Swedish author and journalist Steig Larsson’s day job centered on a campaign against right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis in Sweden and across Europe. At night, he wrote detective novels. Larsson died in 2004 of a heart attack and left behind the manuscripts for three novels and part of a fourth. The first book in what he called the Millennium series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was published posthumously in Swedish in 2005 and in English in 2008. The other two were published shortly thereafter, and Larsson’s novels became a sensation. When I was in an airport about a year ago, amusing myself with “book-spotting,” at least half the people I saw were reading or carrying a copy of one of Larsson’s novels.
And now The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been made into an English-language movie, set for general release in theaters on December 21.
The novel has two protagonists. The eponymous Girl is Lisbeth Salander, a pierced, tattooed 25-year-old enigma with a dark past and anti-social tendencies. The other central character is Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist who is in a bit of trouble over an exposé that he wrote and published in his magazine about billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. It seems that the piece was libelous, and Blomkvist is handed a huge fine and jail time.
The story begins and ends with Wennerström and Blomkvist, but the story within the story concerns Blomkvist’s investigation of the almost 40-year-old disappearance and possible murder of a second billionaire’s granddaughter, Harriet Vanger. Harriet’s disappearance took place in 1966, and Blomkvist investigates as a sort of break from his stalled career in financial journalism, without much hope of solving the mystery. His amateur work as a detective takes him into the tangled affairs of a highly dysfunctional family and leads to the discovery of more than just one grisly murder.
This is where Lisbeth Salander comes in. In addition to her tattoos and piercings, Lisbeth, whom Blomkvist meets and hires, has skills. She works as a freelance investigator for a prestigious detective agency, and she’s able to produce a voluminous and detailed background report on almost anyone with public life and private secrets included. Her methods are her own secret.
If the film follows the novel in any detail -- and the R rating indicates that it will -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will be compelling, intriguing, extremely violent, and sexually explicit. The novel has scenes of graphically described rape, torture, and murder as well as lots of casual consensual sex.
Plotting and characterization were Larsson’s strengths. However, underneath all the plot pyrotechnics, there’s not much there. Salander is an intriguing character, but her appearance in the novels doesn't seem to have much to say about misfits in society. The story indicates that rich people tend to have dysfunctional families, but we already knew that bit of clichéd truth.
The world of Steig Larsson’s Millennium series is a dark place. Mr. Larsson may be reflecting the state of Swedish society in the new millennium, but if so, it’s a nightmarish and dangerous society, certainly not a socialist paradise. (The original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women.)Lisbeth Salander makes up her own rules and then enforces them with violence if need be, and to a lesser degree so does Mikael Blomkvist. The novel mentions Christianity, but only as a hobby for adolescent girls or a framework for the crazed maunderings of a serial killer. Salander and Blomkvist are characters who talk a lot about trust and even ethics, but they have no God to trust and no real reason to trust each other as much as they do.
If you want a fictional vision of what appears to be the horrific and repugnant underbelly of Swedish society, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is your book. My paperback copy included the first chapter of the second book in the series; it begins with a vivid description of the imprisonment and torture of a thirteen-year-old girl. Although my curiosity is aroused, so is my sense of propriety, and I just find that the undefined line that tells me what I should and shouldn’t read has been crossed. My plan is to stop reading this series now, and I won’t be seeing the movie either.
But the movie will be popular this winter because the books were popular. To some extent, Lisbeth Salander has become a pop culture heroine around the world. So as you see the commercials and hear the discussions, remind yourself of a few truths. First of all, even though everything is permissible, not everything is profitable (1 Cor. 10:23). And second, Christians don’t need a nasty, violent, sexually explicit movie or novel to tell them that this world is full of sin and sadness. There are other books and movies that present that truth in a much more illuminating way. And we have a Bible that gives us that truth about sin in the world, and in addition the truth that our redemption has been accomplished through Christ.
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