Book vs. Movie: ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’


Hurt her and she’ll expedite, in a creative way, your karma.

Brash, tough and perhaps a savant, Lisbeth Salander, with a photographic memory and Asperger’s-like social distance, is my new female model for justice in the 2000 millennium.

And Millennium happens to be the name of the magazine that started all the trouble.

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” opens with legal proceedings against an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (charmingly played by Michael Nyqvist), who has been duped by the very man he has been roasting for fraud in his magazine. His wealthy but corrupt subject responds to Blomkvist’s revelations by cleverly feeding him additional spurious information which confuses truth with fiction and ends up getting Blomkvist a prison term for libel and a free pass for his mob-connected nemesis.

In the meantime, while awaiting the requisite few months in prison, Blomkvist is hired by a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger, who is related to a family from hell. While ostensibly interviewing relatives and investigating newspaper archives to write a family history, Blomkvist’s real job is to find out who murdered his new employer’s niece. Part way through his investigation he encounters the startling Lisbeth Salander, a curious blend of objectivity and paranoia, who is a street-smart genius-hacker with connections.

Is the film loyal to the book?

The paperback version runs 590 pages and the film, at 152 minutes, adequately covers its multiple plots. However, the screenplay did leave out Blomkvist’s dalliance with one of the Vanger relatives and his recurrent trysts with his publishing partner, the sophisticated Erika Berger (a casting match with Lena Endre). But those are little things.

Of greater import are statistics given at the beginning of each of the 4 parts of the book that are omitted from the film. The American audience, probably innocent to the original Swedish book and film title, “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor” (“Men Who Hate Women”), would benefit from this exposure as the stats direct the viewer to a much greater understanding of the author’s purpose.

“18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.”

“46% of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.”

“13% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship.”

“92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”

It is with these stats that the reader is exposed to the book/film’s ultimate purpose, exposing the continuum and depth of historical male violence, denigration and oppression, both physical and psychological, of women.

Larsson’s Purpose

In a February interview, Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s domestic partner for 30 years, remarks that Larsson called himself a feminist. She explains that his crusade against discrimination of all types was imprinted when he was 14 and witnessed a multiple rape he could not stop. It was summer and companions he was with conducted the serial rape of a young girl they had sequestered in a tent.

Gabrielsson says he never forgot this act of moral turpitude and that it motivated him to become an investigative journalist, like his male protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist. However, while Blomkvist specializes in financial exposés, Larsson reported on discrimination and hate crimes, especially those related to white supremacy and misogyny.

Stieg Larsson died at age 50 of a heart attack 6 months after he deposited the manuscripts for the first three of a planned 10-book series with his publisher. At first many presumed he had been murdered as he had received death threats throughout his life for his investigative work.

Larsson had intended to use the profits from the first three books to assure the financial security of his partner and himself. The profits from the remaining 7 were planned to go to his favorite charities, presumably those political organizations aligned with his own dedication to peace and justice issues.

As an ironic side-note to his advocacy for women, it turns out Larsson left no will. Under Swedish law this means that all of the profits have gone to his estranged father and brother rather than to Gabrielsson.


Larsson’s moral imperative was to expose discrimination wherever he found it. His message, clear in his life’s work, was to show that we aren’t mandated through evolution, societal norms or family experiences to do what we do. We make choices and we must hold ourselves accountable for them.

His female character, Lisbeth Salander (played to perfection by Roomi Rapace), is bundled up metaphorically with the pile of disregard women have endured for centuries. Despite being the recipient of torturous, de-humanizing male acts of depravity, Salander refuses to be a passive victim. Her character instructively shows women that they can rethink their options, rethink their silence and rethink their passivity.

Men have reported finding Lisbeth’s sense of power just as mesmerizing and as ironically appealing as women find it instructive. She is not a relativist, she has no trust in police and she doesn’t believe in excuses.

When Blomkvist explains why a particular perpetrator committed atrocities against women, Lisbeth vehemently corrects him saying (X substituted to protect ending), “X isn’t the only kid who was ever mistreated. That doesn’t give him the right to murder women. He made that choice himself.”

There is no excuse for violence, humiliation, corruption or crimes of hate. People act from their own volition and Lisbeth, who will be exposed more in Larsson’s second book and film, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” has suffered in extreme ways. But, she is methodically, calculatedly, in charge of her life and her choices. It is this righteous characterization, in both the film and the book that concurrently grips, scares and interests the audience.

Does the film live up to the book?

No adult fiction novel in the world has sold more copies than “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” With over 30 million copies sold, “Tattoo” is just the first of the Larsson Trilogy frenzy.

As a Swedish film, USA Today reports that it “was the top moneymaking film of 2009 in Europe and the highest-grossing film in Swedish history.” It also won the Swedish Oscar equivalent for best film and best actress.

So, how have book clubs compared the movie to the book?

Being that I’m a member of one of these well-reputed organizations, The Skyview Community Book Club, I interviewed members to get their reaction.

First of all, the women, all professionals, cautiously pointed out that reading Larsson’s book was addictive but absolutely worthwhile. Their next month’s book, by unanimous vote, is now “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the second in Larsson’s trilogy.

However, it was with some trepidation, knowing that many entertaining books have been castrated by arrogant screenwriters hoping to improve upon a great story, that only a few of the Skyview members agreed to see the Swedish film version of “Tattoo,” shown in a pitifully dilapidated Portland, OR, theater on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon in early April.

But, oh my. The ladies agreed that the film version not only stayed true to Larsson’s plot, but also retold the noir thriller in a vibrant, honest, engaging way.

The bottom line: Ten thumbs up for both the movie and the book.

Why so popular?

As one book club member, a librarian, said, “The story has exceptional characterization. It’s well-written and has a great storyline.”

Larsson’s mix of sadistic noir themes is packed with action, multiple plots and a sinister Nazi influence. It follows, with captivating twists, a perfect who-done-it sequence with requisite surprises.

In addition, it’s background premises are true. In his acerbic Vanity Fair article, Christopher Hitchens questions the veracity of information portrayed in Larsson’s books. In such a sleepy little country like Sweden, always on the peacenik side, always posturing for higher ethics, a dark, slimy, hole of madness is exposed.

Hitchens asked, is Larsson’s exposé of “Sweden’s dark currents of Fascism and sexual predation” fact? His research revealed, absolutely.

And I ask, “Is this picture of Swedish inclination a microcosm of the world at large?”

If the answer to that question is affirmative, is a factor this book/film is so popular because it touches on our universal, subliminal wrestle with an innate battle for dominance, regardless of the cost or consequence to our own humanity?

The Final Verdict

Read this book. See this film. Then read the next books in the series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Then see the movies based on them that are scheduled to be released in the US this summer.

Larsson’s work is entertaining, yet mind-altering, as it reflects on the nature of being human and our gift of free will. It will make you think.

Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
Written by: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg (screenplay) from Stieg Larsson novel
Starring: Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace
Release: March 26, 2010
MPAA: Not Rated (violence, sex, language)
Runtime: 152 minutes
Country: Sweden / Denmark / Germany
Language: Swedish with English subtitles
Color: Color

. . .

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9 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Adam Poynter #

    Wow this is a long article! SO Im assuming that you have read this book Bev? Is is worth a read? My friends reading it right now, but i havent gotten any feedback yet

  2. Bev #

    Yes, I’ve read this book and tonight I will finish the second, The Girl who Played with Fire, in the trilogy. I couldn’t stop writing about this story. There are several levels to think about. You won’t regret reading the book. Think about the role of dominance we all play and juxtapose that to our notion of free will. Give me a comment on that and your impression of the book once you are done.

  3. daisyvet #

    Great article & I agree with you 100%. I walked into the theater with absolute confidence that this movie was going to be just as amazing as the book. I was not disappointed. It was an excellent adaptation that did not hold back. The original movie was raw, honest and graphic which is something Hollywood will not be able to duplicate.

  4. Bev #

    Yes Daisy, I worry that the US version will misrepresent this great book. If only Larsson were alive to protest!

  5. TERRY #


  6. Bev #

    Another person commenting on the length. It took me about 5 weeks to finish this piece. There was a lot to research and think about. I’m trying to get out of being Salander right now. But I even took up smoking – so the identification went a little overboard! She’s just a powerful character. If I could ask Larsson one question it would be what is it about Salander that reflects him and… how is she also like his partner, Gabrielsson.

  7. Joe #

    True to the book? Are you sure? They changed so much that the tone of the story was completely lost, yes the outline plot may be the same but they changed so much, some of it understandable to move the plot quicker but some of it I couldn’t really understand.

  8. William Sterr #

    Dear Bev –

    I hope the theatre you’re describing as “pitifully delapidated” is not the Hollywood Theater, owned and run by Film Action Oregon. These fine folks rescued the Hollywood from demolition a decade ago, and have been working mightily with virtually no budget to, among other worthy projects, provide interesting films in a classic theatre that is slowly (too slow) being refurbished.

    My wife and I attended the double feature showing of Tattoo and Fire last night and found the films totally engrossing, and the surroundings fascinating.

    I should also say, in plugging the Hollywood, that they run a number of film festivals. I am a contributing member.


    William Sterr
    Vancouver, WA

  9. Bev #

    I love the Hollywood Theater! No, the theater I saw “Dragon” at was in NW Portland. I’m short, so if someone is sitting in front of me I really need stadium seating to be able to see subtitled films. The Hollywood has options. For example, its balcony section is really cool with great visual access, so I haven’t suffered there.

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