Stieg Larsson's hacker heroine makes heads spin

Latest in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy draws unlikely comparisons

Lisbeth Salander, hacker heroine of Stieg Larsson's best-selling thrillers, could be known as the Girl Who Invited Odd Comparisons. In his trilogy comprised of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the late Swedish author repeatedly drew unlikely parallels between Salander and Pippi Longstocking. Few readers would've found kinship between the sexy, ruthless computer expert and the icon of Swedish children's literature famed for her red pigtails, ox-like strength, and penchant for demolishing social conventions.

Larsson died in 2004, and didn't live to see his posthumously published trilogy become an international sensation. Since then, Salander has served as a kind of Rorschach blot, whether in the books, Sweden's big screen adaptation of the trilogy or in a potential English-language film remake. In her book review of Played With Fire for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani rather confusingly invited readers to "picture Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft endowed with Mr. Spock's intense braininess and Scarlett O'Hara's spunky instinct for survival" (which only makes me think of Jolie with pointy ears and petticoats). Fight Club director David Fincher, who's developing an English-language film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, reportedly thinks that South African singer/rapper Yo-Landi Vi$$er nails Salander's goth-punk look.

Alongside such outlandish antecedents, Sherlock Holmes may not seem like a controversial choice as Salander's fictional forefather. True, she's more likely to favor tattoos, piercings and leather clothing than a deerstalker cap, tweed coat and Meerschaum pipe. The key to her literary fandom may lie in her similarities with the Victorian supersleuth, but those traits suggest she'll pack far more punch on the page than in films such as Sweden's The Girl Who Played With Fire, which opens in Atlanta July 9.

In Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a man of action defined by thought, seemingly the most passive possible endeavor. Doyle's private detective proved aggressively cerebral, his legendary powers of observation and deduction combined to a know-it-alls command of tiny but telltale factoids. Larsson gave Salander's intellect some comparable gifts, including a photographic memory and a prodigious mastery of computers.

Holmes' mind often moved too fast for the people around him, while Salander's antisocial behavior stems from an Asperger's-like condition that shifts based on plot convenience: She's (bi)sexually active but prefers to filter her other human interactions through a keyboard and monitor screen. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, chance teams Salander with crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a role clearly inspired by the author). In their first outing, Salander helps Blomkvist crack a century-spanning mystery, saves his life, clears his name, and fleeces a crooked industrialist for good measure.

Larsson's three books each draw on slightly different thriller traditions. Dragon Tattoo primarily involves a generational whodunit, featuring an isolated island community that provides a kind of locked-room mystery favored by the likes of Agatha Christie. Played With Fire (my favorite) hews much closer to a police procedural novel, with breathless "real-time" CSI and manhunt passages. Hornet's Nest hinges on domestic espionage, like a lightweight John le Carré, and winds up with a courtroom scene that's more Perry Mason than John Grisham.

Salander's feats of computer piracy anchor all three books and prove as persuasive as Michael Crichton's best techno-thrillers. Certainly Larsson's readers groove on his outlandish plots, fast pacing, violent cliffhangers and plentiful taboo-tweaking sex scenes — it's amazing that the characters have the time or energy to uncover crimes. But many mystery series feature such elements without becoming multilingual hits. The hacking and other computer scenes make Larsson's work stand out and may account for much of its appeal.

Where Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and other books engross the reader with gossipy historical footnotes and conspiracy theories, Larsson subtly replicates the experience of working at a computer and surfing the Net. More and more readers worldwide can identify with the headspace of the computer user, which Larsson employs to maximum dramatic effect. Even the trilogy's e-mail exchanges prove more dramatic than the spoken dialogue.

Few films, however, have managed to make Google searches into exciting cinema. Some of the Dragon Tattoo's research scenes worked better in Niels Arden Oplev's film than the book: Salander and Blomkvist piece together clues by comparing and enhancing archival photographs — the images drive the investigations. The Girl Who Played With Fire's film version, however, retains all of the book's action scenes, no matter how implausible, including a fistfight between a Swedish boxing champ and a mountainous hit man (Micke Spreitz) incapable of feeling pain. The film also reduces the mystery details to a bare minimum, making lutefisk of the book's complicated plot.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, circumstantial evidence frames Salander for the murder of two of Blomkvist's colleagues who are on the verge of breaking a controversial story about a Swedish sex-traffic ring. Ostensibly, all three books offer critiques of male misogyny and violence against women: Dragon Tattoo's original title translates as "Men Who Hate Women." The Played With Fire film includes a nasty shot of a doughy john drooling on a tied-up prostitute. Larsson reveals genuine indignation at institutional tolerance of female exploitation. But the books don't really probe misogyny's sources and causes (unlike Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, for instance). Ultimately, the books and films feel more like factually supported female revenge tales, à la Ms. 45 or Kill Bill.

Only Noomi Rapace's performance as Salander feels equal to either book. She never seems as petite or girlish as Salander's description (in the movie, she's allegedly 5 feet tall and 88 pounds), but she has a feral, intimidating presence. At one point, she dons garish Kabuki/KISS-style makeup to freak out a witness. Without speaking much, she conveys an active thought processes behind her eyes, whether she's the hunter or the hunted.

The Swedish films prove no better than competent television, but Fincher's direction of Zodiac suggests that he could do justice to the book's hunger for data and detail. Any successful film would have to live up to Salander's image as the avenging angel of the information age. It's elementary, my dear Blomkvist.