'Men Who Hate Women': The Continuing Misuse of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series and Why It Needs to End
There is something very wrong with how Steig Larsson's legacy has been handled by authors, publishers, and filmmakers.
Let's start by acknowledging that the past few years have witnessed a wholesale shift in mainstream society's views toward consent and appropriation. Rooted in a widening call-out of sexual harassment, assault, and rape culture, this groundswell has challenged forms of misogyny that were, until recently, widely accepted in western societies, and has elevated our understand of, and respect for, principles of equality and consent. The implications of this are significant: while call-out culture has been criticized (rightly so, in some ways), there's also been a recognition that our legal institutions suffer from serious shortcomings, insofar as they remain deeply rooted in our society's misogynistic and patriarchal past. There's a lot of stuff that happens that might be "legal", but it sure isn't right.
It's astonishing, then, that in this day and age publishers continue to market sequels to Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, which he would have been appalled by – sequels which both undermine the principles on which he based his work, as well as inflict harm against those closest to him. With a new Millennium film released in cinemas just last month -- Fede Alvarez's The Girl in the Spider Web -- it's profoundly shocking that American studios were able to marshall $43 million dollars to produce a film based on one of these appropriative sequels.
Many readers are familiar with the broad outline of the Stieg Larsson story. Larsson was a remarkable and idealistic Swedish journalist who co-founded and edited a groundbreaking magazine, Expo, that concentrated on researching, tracking and exposing racism and the extreme right in Europe. He published books on the topic, and was considered one of the world's experts in the growth of racism, neo-nazism and the far right in Europe. He was also, quietly, working on a series of crime thriller novels in his spare time. In 2004, having almost completed an entire trilogy, his books were accepted for publication in Sweden. His publishers knew they'd lucked into something special, and preparations were in full swing for the books' release. Tragically, just before the release of the first book Larsson died of a heart attack.
While the books – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- went into publication and became the international sensation we are now familiar with, a sad drama played out in Sweden. Larsson's father and brother challenged his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, for rights to Larsson's estate including his literary estate. Gabrielsson, an architect, has been recognized by their mutual friends and colleagues as a close and dear collaborator with Larsson in his life and work. However, they never married, and unlike most advanced countries, Sweden does not recognize the rights of common-law partners. Larsson received frequent death threats from the far right organizations he wrote about; his journal's office location was nondescript and he kept his home address as private as possible; he also avoided press interviews and photographs to make it more difficult for him to be tracked by the groups that threatened him. Due to various particularities of Swedish marriage law and the information that was publicly accessible about married couples, he worried marrying would make it easier to find him and endanger both himself and his partner.
As a result, Gabrielsson was expropriated of any rights over her partner's work. She tells her poignant and powerful story in the 2011 book There Are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me (Seven Stories Press). Larsson's father and brother wound up with full rights, and quickly partnered with the various corporations – publishers, movie studios – now angling to profit from Larsson's works. In addition to publishing the first trilogy with editing changes that Larsson in some cases would have been vehemently opposed to, they released both Swedish and American film versions of the books. Then they decided to continue the series, hiring a new writer (David Lagercrantz) to appropriate Larsson's characters and world (the rights holders have also authorized an independent graphic novel series unrelated to the novels, by Sylvain Runberg, who did the graphic novels for the original series ). All this was done in stark opposition to Gabrielsson, and in all likelihood in opposition to what Larsson himself would have wanted.
Before considering these actions in the context of a changing societal understanding of consent, it's worthwhile exploring some examples of the changes and different directions applied to Larsson's work after his death.
Changing Larsson's Books
The superb collection The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of our Time (St. Martin's Griffin, 2011), consists of a series of articles from over three dozen contributors compiled by Larsson's former colleagues Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henre Holmberg. It's much more interesting and analytical than its sensational-sounding title might suggest. The collection consists of more than three dozen essays, including interviews, literary analyses of the works, essays on the social and historical context of the novels, and reflections on Larsson himself as well as his journalistic work. It also reveals some of the ways in which Larsson's work was diluted and altered after his death.
The most glaring example is the books' titles. Larsson insisted on use of his title "Men Who Hate Women" for the first book, refusing to consider alternatives despite his publishers' pleading. It was important to him that the public understand what the books were really about. In addition to writing compulsively engaging thrillers, he was endeavoring to expose and highlight societal misogyny and men's violence against women. Given that he insisted in writing on this point before his death, his Swedish publishers had no choice but to acquiesce to his demands for the first book in Swedish. Yet the relevant laws enabled them to permit a different title for the book in translation, and so The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was born in the English-speaking world. He'd had different titles in mind for the subsequent books, too: The Witch Fantasizing About a Jerry Can and a Match for the second, and The Queen of the Castle in the Air (in other places listed as The Exploding Castle in the Air) for the third. His intended title of the second book refers to Lisbeth Salander's attempt to kill her abusive father, while 'castle in the air' is a Swedish phrase roughly equivalent to 'pipe dream' in English, and Holmberg suggests it refers to Larsson's attempt to reveal the notion of the benevolent Swedish state as just that.
