Last week, I saw The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, a film that has already sank without a trace at the North American box office. Sony’s latest attempt at an English language reboot of Swedish crime author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series was cheaper and a more low-key affair than their splashy 2011 production, as directed by David Fincher, but audiences didn’t seem especially interested in what was on offer. Even with a modest $43m budget, the film has only made $14.1m domestically as of the writing of this piece. Reviews were mixed and the general impression given was that this was a story audiences and critics alike weren’t going to get enthused about any time soon.
The entertainment industry loves remakes, reboots, re-imaginings and any other available fresh spin they can put on a familiar property. That much is true. In a week where we got yet another Robin Hood movie, there was something about the tired rehash of the Lisbeth Salander story that bugged me more than anything the wannabe Batman-Guy Ritchie hybrid of Robin Hood did. Here was a simple conceit: A grimy Sweden-set thriller with a tech edge that combined old-school noir with cyberpunk ideas and let the victim be the hero. At the centre of this series was a goth genius with a tortured past and a gift for causing trouble, especially to those who deserve it. Larsson claimed he wrote Lisbeth as how he imagined an adult Pippi Longstocking would be, although this bisexual, heavily tattooed, androgynous outcast who is easily the smartest person in the room at any given time felt more like a figure from sci-fi than any children’s tale.
As problematic as she was liberating, Lisbeth Salander remains a tough figure to parse. Some are immensely empowered by her while others find her to be an obvious male fantasy, one who forever comes second in the books to the true protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist. What works as a meditation on female rage in the face of immeasurable misogyny for fans will always be a reductive fetishizing of a woman’s pain. And yet she remains utterly enthralling, a messy figure who cuts through the bulls—t and appeals to pure id.
Lisbeth is also an actor’s dream, which may be in part why the industry, especially in Hollywood are so keen to make the story into star vehicles for rising female stars. So far, three women have found themselves defined by Lisbeth in one form or another: Noomi Rapace, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy. Each performance and the hubbub surrounding it highlights many of the ambitions and expectations of the genre and what women are expected to do within its confines.
Noomi Rapace was not new to acting when she landed the role of the first Lisbeth, but there was still a sense of discovery around her in those initial casting announcements. English language reporting is even more wide-eyed over the prospect, in part because Britain had come under the spell of a boon in popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction around the time those films were released. Much is made in practically every interview about how much Rapace is aesthetically unlike Lisbeth, both before she got the part and once she was on the promotional trail. Great pains are taken to talk up her ‘femininity’ and ‘softness’. The objective is clear: Look at how extreme the transformation is and be in awe of it (a contrast that doesn’t entirely work for English language audiences who never saw her pre-Lisbeth acting work and persona).
Rapace’s Lisbeth is the most adorned with goth fashion. Her hastily styled up mohawk goes tall, she has spikes around her neck and big boots to stomp men out of her way. Lots of leather, lots of chains, all the black lipstick in Stockholm. It’s the armour of a woman who knows that she needs it and Rapace wears it with the right mix of energy and discomfort. It’s tough to compare Rapace to the other two actresses who played the part because she actually got time to grow into Lisbeth and have a more complete arc, given that she’s in three movies while Mara and Foy are in one apiece. It makes more sense when Lisbeth’s stoicisms melt away for brief moments when we’ve spent that much more time with her, and Rapace sells it completely. You see the person Lisbeth was before the world sliced her down and forced her to rebuild herself. Rapace is at her best as Lisbeth when we see the contrasts between the elaborate goth hacker the world demonizes and the brittle real person she allows Mikael the privilege of seeing.
(Gif via giphy.com)
By the time Sony optioned the books for an American film, the late Steig Larsson had become one of the biggest selling authors on the planet. I worked at a bookshop in Edinburgh when the third book came out and I sold more 3 for 2 deals of that trilogy than anything else that Christmas. At a time when shows like The Killing were becoming surprise smash hits on British television, the prospect of a big-budget glossy English-language Lisbeth tale felt like the most logical conclusion of this trend. Of course, the focus was on who would play Ms. Salander. Names like Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson were rumoured to be up for the role, but they felt like the painfully obvious Hollywood choices that would never work. Yet people still craved the transformation. They needed to see a traditionally feminine young actress go through the work of chopping off their hair, getting everything pierced and becoming that icon. So, when a relatively unknown actress named Rooney Mara got the role, the narrative was ready to go.
