On a Screen, Darkly

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  contrasted with —
Män som hatar kvinnor

Review Essay by
William H. Stoddard

Män som hatar kvinnor
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Writers: Stieg Larsson (novel)
  Nikolaj Arcel & Ramus Heisterberg (screenplay)

  • Michael Nyqvist — Mikael Blomkvist
  • Noomi Rapace — Lisbeth Salander
  • etc.

Yellow Bird, etc.: 2009
Swedish; subtitles in English
152 minutes (extended version: 180 minutes)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Stieg Larsson (novel)
  Steven Zaillian (screenplay)

  • Daniel Craig — Mikael Blomkvist
  • Rooney Mara — Lisbeth Salander
  • etc.

MGM Studios: 2011
158 minutes

March 2012


A few months ago, I rented the Swedish film Män som hatar kvinnor. It's better known in the United States by its English title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is not, it turns out, a translation of the Swedish title, or even a paraphrase of it: The Swedish title means, literally, Men Who Hate Women.

The two titles have rather different implications. "Men who hate women" conveys a generalization about a category of people and their attitudes toward another, wider category of people. It's an abstract title and invites the viewer to expect a film with an abstract focus. In contrast, "the girl with the dragon tattoo" is a striking pictorial image of a single individual. It invites the view to expect a film about a character, one with unusual qualities — a film that foregrounds the concrete and specific. And, in fact, that's a good description of the differences of emphasis between the two films. The Swedish film has a girl and a dragon tattoo, and the American film has men who hate women — and many other common elements — but that only makes it more evident how profoundly they differ.

Most notably, they differ in their portrayal of the "girl": Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker whose past actions have resulted in her being placed under legal guardianship. (The specific actions are made clear in the Swedish film, but not in the American one.) She's the central character of both films — and the title character of the American version — but the way in which she's central is not the same.

One of the major differences is that, repeatedly, the Swedish film shows her as possessing agency and the American film deprives her of it, or diminishes it. For example, early in both films, her laptop is irreparably damaged in a subway station. In the American film, a solitary young man passes her, snatches it, and runs away; she pursues him and wrestles it away from him. In the Swedish film, four young men assault her, and she snatches up a broken bottle and attacks them in turn, a more ferocious response to a more intimidating threat.

In the Swedish film, she tracks the progress of the male lead character, Mikael Blomkvist, and when he's puzzled over a group of cryptic numbers he finds during an investigation, she identifies them as verses of "Leviticus", and e-mails him to tell him so. In the American film, he gets the clue from his adolescent daughter, who is apparently studying the Bible. Following this, he seeks out Salander on his own initiative, having decided that the clues hint at a real mystery and that he needs the help of a skilled hacker; in the Swedish film, his final argument as to why Salander should help him is that she sent him a message that revealed her identity when she was perfectly capable of hiding it, and therefore she must want to get involved.

Most crucially, after their investigation uncovers a long series of crimes and identifies the criminal, Salander pursues him on a motorbike as he drives away. In both films, he drives off the road and his car overturns. The American film has Salander just coming up to his car when it explodes into flame. The Swedish film has her arrive earlier, to listen as he pleads for help and watch, unmoved, as gasoline drips from a broken fuel line; that is, she chooses to let him die. And the point is reinforced twice: by a flashback to a very young Salander throwing some sort of liquid over an adult man in a car and then throwing a lit match onto him, which sets fire to him (and which is the reason for her being under legal guardianship); and by her telling Blomkvist, not long after, that she could have saved the criminal, but chose not to.

Following this, there's a crucial exchange of dialogue. Blomkvist protests that the criminal had himself been abused, and that he too was a victim. Salander answers, angrily, "Shut up about the victimization! He almost killed you. He raped and murdered and he enjoyed it. He had the same chances as us to choose what he wanted to be. He was no victim. He was a sadistic mother-----r who hated women." This is an astonishing speech to hear in a Swedish film; an avowal of the criminal's moral responsibility would seem much more likely in an American film — but the American version has no such lines; in this, above all, it's about concrete actions, not abstract ideas. But there are two further points about the speech:

First, in affirming that the criminal was responsible for his own actions, Salander is equally affirming that she herself is responsible for her own actions, including the actions that killed the criminal.

Second, in putting forth an intellectual position of this kind, Salander is showing that she is motivated by ideas, not simply by emotional impulses, and therefore that her actions are chosen — that she does indeed have agency, the power "to choose what [she] wanted to be."

This may seem an abstract, philosophical point, but it's strikingly supported by the comments of the actress who played the American version of Salander, Rooney Mara, about Salander's anger: "She's afraid of that part of her, so she struggles to keep it inside of her. Every once in a while someone does something and it comes out. She can't control it." (Quoted in Entertainment Weekly, February 6, 2012, p. 51.) There could hardly be a clearer statement of what Ayn Rand called the anti-volition premise (which is what I've called the denial of agency); in Rand's words (in "What Is Romanticism,", published in The Romantic Manifesto, p. 100), "such values as [she] appears to hold are only an illusion, predetermined by the forces [she] has no power to resist."

Mara's body language conveys this passivity; she seems withdrawn and even timid. In contrast, Noomi Rapace's portrayal of Salander in the Swedish film conveys a sense of controlled anger. These two different emotional attitudes come through especially strikingly in the two films' repeated scenes of Salander smoking: a cigarette in Mara's hands is a means of self-medication, but in Rapace's a target for and an image of Salander's ferocity.

On the other hand, the American film spends a great deal more time showing Salander naked, offering the actress's physical appearance as visual spectacle. This seems particularly ironic in a film whose plot is about women being treated as passive objects of male sexual exploitation.

The choice of Daniel Craig to play Blomkvist in the American film at least suggests a similar shift of focus. Craig is largely known for his roles as an action hero (for example, as James Bond in two recent films), and, in fact, the American film does give Blomkvist more of the initiative than the Swedish one does. But Craig does less to convey a sense that Blomkvist is driven by any sort of ideas. Nor does the script encourage this — for example, it takes away Blomkvist's argument that even the criminal is a victim of abuse, which would have added depth to his readiness to investigate a series of decades-old crimes.

I was also struck by the tighter focus of Män som hatar kvinnor's plot. It examines some side issues — the true fate of the missing girl; the industrialist whose lawsuit left Blomkvist unable to work and faced with a prison sentence — but its treatment of them is compressed. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the subplots go on at greater length, but often seem to accomplish less.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a strikingly close fit to one of Rand's categories of literature (it's worth remembering that Rand started out writing film scripts!): "writers whose basic premise ... is that man possesses volition ... in regard to his physical actions, but not in regard to his own character ..." ("What Is Romanticism?" p. 108.) Exactly as Rand describes, it has a suspenseful story focused on the pursuit of a goal (uncovering the truth about a girl who disappeared mysteriously, decades before); but Salander's motives for that pursuit are inexplicit, and seem to be based largely on her personal interest in Blomkvist. Män som hatar kvinnor, in contrast, has Salander as a victim of male abuse, both in her childhood and in a lengthy subplot involving her newly appointed guardian — but as fiercely determined not to accept being a victim, but to fight back against it through fully consciously chosen actions. The abstract theme of the film is also the conscious motive of Salander's actions, and thus the key to her agency, on which the plot focuses, and to her entire characterization. This makes it clear why the film's conclusion is a victory for her, and not simply a temporary job that gave rise to an ambiguous romance. Ironically, though the American title sounds heroic, it's the Swedish film that actually lets Salander be the hero of its story.


© 2012 William H. Stoddard

Stieg Larsson's
Dragon Tattoo trilogy
— the films' official site

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