Stieg Larsson wrote the way he smoked, compulsively and for pleasure. The Swedish journalist, a socialist who devoted his career to exposing neo-Nazis, wrote fiction on the side. Little did he know that his Millennium Trilogy of crime novels—all published after his death in 2004 from a massive heart attack—would launch a blockbuster franchise, selling over 20 million copies. Or that he would supply Hollywood with a new female superhero prototype: a punk cyber-sleuth who could become the most seductive predator to make the leap from page to screen since James Bond.
Not unlike 007, Lisbeth Salander—the heroine of Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels—is a lone wolf with a sociopathic streak and an appetite for cigarettes and loveless sex. But as a victim/predator with a mysterious past, she’s far more intriguing. Scarred by horrific abuse, tattooed and pierced, she’s a bisexual outlaw in black leather—a computer hacker armed with a MacBook Pro, a photographic memory, and lizard-like reflexes wired to a scary killer instinct. Rape her, and she’ll rape you back, 10 times worse. Salander is a walking feminist revenge fantasy. And she’s coming to a theatre near you, over and over again.
Larsson’s three novels have all been turned into Swedish-language films. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Denmark’s Niels Arden Oplev, opens here next week after tearing up the European box office under Larsson’s original title, Men Who Hate Women. It has already grossed US$100 million. And with her ferocious performance as Salander—“the woman who hates men who hate women”—Sweden’s Noomi Rapace raises the bar for kick-ass female avengers.
Hollywood, meanwhile, is making its own Millennium Trilogy. David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) will direct the U.S. version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, scripted by Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List). Stars ranging from Brad Pitt to Johnny Depp have expressed interest in playing Michael Blomqvist, the journalist hero. But the most avid speculation revolves around the casting of the kinky, hyper-intelligent title character.
A role like Lisbeth Salander is without precedent. Aside from Sigourney Weaver in the Aliens movies, a major franchise has never been built around a female star. Hollywood has forged some tough heroines—The Silence of the Lambs’ Jodie Foster, Nikita’s Anne Parillaud, Kill Bill’s Uma Thurman. But Noomi Rapace trumps them all with her cold audacity in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Salander is the ultimate gamine-atrix. Though she’s 24 in Dragon Tattoo, Larsson says she looks 14—a pale, sullen creature with a “crooked smile” and “childlike breasts,” who appears anorexic but devours junk food. She looks “as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers.”
But this fantasy of feral womanhood does evolve. At the start of the second novel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander gets a boob job and goes on an IKEA shopping spree. And she spends most of the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (due out in Canada May 25), offstage, conspiring from a hospital bed. Even her mental health is shadowed with suspense: she’s framed as a psychotic, but defended as borderline autistic.
So who should land this plum role? Names floating through the blogosphere include Ellen Page, Kristen Stewart, Natalie Portman and Carey Mulligan. Page showed an aptitude for castration in Hard Candy; Stewart made a convincing punk in The Runaways. Portman is too old, and Mulligan too sweet—a better Brit would be Katie Jarvis, who made a fierce debut as a rebel teen in Fish Tank.
The problem is, it’s hard to imagine anyone improving on Noomi Rapace. She incarnates Salander with scary precision in the Swedish film, which faithfully streamlines Larsson’s Byzantine plot into 2½ hours of onion-skin inquiry. With Zodiac, Fincher proved he’s no slouch when it comes to procedural rigour. But I expect he’ll take liberties with Dragon Tattoo, and Americanize the story and its heroine. He could launch Hollywood’s first serious girl-powered franchise for grown-ups. Larsson had planned a 10-book saga and wrote synopses. By a cruel irony, his common-law wife of 30 years was shut out of his estate—one thing he neglected to write was a will. But, in what sounds like a twist from his fiction, she has hidden Larsson’s laptop, containing the partial manuscript of a fourth novel. Now all Hollywood needs is a real-life Salander to hack her computer.