It was the summer of 1969 and 15-year-old Stieg Larsson went camping with his three friends during a hot summer in Sweden. An innocent holiday soon turned harrowing, however, when he witnessed these boys gang-raping a young girl. Immature, naïve and conflicted by his loyalty to them, Larsson froze and did not intervene in the crime.
The girl’s name was Lisbeth.
Partly out of the memories that haunted him following this traumatic adolescent trip and partly out of the institutionalized sexism that he later saw around him in Scandinavian society, Larsson created his novel Men Who Hate Women.
At the centre of the book is Lisbeth Salander, a fiercely independent heroine defined by her pierced eyebrows, tattoos and jet-black hair. She’s someone who has witnessed first-hand the way that women are treated by men in her country and consequently fights back whenever she now sees such injustice. When forced to perform a sexual act on her accountant, for example, Lisbeth submits him to a gruesome revenge by tattooing his chest with ‘I am a rapist pig’ and much of Larsson’s narrative sees the girl hunting down a serial killer who under some misguided religious belief thinks that women are not allowed the same liberties as men.
David Fincher’s adaptation of this story, with the edited western title The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, perfectly captures many elements of this novel. He’s a director who ‘gets’ how the story should look and feel, painting his film with bleak imagery, gritty violence and sinister undercurrents that bring the gothic allure of the story to life. But where the Oscar nominated director has failed according to critics is in the characterization of their iconic protagonist.
They take a noble stab at assembling a heroine who refuses to be considered a less significant being – all the aforementioned scenes are present here and actress Rooney Mara dominates them in a ferocious style that is uncommon in Hollywood cinema – yet some are arguing their efforts aren’t as valiant as they would probably like to believe.
The biggest fault with Lisbeth is that they cannot resist portraying her as a sex object. When she’s not sporting short tight clothing she’s strutting around in expensive lingerie. And they never miss a chance to shoot her wearing nothing at all either.
Portraying her in this sexy fashion that inspires the audience’s lust is far from how fans of Steig Larsson envisioned from a big screen adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It encourage the same objectification that the character is fighting against. She is not a character who craves the attention of the opposite sex.
The notion that Lisbeth needs to ‘saved’ by a man even creeps into the relationship between her and Daniel Craig’s journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Though the source material and the inferior Swedish film that was released in 2009 both portray these characters as equals – neither ‘wear the pants’ if you will – Fincher’s adaptation sees our heroine become tamed by this wise, older gentleman. As demonstrated in the film’s sex scene in which Craig flips Mara over and takes control, the iconic protagonist not only falls in love, but also gives herself over to Blomkvist in a way that sees her lose her solitary strength, her urgency and her fire.
Many have criticised how the relationship is ‘dumbed down’, making Dragon Tattoo another infantile Hollywood love story about two people looking for an escape who find it in the most unlikely place. And Fincher’s uncharacteristic fear of tackling a complex relationship in which both parties are equal means Lisbeth becomes just another tough-talking romantic interest who is, in fact, soft in the centre. You might even call her a damsel in distress.
In one bizarre change from the source material that sums up the entire misrepresentation of this protagonist, Lisbeth Salander asks Blomkvist’s permission towards the climax of the film to go and kill a man she believes needs to die. It seems like a trivial alteration, but its contrast from Larsson’s novel in which she simply acts on her own instincts speaks volumes about the film’s inability to create the independently minded female heroine it wants. Larsson’s Salander would never ask permission for anything from anyone.
It’s unlikely that such a thing was the intention of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Moment like the ones in which Lisbeth saves Mikael Blomkvist’s life by attacking his captor in the film’s finale with a crowbar display the empowering edge that he was clearly aiming for and the subtext of Larsson’s story remains intact somewhat. So why was the film unable to succeed in being a convention-busting feminist blockbuster?
It’s less of a Fincher problem and more of a Hollywood problem. Hollywood is a male driven business. Look at the box office results for a great female action film like Hanna compared to something like Sucker Punch where the girls are dressed in short skirts.
The objectification of women and the idea that they are a ‘lesser’ species is firmly embedded in Hollywood’s culture. Just this year they have been portrayed as the repressive villains of sexually active men in the Farrally Brothers’ comedy Hall Pass while the aforementioned Sucker Punch aligned them to the fantasies of its young male audience.
It’s common practice in Hollywood — and even The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo could not escape it.