Men who hate women

Warning: contains spoilers.

I’m late to the Stieg Larsson party. Having now arrived, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to call it a party, because that poses the question of what kind of party it is, at which point I think it might be prudent to change metaphors. Nevertheless, I came to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when the initial hype had well and truly died down. If anyone has been talking about the story recently, it’s been gossip-column whispers about Rooney Mara’s lip piercing and buzzcut.

Mara plays the Hollywood interpretation of Lisbeth Salander, the troubled titular tech-whiz who falls in with journalist Mikael Blomkvist on his search for Harriet Vanger, the teenage niece of a wealthy industrialist, who disappeared 40 years earlier. I’m not usually an advocate of seeing the film before reading the book (less out of some pseudo-moral objection than sheer stubbornness) but in this case I picked up the DVD of David Fincher’s adaptation one dreary Friday night without having read a word. But the film piqued my interest.

Even if you didn’t know that the author had been on the far Left, was an anti-fascist activist living with regular death threats, and that he had witnessed the gang rape of a female friend at the age of 15, it’s hard to ignore the novel’s political leanings. Nevertheless, despite all the sex, violence, and even the book’s Swedish title – Men Who Hate Women – this isn’t a novel solely about misogyny. It’s also a novel about the corruption of those systems we are repeatedly told to trust: social services that oppress rather than empower; a police force that is at best ineffectual and at worst abusive; capitalism. In many ways, the violence in the novel is inextricable from corporations, unjust institutions and from the machinations of money-driven authority.

This is not new. Thrillers often involve a critique of the rich and the powerful and – without trivialising the act itself – rape often functions in such narratives as signifier of corruption. Larsson’s book is distinctive, though, precisely because of the way he treats those issues. The characters who rape and murder are not excused by their situations. Without exception, they are shown to be in control and deliberate in their choices at every turn. But neither are their choices without context. Here, the book seems to say, fascism is not just about Nazism. Fascism lives on in familial abuse, in domineering corporations, in castigating and corrupt social services, and in individual and state-sanctioned misogyny.

The first thing that struck me upon reading the novel, however, was just how much of that critique the film had flattened in order to get the story down to 2.5 hours. This isn’t unusual – Hollywood has a reputation for destroying books in order to put them on screen. But what I found really interesting – and maddening – was that not only did the shift from text to film change the politics of the story, but it did so primarily at the expense of women.

Take Lisbeth, for example. She is withdrawn, sullen, wears leather, tatty T-shirts and rides a motorcycle. She doesn’t venture information about herself. She is a 24-year-old ward of the state, and despite her intelligence and aptitude has no legal control over her own life. It’s clear in the text of the novel that the restrictions placed on her are not because she is stupid but because her steadfast refusal to participate in psychiatric assessments and to cooperate with authority – people who she has never had any reason to trust – has resulted in punitive responses from the same.

The filmic justification for her behaviour is rather muddy. We understand that Lisbeth is super-smart but there’s no reason to think particularly deeply about her past – in no small part because we are told almost nothing about it. It is not in the nature of her character to be forthcoming, so she provides no substantive explanations of her motivations, does not discuss her past, and sees no need to justify her present choices to others. She remains at arm’s length from the viewer as well as from most of the other characters. Text makes internal dialogue incredibly easy to communicate, so this alienation, more than anything, seems to be the fault of film itself

Reviewers of the book (annoyingly, in my opinion) found Lisbeth’s sexuality difficult to accept. Still, it’s there – her approach to relationships is mapped out for the reader from the word go. But when left to deduce from merely what is shown on screen, the audience has no choice but to fall back on generalisations and assumptions that inevitably privilege the status quo. Thus, what is quite clearly ambisexuality on the page translates to lesbianism on screen, which is then undercut – compromised, discarded – in favour of a sexual relationship with the male protagonist.

A similar shift happens in the portrayal of Millenium editor Erika Berger’s polyamory. Her husband is aware of and perfectly happy with her ongoing relationship with Blomkvist, their marriage is a happy one, and these facts are presented in the most straightforward terms in the book. In the film, however, the viewer is presented with what we assume is brazen philandering and a cuckold who is none the wiser.

The other part that irks is the depiction of violence itself. There’s no denying that there’s a lot of it – brutal sexual violence in particular – in the book. The prose is perfunctory and in some cases just plain bad, nevertheless, the tone in which the action is delivered is dry and journalistic. This is not just a function of the translation, or, I think, the not-so-great writing. Shopping-list descriptions frame mechanical action sequences and the tension that is built comes from the unfolding of the story, not the language used. The seduction scenes are cringe-worthy and awkward (and the characters seem to be forever walking around the house wrapped in sheets or blankets) but they serve as an important counterweight to the assaults and abuse. All of this takes on a different sheen in celluloid. It doesn’t help that Fincher’s production is as slick as they come, but there’s a relish about the violence on screen that is in stark contrast with the tone of the book, for all the reasons as listed above.

The shift from novel to film doesn’t have to be reductive – at least in principle. In the adaptation of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, for example, the film allowed for crucial but very subtle elements to be teased out of the text and brought into the forefront of the viewer’s consciousness. This was done in such a way that it facilitated a better understanding of the narrative. In a rare feat, instead of gutting the story, the filmmakers actually managed to enrich the original text. But when it comes to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I think it’s less a matter of the screenwriters taking liberty with the narrative than it is of the medium actually changing the message.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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