Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not one of my favorite books. The exposition is laborious and the language is less lyrical than, for example, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. However, this book did introduce a compelling figure into my imagination – the character of Lisbeth Salander. This petite young woman, replete with piercings and tattoos, possessed of a photographic memory and searing intelligence, dominated the narrative for me. Beyond the failings of the novel around her, Lisbeth shines out loud and clear.

What do I find so fascinating about Lisbeth? She’s so very, very angry. That anger jumps out of Lisbeth at different times throughout the book, whether she’s tussling with a group of hoodlums in a train station or tattooing a hapless man’s chest. We as readers discover that this rage is more than justified – Lisbeth has witnessed her mother being abused, she was wrongly committed to an asylum and abused by her doctor – and that’s just the stuff that happened to her before the events in Stieg Larsson’s first book. But Lisbeth isn’t just angry – she’s incredibly strong. With her piercing intelligence and determination, she teams up with Mikael Blomkvist to ensure that the bad guys get punished.

The narrator of my own book is an angry young girl, struggling to control her emotions so that they do not control her and turn her into a monster. And yet this girl, Thorn, cannot excise her emotions – without them, she wouldn’t be a human being. The familiar figures of horror movies illustrate this dichotomy: the howling werewolf who has symbolically let his strong emotions take over; and the mad scientist, practicing his unethical experiments in the name of reason and science. The key to being a balanced human being, of course, is to balance the two, reason and emotion, logic and feeling, into an integrated whole.

The opening of the American version of the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo got me thinking about Lisbeth again, and I found myself comparing and contrasting the portrayal of this character by the Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace, and the American, Rooney Mara. Which one, to me, was better?

Watching Fincher’s version, I found the overall movie more effective, more clean, more clear. But Rooney Mara, to me, did not completely nail the portrayal. She employed mannerisms like wiping her nose with her hand and smoking to get into the character, and she was good. But I found myself remembering Noomi Rapace as the better Lisbeth. So I decided to watch the Swedish version again.

And there it was – the reason I thought that Rapace is better – it’s all there in her eyes. Pain, rage, sorrow – it’s all there, simmering away. Exactly the kind of intensity I need for my own protagonist – rage and pain and sorrow, all tamped down but ready to explode at any moment. Rapace is strong, she’s tough, but that pain is right there, underneath the surface of those roiling tattoos.

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