The XX Factor

The Girl With the Formidable Colleagues

We now know that Daniel Craig will play the journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the English-language movie version of Stieg Larsso n’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo . The more pressing issue among fans of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is which actress will play the hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander . Blogs are full of possibilities and wish lists: Kristen Stewart has been both suggested and scoffingly rejected, and the smart money is betting on a lesser-known actress .

The fascination with Salander is understandable; she’s feral, victimized, and violent, and Noomi Rapace, the actress who plays her in the Swedish movies based on the series, is endlessly compelling. But I am equally interested to know: Who will play Harriet Vanger? Erika Berger? Who will play Blomkvist’s lawyer-sister, Annika Giannini? Who, if there are sequels, will play the plucky kick-boxing lesbian Miriam Wu? The muscular Monica Figuerola? The books have a rich trove of secondary female characters; it’s as if the late author set himself a rule that there be as many women characters as men-except that the women had to have better ethics and physical fitness. I didn’t do an exact count, but there also seems to be a rule that women must rescue men from peril as often as vice-versa.

By the third book I found that my interest in Salander waned, supplanted by this constellation of other women, whose stories often mirror Salander’s and who collectively serve to articulate Larsson’s worldview. Among them are Berger, a talented editor whose career success provokes a savage episode of male retaliation; Harriet Vanger, who, like Salander, is brutalized by men in her own family; and Wu, who, also like Salander, finds herself fighting for her life against a bevy of bad guys, reflecting that “Men could be as big as a house and made of granite, but they all had balls in the same place.” The third book sees a proliferation of new female characters including Figuerola, the six-foot-tall police inspector who is so powerful that Blomkvist “repressed an impulse to reach out and feel her leg muscles.”

And it’s a good thing she has those muscles, because what ordeals these women go through! Never mind that the series is taking place in egalitarian Sweden, land of paid paternity leave and, one liked to imagine up to now, wonderfully postmodern male partners. In Larsson’s universe, there is hardly a female character who is not conspired against by a man-often many men, doing everything possible to get their target fired, take her job, shame her, humiliate her, rape her, kill her, sexually traffick her, stalk her, bury her alive. The men in his novels are morally defined by their attitude toward women. Good guys respect women and accept their authority (“Erika was the best boss Mikael could imagine”); bad guys hate women, or at least resent them (Figuerola’s “intelligence … intimidated many of her male colleagues”) and want to bring them down. Usually-not always-the women prevail. As near as I could tell, Larsson’s view of the best way to handle bad guys is not so much to file a complaint with human resources but rather to take martial arts classes and kick the shit out of them. His feminism can be heavy-handed-the third book has treatises on historic examples of women warriors. But ultimately, racing through the thrillers like everybody else this summer, I felt grateful that he worked hard to create female characters who were strong, competent, and in charge. I hope the American adaptation finds room for the lot of them, rather than streamlining the narrative to include only the marquis central players.

Photograph of Noomi Rapace by Ian Gavan/Getty Images.