far more intense than the US remake.

Part of the success of the Swedish films comes from the remarkable chemistry of actors Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Both are actors who have the rare gift of saying a lot through mere glances, words are unnecessary to peg the complex relationship between the two. The backstory of the characters is more fleshed out in the Swedish film, where we come to understand the public's fascination with Blomqvist while Salander remains enigmatic. In the American remake, Daniel Craig portrays a far less charismatic Blomqvist [than Nyqvist] and plays the journalist as an extension of his character James Bond - an overly confident man with little vulnerability - and zero chemistry with Rooney Mara, though you'd never guess that from the racy promotional materials that seem to bring far more heat to the union than anything that materializes on screen. While the American version has a longer and more graphic intimate scene between the characters, the lack of screen chemistry, misconstrued relationship, and poor onscreen representation of their connection suggests that the point has been altogether lost in translation, as evidenced by the promotional materials.

Note the American poster of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I have censored it here). I can't recall an American poster for a mainstream film bearing this much nudity - which is often more of a problem for American audiences than European ones. Lisbeth Salander is an abused young woman yet here, she is being exploited by the very person who could perhaps be the only man in he life that would never harm her. If Lisbeth were a real person, she would never have allowed such an invasion of her privacy and would have been quick to kick the photographer - I'm certain this poster would NOT meet with her approval. The poster and subsequent photo shoots are completely out of sync with Larsson's brainchild and example, which sought not merely to entertain but also to draw attention to the societal issue of violence towards women (at the hands of men) and misuse of power by those in authority positions. The promos, like much advertising, use sex to sell Lisbeth Salander to an audience - cheapening her existence and dulling the point. The sex appeal Lisbeth harbors comes largely from the fact that she doesn't try to be sexy - her attitude, brains, and talents are enough to intrigue and attract. Compared to most of her contemporaries, Salander fascinates because what is inside of her is far more interesting than what is on the outside, so to see the poster and promotional materials err in such a fundamental way is tragic - Salander is about the prevention of abuse, not the encouragement or objectification of women, which her character detests.

In general, the Blomkvist/Salander connection was flubbed in the remake and their connection lacked credibility. In the Swedish version, one tends to see more of their personalities and backstory and can understand how such a seemingly mismatched connection (on the surface) could materialize in reality. Both Blomkvist and Salander are, in their own way, outsiders, both are sharp minds and intellectually curious investigators who oppose the establishment, and both find themselves in positions of vulnerability they don't simply accept - they are both defenders and speakers of truth, who believe in justice and understand it has an inherent cost and one they are willing to pay - both would die for their convictions. In the American remake they are wooden, cold and hollow cardboard cutouts trapped in an action movie who exude far too much confidence, ultimately making the characters less interesting and mysterious; The film is essentially an action movie peppered with sex to sell the characters, while the European version kept the focus where it needed to be and humanized its leads, while still allowing them to share a secret or two. The Swedish version focused more on Salander while never revealing too much, and the film enjoyed a more heroic ending for its lead. That said, both Mara and Craig's performances had impressive moments - even if at times misguided, and the American version is still quite good in an altogether different sense, especially if you have no point of reference for the story - and is an interpretation that, while entertaining, misses several points that made the Swedish films and books great, though it has its own strengths (notably the opening credits sequence, one of the best I've seen in a long time and the perfect way to set the tone for the film). Sexuality and violence are graphic in both films, yet the Swedish scenes appear to have purpose while the American scenes feel more exploitative. The books were written, after all, to draw attention to the plight of abused women - not to encourage it. As with many things in the American remake, the script also has misguided moments (When Blomqvist first meets Lizbeth, she threatens "if you touch me, I'll more than zap you" as she hides a taser, even though Blomqvist has pointed out "I'm the guy you know better than anyone." Indeed, Lisbeth knows no harm will come to her from Blomqvist, an innocent.)

In summary, I applaud the efforts of both the European and American cinematic attempts to tell this story - which I consider to be an important one, and I am grateful for Larsson's contribution and wish he would have had more time to tell this unique story. Salander is an incredibly empowered, capable, and brilliant young woman who uses more than just fists to fight against societal corruption. She gives abused women a voice and options and I find her story heartbreaking and her journey compelling. I admire her, as much as you can any fictional character, and while I am personally glad I am not Lisbeth Salander, it gives me hope that there are women out there who can learn something from her. She doesn't simply accept circumstance or that she is "unlucky", she does what she can with what she has and uses her skills to try to find solutions to her most vexing problems (and those of society). She is also a reminder that you can't judge a book by its cover.

I am most reminded here of the jury's assumptions of her in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and how she uses her ingenuity in the most horrid of human conditions to expose the truth and prove she is more than they can ever assume.

Indeed, Lisbeth Salander is a character that both men and women can respect - and they better, she won't have it any other way.