In this season of heat and sweat and languor, there's no escaping Lisbeth Salander.
She is, of course, the enigmatic action hero of the sensational Millennium Trilogy -- "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played With Fire," The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest''-- the trio of dazzling mystery novels by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, who died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004, before his manuscripts were published and he could witness the worldwide phenomenon his books became in just a few years.
Lisbeth Salander, 25, frail, tough, weird, is an original. She's an antisocial mathematical genius, a brilliant hacker with a photographic memory, a vengeful killer and unforgiving moralist whose persona defies definition. We can't put her in a box – comparisons to Nancy Drew and the Swedish children's book heroine Pippi Longstocking, or to "Lora Craft Tomb Raider" or
Wonder Woman don't cut it.
Salander fits no type; she's no comic-book superwoman, no flirty Charlie's Angel. She's flesh and bones, real.
She's hot. She's cool. She's violent and gentle, a loner, cynical, sexual and frigid. She sleeps with men and women. She's no blue-eyed blonde Viking princess rising from the fjords of Scandinavia. She's short, dark and skinny -- under five feet, 90 pounds -- with no hips and a flat chest (but she is girly vain, and has her breasts surgically enlarged). Her hair is cropped short, longer on one side, hiding part of her face. She pierces her body, wears tattoos and lots of leather. She can easily get lost in a crowd.
But that's the carapace, what you first see. The soft tissue under the hard shell is rarely exposed to human inclemency. She has many secrets, some more awful than others, and has endured horrific physical and mental pain, rape and torture, and will inflict revenge swiftly, without mercy. She carries her emotional despair silently, and she's sullen, single-minded, smarter than anyone else, and more courageous. She's a child of the millennium, and she's old, older than hell. She's beautiful, and odd, very odd.
She tried to kill her father when she was 11 years old after years watching him rape and beat her mother. She set him on fire by using a milk carton filled with gasoline and throwing it into his car with a lighted match. He was not killed but was maimed. She was committed to a psychiatric facility and placed under a guardian who went on to torture and rape her before her 13th birthday.
When we meet her, she's 24, a semi-recluse, guarded, distrustful, and elusive. Salander hides from all, even from her co-investigator and sometime sex mate, Mikael Blomkvist, a middle-aged journalist and magazine editor who is clearly Stieg Larsson's fictional alter ego. Blomkvist (Larsson) casts an angry, bitter eye on his country, on his city, Stockholm, on corporate and governmental corruption, on the sex and drug trade, on the secret police, on two-bit gangsters and rogue cops.
The books offer a picture of a changing Sweden where white men are portrayed as rapists, perverts, sex traffickers, wife beaters, Nazis, and killers. That explains why Larsson's original title for the first book, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," was "Men Who Hate Women."
The driving theme in the trilogy is not corruption or murder or any of the other grotesque crimes that fill its thousands of pages. It is the violence that men inflict on women.
"When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women and the men who enable it,'' Blomkvist says in "Hornet's Nest."
Salander is the symbol and embodiment of that violence, victim and survivor, vengeful angel.
She is Blomkvist's researcher and master hacker, his secret weapon in his war on the forces of darkness. But she has it all over him. He spins his wheels, he broods, she disappears for months traveling around the world, comes back to Stockholm, finds her face on every front page, on the television news, a hunted woman, charged with three murders. She buys a 25-million kronor apartment no one knows a thing about. She hides in plain sight. There's nothing cookie-cutter about Salander or her life or her story or the way her mind spins out beyond where we can reach her. She peels off layers of herself for Blomkvist -- for us – but never allows us to see the core. It is maddening. There are no clearly marked exits here, no happy endings.
But we know Salander will survive.
She's set a new standard: a lesbian/bisexual skinny geeky girl with a bad attitude, a knack for violence, a steel-trap mind, and best of all, she's not a vampire.
Could it be that androgynous, industrial-strength macho girls will become role models for women in the second decade of the 21st century?
Later this month, on July 23, Angelina Jolie opens nationwide with the pumped-up thriller "Salt," a spy action-drama a la Jason Bourne, with high-speed pursuits, nasty spills, and little sex. Jolie has been doing the action-hero thing for some time ("Lara Croft"), but this one is a little different. This one turns up the volume.
In an illuminating vignette in an interview with Vanity Fair in the August 2010 issue, Jolie tells how she got the part. Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures, asked Jolie if she wanted to play a Bond girl. Jolie said, "No, I'm not comfortable with that, but I would like to play Bond.'' About a year later, Pascal called her back and said, "I think I found it.'' It was the script for "Salt."
It was developed with Tom Cruise in mind, but after he declined the role because it was too similar to his "Mission Impossible" movies, the part was offered to Jolie. They changed the character's name from Edwin to Evelyn, and while the male character had a child, Evelyn Salt will have none because a woman in such a dangerous job would have no children. Sheer size was a problem, too, since Jolie is not a big woman, so they "made her meaner than a guy, and dirty,'' Jolie said.
There's no telling how long the Salander cult will last. Fads and trends come and go with the weather, but this one seems to have more staying power. A good gauge is the huge success of the books and the modest success of the Swedish film adaptations of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire," playing now in art houses in New York, Los Angeles and other large cities.
But the buzz in Hollywood is the real test, and it's getting louder. David Fincher ("Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") will direct his own adaptation of the "Girl" books. "Twilight's" Kristen Stewart, "Juno's" Ellen Page and "Education's" Carey Mulligan are in the mix for the Salander role, according to The Guardian, though other reports say Fincher is looking for an unknown face.
When it comes to the Blomkvist role, it's the male elite: George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Daniel Craig ("007"), with Craig leading the pack.
It's a long wait for Hollywood.
And now that the last English-language installment of the trilogy is in bookstores, flying off the shelves, we can only hope that the unfinished manuscript Stieg Larsson left in his laptop will be completed by his longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, and bring us news of Lisbeth Salander.
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