The fierce cyberpunk waif: 11 notes on Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

“At the center of all of this howling evil is the strangely relatable Lisbeth Salander, a damaged, vengeful, brilliant, androgynous cipher… She is the reason that people can't put these weird books down” ---Vogue

1) Writing for The Daily Beast, Louise Roug points out that "The charisma of the Salander character is ultimately the reason for the extraordinary success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels."  But who is Lisbeth Salander?  Why does her character, as played by Rooney Mara, eclipse Daniel Craig (journalist Blomkvist) so much in the new David Fincher version?  Why does she effortlessly steal the movie?  Fincher notes how Salander "oddly prizes herself in not coming to any conclusions," preferring the data cloud to any biased opinion, so I will, in the spirit of Salander's research techniques, limit myself to the evidence at hand.  Some quotes:

2) According to her state dossier in Larsson's novel, she is described as: “introverted, socially inhibited, lacking in empathy, ego-fixated, psychopathic and asocial, and incapable of assimilating learning.”

3) Again, from the novel: “[Blomkvist] couldn’t figure out Lisbeth Salander.  She was altogether odd.”  As he notes later, "Salander was an information junkie with a delinquent child's take on morals and ethics."

4) One of Salander's Principles from the novel (in her words): "a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up shit about him, then he deserves it."

5) According to Katie Roiphe, "One could argue that Larsson’s world of rapists, murderers, sadists, conspirators, and assorted sickos is not an entirely balanced portrayal of reality circa now, but there is something about Lisbeth Salander that rings true. In the extremes and luridness of her experience, she somehow embodies the modern woman’s most intimate contradictions, her more ordinary straddling of power and weakness, her irrational internal admixture of fierce warrior and abused waif.”

6) "Lisbeth Salander = Lizard Salamander?" ---Roger Ebert on Twitter

7) One can imagine other actresses who tried out for the role, such as Scarlett Johansson.

8) Richard Brody claims that "What Fincher captures is the inner sense of a pair of minds—Lisbeth Salander, the genius punk survivalist hacker, and Mikael Blomkvist, the intrepid investigative journalist—that run faster than others. The relentless pace of the movie, its mercurial combination of amazingly precise and crystallized shots, is like the inside view of a souped-up biomorphic CPU."

9) “Horrible things happen to her. And she wanders home. And she sits there. She lights a cigarette, and she fumes. And you don’t know what’s going on in her head. The next time you see her, she’s got a Taser and a 30-pound chrome dildo, and she’s got a plan,” says David Fincher. “You don’t need her to say, ‘This is not right what’s happened to me, and I have to make it right.’ You see her at the hardware store, buying tape and zip ties and black ink.”

10) Monika Bartyzel writes: "Fincher’s Lisbeth is not Larsson’s. She is sexualized, softened, romanticized, and less empowered. Whether he intended this or not, it’s what countless critics see in the film; they don’t mind it – in fact most like it – but they’ve recognized it and have written about it.

There seems to be a relief that Mara’s Salander is a more relatable person, that classic “female” tropes like softness and vulnerability are visible. It speaks to society’s overwhelming discomfort with the unclassifiable, whether it’s a person’s sexuality, a terrible people who does good things, or the motivations of a young woman who has been horrifically mistreated, mentally and physically, for decades.

Yet the entire point is that Lisbeth doesn’t seem real to the regular Joe or Jane walking down the street. Even those closest to her don’t truly understand her. She’s got the double-whammy of an autistic mind and a hellish life with experiences we can’t begin to fathom. We’re not supposed to understand her, or lust after her. As A. O. Scott noted in his review: “We see all of Ms. Mara and quite a bit less of Mr. Craig, whose naked torso is by now an eyeful of old news. This disparity is perfectly conventional – the exploitation of female nudity is an axiom of modern cinema – but it also represents a failure of nerve and a betrayal of the sexual egalitarianism Lisbeth Salander argues for and represents.”

11) Lastly, to once again quote Larsson's novel: "[Salander] had never brooded over whether she was straight, gay, or even bisexual.  She did not give a damn about labels.”  Perhaps that's the one secret behind Salander's appeal: she not only resists classifications, labels, and categories.  She refuses to acknowledge them.  


bd said…
Thanks for the post. As a fan of the books and the original movie, I'm curious about what we'll encounter when we see it tomorrow.

Interesting things to look out for.
Thanks, bd.

I'm still curious as to why Fincher picked the franchise to direct. The novel is not on the level of The Social Network, and, at times, and in spite of the movie's craftsmanship (especially with the music), I was reminded of another chilly unnecessary American remake Let Me In.
Richard Bellamy said…
Yes, she is a fascinating character. In the Swedish film version, Rapace plays her with a harder edge, if that's possible. In Fincher's version, she reveals a tender side in need of affection, as in the scene when the reporter has his hand on her shoulder under her shirt, he removes his hand, and she tells him to put his hand back. Also, she seems crushed that the reporter is back with the publisher. This seems out of character according to the first film.
Thanks, Hokahey.

I was thinking also about how Lisbeth's written revenge oddly resembles an aspect of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony." Her writings on flesh brings an Old Testament sense of justice into the film.

I liked Rapace's version of Salander too. Someday, someone will write an essay exploring all of Salander's permutations and commercially compromised versions. It's humorous when critics get indignant about how her image changes. Since she's a punk, her sense of defiance makes her more flexible than most.
Anonymous said…
The film is properly titled. It's her story, nobody else's.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that she eclipses Craig's character. He exists, really, for only one purpose, the same purpose that every other element in the film exists: as a foil mechanism that enhances her appeal as a character.

It's perhaps one of the best crafted exercises in "how to create a sympathic character" -ever.

The entirety of her life is some form of horrific persecution and/or exploitation. Her abusive parents, the rapist social worker - even Craig's character ends up hurting her after she heroically saves his life. Yet, somehow this perpetual underdog absorbs the pain unflinchingly, and uses her spectacular intelligence and resolve to forge ahead - without an ounce of self-pity.

The horrific, uncomfortably vivid and drawn out rape scene ignites the film's emotional engine. It ensures that every action this weird, broken girl takes thereafter is met by the audience with unreserved empathy: her strange appearance, her promiscuity, her vengefulness, her reptilian lack of emotion.

Funny how her appearance even softens as the movie progresses, as if to reaffirm the audience: see, you LIKE her, RIGHT?


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