After months of anticipation, the David Fincher/Sony/Hollywood/Rooney Mara & Daniel Craig version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is upon us. I watched it at a very late night showing on opening night, and I intend to see it again before delivering a full-on commentary. My overall impression was that it was a very good film, certainly worth seeing, experiencing, and discussing.
I admit to a bias of believing Noomi Rapace (who played Lisbeth Salander in the three already extant Scandinavian films based on Stieg Larsson’s three books), was the Platonic ideal of Lisbeth. There were a lot of problems with the Swedish films, but Noomi hit the perfect pitch in how she played Lisbeth. Having now watched Rooney Mara in the same role, I can say Rooney did an excellent job—very different from Noomi, but excellent.
However, I think Fincher and his team made a couple of serious, even unforgiveable stumbles, in the characterization of Lisbeth and in the overall cosmology of the film. The key moment for me came in the final, climatic act, when Lisbeth had just beaten back Martin Vanger by whacking him with a golf club, thereby saving Mikael Blomkvist’s tenuous life. “May I kill him?” I recall Lisbeth asking Mikael, referring to Martin.
Not! Lisbeth would never ask for permission for anything, let alone permission to respond to an attacker. The soul of this character is that Lisbeth lives by her own code. She never asks for permission. She does what she believes needs to be done in the moment.
Moreover, despite the reader/moviegoer/much of the world of pop culture believing that Lisbeth kills at will, the fact is that, through three books and almost 1500 pages of plot, she has never killed anyone. Yes, she doles out exceedingly painful and violent punishments to abusive men; yes she extracts her own particular combination of justice and revenge from her enemies and from others who do wrong to women and to people she cares about. The three novels are littered with the corpses of men who have had Lisbeth-style justice meted out to them. But in just about every case, Lisbeth has taken only the steps that set up their death. She never pulls the trigger.
In American legal parlance, Lisbeth could probably be convicted many times over of being an accomplice to murder or manslaughter, but she is never the murderer. Martin Vanger is a case in point. After Lisbeth and Mikael hear Martin driving out of the garage (both in the Fincher film and in the book), Lisbeth takes Martin’s gun and gives chase on her motorcycle. Yet Martin’s death does not come as a result of a bullet fired by Lisbeth. He dies as a result of crashing into an oncoming truck. No doubt his bad driving is partially a result of the panic induced by Lisbeth’s motorcycle bearing down on him, and no doubt he is in extreme pain owing to the golf club attack by Lisbeth. He probably has a certain death wish anyway, knowing he has been found out and will be exposed by Lisbeth and Mikael. But in neither the book nor the movie does Lisbeth actually kill Martin.
In our book, The Tattooed Girl, I have written about each incident where it seems that Lisbeth is killing someone. But the literal story sends a different message. Each such scene is very carefully set up by Stieg Larsson to leave the actual act of murder by Lisbeth out of the debate over her own self-generated moral and philosophical code. (See my essay on P. 297 of The Tattooed Girl: “Lisbeth’s Moral Compass Doesn’t Point to Murder.”)
But to return to the main point: Lisbeth would never ask permission. She would, in particular, not seek a man’s approval over such an important question. (In the book, she threatens to take Mikael back to Martin’s torture chamber if he keeps talking about going to the police, which she does not want to do.) She knows exactly how she wants to handle the situation and she is not seeking anyone’s approval. On top of that, she would almost certainly never commit premeditated murder herself or state her intent to do so—even or perhaps especially not in the Jeopardy-esque form of a question.
By the way, in the Fincher film, the dragon tattoo on Rooney Mara’s back that gives the film its title is all wrong. More on that soon.
–Dan Burstein, co-author, co-editor, The Tattooed Girl