Rooney Mara is typically categorized as aloof, shy and kind of above it all. She comes from money - her extended family are football royalty that own both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants - and, up to that point, her most high-profile role was in the sub-par remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. She was 25 but looked younger. To be frank, most people didn’t know who she was, but that didn’t make the focus on the makeover any less glorified. Where Rapace’s Lisbeth was adorned, Mara’s felt scarred: Her hair was dyed black and cut short as though Mara herself did it with a razor blade; her eyebrows were bleached blonde, which only heightened the ghost-like allure of her face; the piercings were real (including one in her nipple) and her body was all edges. A photo-shoot in W Magazine detailed the transformation with awe, but the sheer commitment of Mara’s work was given more room to breathe in a cover story profile for Vogue.
The Vogue profile of Mara is, to put it mildly, kind of creepy. Fincher is billed as her creator and their relationship is even called ‘f—king weird’ by co-star Daniel Craig. Her devotion to him is obvious, although moments like where he approves her lunch choices read as very archaic, both at the time and now in the current Hollywood age. Fincher takes great pains to emphasize Mara’s status as a ‘great weirdo’, which feels fitting for Lisbeth, if nothing else. It’s hard not to read the Vogue piece and not imagine the film with Fincher in Craig’s part as Mikael.
But it worked. Mara is, for my money, the most interesting of the Lisbeths. She’s all damage, a typhoon of hostility that dares everyone, including the viewer, to like her. In the books, Salander has moments of stoicism but Mara plays her as endless controlled rage. And why not? Her life has been ridiculously tough and she continues to be exploited by the very system set up to protect her. Mara’s Lisbeth is an open wound that everyone reopens for their own twisted pleasure. The problem with her Salander is not so much her performance but the fact that the film fully forces her to be second fiddle to Daniel Craig’s Mikael. When she cosies up to him, it never lands, in part because the chemistry isn’t there but also because Mara has been so impeccable in her portrayal of a woman who prefers alienation above all else. This is a David Fincher movie, and Lisbeth Salander is but a player in it.
(Image via giphy.com)
While Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was well-received and garnered an Oscar nomination for Mara, it didn’t set the box office alight. The Scandi-noir trend was waning, and it had never really been a thing in America to begin with. Mara spent years talking candidly to the press about wanting to play Lisbeth again (yes, she kept in the nipple piercing and yes, she admitted that herself), but it never seemed like a true possibility. The film was expensive and as the blockbuster age grew into its dominant form, budgets like this felt more unfeasible than ever. It would take seven years for Lisbeth to reappear, and this time it wouldn’t be in a story penned by Larsson himself.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web was written by David Lagercrantz, based on notes left by Larsson. Critics complained about its sanding down of the original series’ edges, making it more conventional and thus smudging out what made the books so interesting in the first place. For Sony, it was an easy way to reboot the films and give another actress the transformative experience of playing Lisbeth. Alicia Vikander was a front-runner for a long time, having won an Oscar and, you know, being an actual Swede. However, the role went to Claire Foy, who had become a star thanks to her award-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown. While Foy had proven herself in more abrasive roles - such as this year’s Unsane - she made her name on her apparent refinement. She was playing royalty, after all, and that requires class. It also provided a starker contrast for the Lisbeth makeover, yet Foy’s transformation is far more muted. The piercings are obviously fake - there are moments in the film where you can see the redness of irritation on her nose where the ring digs into her skin - the tattoos less spectacular and the haircut far too mainstream chic for Lisbeth. Foy looks like she’s dressed as Lisbeth for Halloween and that’s a problem.
It’s not exactly fair to say that Foy is a bad Lisbeth. She is dearly miscast, too doe-eyed and approachable to understand the sharpness of the character, but she’s also not playing Lisbeth as she is best known in the books. Here, she is essentially feminist hacker Batman. She pulls off ridiculous feats and poses against dramatic backdrops so that Sony will have plenty of options for promotional material. Indeed, the impression given by this Lisbeth is that she’s trying so very hard to look cool. Less focus is put on her as a victim of trauma - although there is still plenty of that, don’t worry - but her narrative is so hastily sketched that we feel little of what makes her tick. There’s no sense of her rage or her mission beyond trailer-friendly buzz words. In an age where we could surely use a heroine who finds harsh routes through misogyny towards self-worth, Lisbeth Salander has been whittled down to just another action star.
(Image via Tumblr.com)
The chances are we won’t see Foy reprise the role and Sony will put this franchise to rest for now. Lisbeth Salander may be the best and worst heroine for our current age - a force of nature and razorblade in the face of rape culture who is still the fetishized creation of men - but that also speaks volumes to why so many struggle to give Lisbeth her dues. When a character is positioned mostly as an opportunity for transformation, it’s little wonder the real person beneath the mohawk is seen as interchangeable.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures