Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Larsson, Stieg. Keeland, Reg, tr. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage. 2008.

Although it was tempting to do so, I wasn't going to post about this book, because I've got all these TBR challenge books to write about, as well as books for my library's blog, but then I saw the movie and found myself thinking, "I must post about this book." And I wanted to do it here, not for the library (where I could have done so), because I've been told to keep those posts relatively short. A post about this book cannot be short (in fact, I am hoping I don't put you to sleep while you're trying to get through this one). Then Litlove wrote about it before I'd gotten around to it, and I remembered I needed to get around to it, so here I am.

This was one of the most disturbing books I've read in a very long time. In fact, I almost couldn't get through it. I very nearly put it down and never picked it up again after I got to one of the most hideous rape scenes I've ever read (and believe me, I've read plenty of hideous rape scenes in my time), one that was despicable in every way imaginable. But something (other than masochism) made me want to pick it up again.

Bob assured me that what I had read (which had given me nightmares, because, of course, I had read it right before going to sleep) was the worst of it and that I would like it if I kept going. I wasn't sure I trusted him, though. Truth be told, I was kind of pissed at him for urging me to read this book, one that was putting me through such an emotional wringer. Why wasn't he saying, "There, there. That's all right. You don't have to read the big, bad, nasty book if you don't want to" instead of "Keep going. You're tougher than that. Fight through your repulsion. It's worth it. You're really gonna think it's worth it." Damn him. He was right.

Lispeth Salander (the "Girl") is the sort of woman who is the ideal victim: she's tiny; she's an outcast in society; she's had a very rough childhood and adolescence. And, yet, she refuses to be a victim. She is a vigilante who fights for what she believes, and what she believes happens to be that men who mistreat women are evil bastards who deserve no mercy. (I find it interesting that the Swedish title of the book is Men Who Hate Women). She is flat-out brilliant, a modern-day Robin Hood, and I couldn't help but love and admire her (even though she is not, really, very lovable).

Her sidekick, the "crusading journalist" (as the back cover copy calls him), Mikael Blomkvist can't help loving and admiring her, either. He's an interesting character in his own right, a bit "too-good-to-be-true," but it works for the sake of the book. And by the end of the book, we find that even he, Mr. Goody Two Shoes, can find himself in an ethical dilemma that has him behaving in ways he never would have believed possible.

These two eventually come together to solve the 40-year-old mystery of the disappearance of a teenager from an "upper crust" family. They soon discover that they are involved in something far more dangerous and far-reaching than they had any idea. And, yes, it involved "men who hate women." In fact, scratch the surface a bit, and almost every man in the book seems to be one who hates women. Needless to say, Lispeth does not take kindly to them.

When I was stuck in the midst of this book, trying to decide if I would continue with it, I did something I don't normally do before I've finished a book: I went online to see what others were saying about it. I read in a few places that Larsson had been accused of being misogynistic. That caught my attention. Larsson opens each section of the book with statistical quotes concerning violence against young women in Sweden. Despite the brutality in the book, I didn't see how anyone could seriously sling such accusations.

By the end of the book, I really didn't see how anyone could seriously sling such accusations. Oh yes, there is plenty of grotesque, horrible, nauseating violence against women. The book can almost get you wondering if men just don't naturally despise women. However, it is clearly a diatribe against that sort of violence. There is none of the eroticism often associated with violence against women that I find in the works I would label misogynistic. Lisbeth is the embodiment of this diatribe. She fights back (and wins).

Oh yes, and in this book, instead of the boy rescuing the girl, the girl rescues the boy. (I hope that isn't a spoiler for those of you who haven't yet read the book and still plan on reading it. You pretty much figure this is going to be the case quite early on in the book). I don't see that it is anything other than a champion of women, surprisingly sympathetic to their plight.

And that brings me to the movie. I've never watched a movie so soon after reading the book (I literally finished the last pages of the book the day we saw the movie). I've recently been thinking a lot about what it takes to adapt books to screenplays, and it was fascinating to me to see the decisions that were made when it came to adapting this one. On some levels, the filmmakers took a more conservative route (I found that fascinating, since everyone always rails against the loose morals of the film industry). Bob and I both questioned some of the changes (as well as the fact that the movie version obviously included material from the second book in the trilogy). However, overall, it was a fantastic adaptation.

Twenty years ago, I went to see the movie Presumed Innocent with a friend of mine who had not read the book. Sitting through it with her, I felt the constant need to explain stuff to her, thinking no one could possibly understand the complicated plot without having read the book, since the movie version seemed to ignore so many important details. I found myself drifting into that same mode of thinking with this movie. How could anyone possibly understand Lispeth from what little information this movie was providing? But then I realized I've recently seen two movies adapted from books that I hadn't read: The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island. I think I managed to follow what was going on quite well in both. In fact, maybe they were better for my not having read the book.

There we have it: the first time in my entire life, when instead of thinking, "The book is almost always better than the movie. If I have to forgo one for the other, it should be the movie for the book, and I must always read the book before seeing the movie [maybe now you can see why I'm not much of a movie buff. How many thousands and thousands of movies are there based on books?]," I found myself thinking, "Can it possibly be better to see the movie before reading the book?"

I don't have an answer, but it's an interesting question. If nothing else, I must commend The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for getting me to ask the question. I also must commend it for getting me to move past its brutality to see what provocative stuff lay beneath. Oh, and one more thing I was reminded of while watching the movie: my imagination (when prepped ahead of time. Movies become problematic when they are not based on books, or I have not read the book, and horrible things show up suddenly) is always far, far worse than anything portrayed on screen (I learned this when I was a teenager watching horror films based on books, but I'm always forgetting it). The worst scenes here were far more bearable for me to watch than they were for me to read.

It seems to me people either love or hate this book. Has anyone else (besides Litlove) read it? What did you think?


Kristi said...

I loved it. Yes, it is full of disturbing scenes and despicable characters, but I feel like Lisbeth is the redeeming figure who makes it all worth reading. And, having read the second and third books, I absolutely love where this series ends up.

Stefanie said...

I haven't read it yet, but I am going to. I would have taken it with me this morning because I needed a new book to read but I was in a hurry to get out the door and had no time to look for it. Meanwhile Mansfield Park was sitting on my desk, waiting.

Anne Camille said...

It's waiting in a pile of to-be-reads. A friend gave it to me 2months ago and was incredulous a week later that I hadn't read it. She gave me the second book too. Maybe I should unearth them soon before they fall too far down the stack.

Emily Barton said...

Krist, guess I'm gonna have to get around to reading the next two sooner rather than later.

Stefanie, I'll be very interested to hear what you think of it.

Cam, I'd be in trouble if people expected me to read the books they give me within a week! I'll be interested to hear what you think of it as well.

litlove said...

Well, you know what I think. I always find it surprising how very differently we all react to books (although I shouldn't, because in the abstract I know how true it is that all readers receive differently). I mean, I didn't find the rape scene so awful or graphic and have read much worse (but then I did do that academic book on porn, so I guess my research is to blame for my unsheltered reading). It's the film I can't bring myself to watch because then I'd have to see violence and I find that so much more disturbing than reading about it. I'd still sort of like to rent the movie, though, as I'm very curious about it.

Still, I have to admit, it does make the world very interesting to see all the varied reactions a book (or a film for that matter) can solicit - it would be a shame if we all felt the same way about everything!