To find Lisbeth Salander administering her special form of justice to her enemies in the pages of Stieg Larsson's best-selling trilogy or to see her incarnated onscreen by Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, which just opened in U.S. theaters is to acknowledge the eminence the character has so quickly achieved. Salander is the new Hannibal Lecter of crime literature.
Granted, Salander is essentially a heroine, and Lecter a supervillain. She doesn't chop up and devour her enemies; she only mutilates them, while using her computer virtuosity to burglarize and expose their dark secrets. But Salander, like Hannibal the Cannibal, is a haunted and haunting genius, a cool freak with the gift of reading men's minds and a steely contempt for anyone in authority. Salander and Lecter both survived traumatic childhoods and resolved to take revenge on much of mankind. Also, one way or another, they're both hackers.
One more thing: both individuals began as supporting characters in their authors' works. In Thomas Harris' Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter was an imprisoned helper and taunter of the books' FBI heroes; only in the sequel, Hannibal, and the prequel, Hannibal Rising, was he promoted to protagonist status. (Anthony Hopkins, Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs film, was really acting in a supporting role, yet he won the Best Actor Oscar because his silky-slimy menace dominated the drama.) Salander filled roughly the same advisory function, though more as a goth guardian angel for idealistic publisher and amateur sleuth Mikael Blomkvist, in the first of the Millennium novels. But she wasn't the title character; the original title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translates as Men Who Hate Women. (The third book, known in the U.S. as The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, was originally The Exploding Air Castle.)
But however tangential Lecter and Salander might have been to their authors' initial intent, it's clear that Harris and Larsson became beguiled, perhaps obsessed, by their own creations. Through sheer creepy charisma, the two characters pushed themselves to the front of their authors' interests then into the minds of an immense readership and movie audience.
Published in 2005, 2006 and 2007, the Millennium trilogy was made into a Swedish miniseries that was soon released around the world, in shorter versions, as three separate features. Dragon Tattoo is the rare non-English-language European film to have earned more than $100 million at the worldwide box office. (It also appears, as does The Silence of the Lambs, on crime novelist Gerald Carcaterra's recent list of the 10 best movies made from thrillers.) Tattoo has made nearly $10 million since its March release in the U.S., where it is the top foreign-language grosser since the 2007 film La Vie en Rose. That film won Marion Cotillard an Academy Award for Best Actress; Rapace is likely to get nominated come Oscar time.
Part of that attention comes from Salander's eccentric accessories: the black lipstick, the ring-pierced nose, the dragon tattoo covering most of her back. Another part is from Rapace's look; with her high-contrast hair and features and the sinewy body Rapace trained for months to achieve, she might be Kristen Stewart's half sister sired by Jackie Earle Haley. (In fact, Rapace's father is a Spanish flamenco singer, and her mother the actress Nina Noren, who plays Salander's mother Agneta in the first movie.) But Rapace earns most of her acclaim with the furious intelligence she invests in Salander. As she hunches over a Mac and elicits dreadful deeds from secret files, the electric heat of her concentration is almost visible. Both IT machine and feral animal she doesn't walk, she prowls Salander is also, in Rapace's performance, fully vulnerable and totally human. And no, she won't be in the Hollywood remake, to be directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig as ...
We almost forgot: Mikael Blomkvist is supposed to be the central character in this saga. The publisher of a left-wing, muckraking magazine called Millennium, he was hired in Dragon Tattoo to locate a rich man's daughter, missing for decades. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, he searches for the killer of two journalists who had just given him a big scoop on government corruption. As played by Michael Nyqvist, Blomqvist is a colorless crusader whom Larsson must have based on himself. Editor of Expo magazine, which ran exposés of racist and ultra-right groups, the writer died suddenly of a heart attack at 50 in 2004, before any of the books reached print. A solid, stolid type, Blomqvist carries the films' convoluted narratives while Salander helps him, often from a distance, as long as it advances her agenda. And that is to right the wrongs done her by men who hate women.
For Salander was bred in men's serial abuse: as a child by her father, as a 13-year-old ward of the state by her psychiatrist, as a young woman by her parole officer. (The films are the stories of her revenge: in the first film by tattooing an incriminating message on the belly of one of her beasts; in the second by tracking down the most intimate of her torturers.) Step by step, Larsson pins the blame on Sweden's entire patriarchal-governmental complex. He also indicts evil empires the Nazis, the Cold War Soviets whose statute of limitations you might think would have run out by now. And here, as in virtually every espionage novel or movie, the actual killers are merely doing the bidding of a higher, darker power. The only surprise ending in one of these conspiracy tales would be if the ultimate villain were some proletarian thug.
As artful additions to the hallowed crime-movie genre, the Larsson movies are just so-so at heart, they're old-fashioned private-eye procedurals, more indebted to Blomqvist's solid, stolid temperament than to Salander's bouts of anger and inspiration. Remember, these were made as TV movies; they have the unambitious efficiency of a Law & Order episode. Some critics have accused the films' directors (Niels Arden Oplev for Dragon Tattoo; Daniel Alfredson for the second and third installments) of hyping the violence quotient; but those reviewers can't have seen British crime miniseries like Prime Suspect, Touching Evil, Sex Traffic and Red Riding, which can be both brutal and brilliant. The Girl Who Played with Fire doesn't quite deserve either of those adjectives.
No part of the picture measures up to the book's chilling prologue: a three-page portrait of a child's desperation. Nor does the film satisfactorily explain how one of the characters survives a premature burial. But it does have some lovely touches as when the tough tattooed lady, who is out of Blomqvist's sight for most of the movie, sends him a one-sentence e-mail quoting a corny old song: "Thank you for being my friend." And in Rapace, it has an actress who brings a memorable literary character to indelible movie life, as Vivien Leigh did for Scarlett O'Hara. Rapace is the reason to look forward to the Oct. 15 release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. We count on her to make that kick a high one.