There were other changes too though, as Holmberg notes in his contributions to The Tattooed Girl (Holmberg had copies of the original unedited texts which his friend Larsson sent him to read). A section of the third book referring to police officer Monica Figuerola's desire to use neo-nazis and skinheads as punching bags was removed. Another discussion between Salander and her occasional lesbian lover Miriam Wu was edited, removing several comments that reveal their attitudes toward sex. In the deleted comments, it appears Larsson was attempting to portray two women who had sex in the way men are stereotypically portrayed as having sex – "like a guy at a meat market… having sex and walking out in the morning." Challenging gender stereotypes, particularly those common to popular fiction, was an important aspect of Larsson's novels, and the deletion of comments such as these undermines this aim. Larsson was, of course, dead by the time these edits were made.
The hand of Larsson's relatives was also behind some of the changes, Holmberg suggests. He notes that Larsson wrote some of his friends into the text, including the doctor who treats Salander at the beginning of the second book. That doctor, a friend of Larsson's, got into an argument with Larsson's father the year after his death, and the father ordered the publisher to remove him from the book (his name was changed, and became Dr. Jonasson in the text). The doctor on whom the character was based (in real life, Dr. Anders Jakobsson) subsequently published an open letter, stating "I am in a position to state that Stieg would definitely not accept that anyone corrupted his books nor robbed his life partner Eva of his legacy. In fact, Stieg Larsson would have done anything to stop this, had he been alive. Without any limits whatsoever."
Another friend Larsson wrote into the text, whose prominence as a psychiatrist was used in an important way in the third book, was initially delighted to feature in the text but later, appalled at the family's "profiteering" off of Larsson at the expense of Gabrielsson, demanded his name be removed in protest. "[Y]ou are no longer only pathetic," he wrote to Larsson's brother Joakim in a published letter quoted in The Tattooed Girl. "You are also reviling Stieg…" Despite his request, his name was not removed.
Still, these relatively minor edits pale by comparison with what Lagercrantz has wrought with the series, as we shall explore.
What's Wrong With Literary Appropriation?
It might be easy to say: what's the big deal? Bestselling series of books get taken over all the time by different authors, to the extent one hardly knows who's really writing them half the time. Either multiple authors use the same pen name, or original authors share authorial credit with new writers, or series become divorced from their original authors and free-floating franchises, open to multiple interpretations.
Indeed, as Yuri Leving and Frederick H. White point out in their 2013 study Marketing Literature and Posthumous Legacies (Lexington, 2013), "Literature is not only about aesthetics, but also almost equally about economics… the real work begins once the creative process ends." Other scholars have observed that the history of copyright is intricately wound up in the notion that an author's work ought to be treated like another person's financial capital, and maintained in such a way as to sustain their family and descendants once they are gone. Leving and White also note that this process can, if properly handled, further enhance a writer's reputation and legacy once they are gone.
What's different and important about the Millennium series is that it signifies a literary appropriation that, while legal under objectionable Swedish marriage laws, has taken place against the full-scale opposition of the woman who ought, morally speaking, to be the one everyone turns to for consent. In their study, Leving and White take it as granted that the beneficiary of a literary legacy would most likely be a partner or offspring of the author; in the case of Larsson however, his partner is the one who has been expropriated (through admittedly legal means) of this right.
The case of the Millennium series is further obfuscated by the nature of Gabrielsson's relationship with Larsson. Leving and White assume that once the transfer of symbolic capital (literary worth) into financial capital occurs, the beneficiaries are a widening circle of people "who were not involved in the actual creative process." Yet many of Larsson's friends and colleagues attest to the fact that Gabrielsson played a key role in Larsson's creative process, aiding him in research and helping him work through his ideas. She was, as Holmberg points out, "not only in the general sense Stieg's partner for more than thirty years, but much more importantly his partner in virtually everything. I have seldom met any couple so intensely and joyfully a constant part of each other's lives… They compared notes, co-wrote things, discussed with each other… they shared all, worked and functioned as a team, and were inseparable for as long as Stieg lived… I do not have the slightest doubt that Stieg wrote the Millennium novels in exactly the same way he wrote most of his work: by himself, in an ongoing creative partnership with Eva."
Ironically, even the debate over how to deal posthumously with an author's work can be marketed for commercial gain, and the risk of fueling the debate is to generate further capital for whomever winds up the recipient of the estate's revenue. In Leving and White's study, the case of Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished final novel, The Original of Laura, is examined. It was Nabokov's wish that the unfinished novel be destroyed, yet following his death an intense debate erupted over whether the author's wishes should be followed or whether the work was of value to society and this justified ignoring the author's wishes. The debate was further fueled by Nabokov's son's indecision about whether, as the rights holder, to follow his father's wishes. Whatever the moral assessment of this debate (the unfinished fragments were finally published in 2009, after 30 years of public controversy), the commercial output was a net positive: by generating further public interest in Nabokov it led to the reissuing of much of his earlier work and boosted, overall, his literary legacy. This phenomenon, and the debate which fuelled it, is what Leving and White refer to as the 'discourse of absence'. There is certainly an element of this in the debate over the moral use of Larsson's literary world.
In the past few years, the reconsideration of our society's understanding of consent and appropriation have transformed our collective understanding of right and wrong in tremendous ways. Increasingly our society recognizes the importance of consent, as well as the problems inherent in forms of appropriation that may be legally permitted yet morally, ethically and socially abhorrent. Witness the controversies surrounding appropriation of cultural and other identities in literature, for instance – acts which are entirely legal (and have been historically common), yet today are considered morally questionable. Appropriation of an author's literary estate, and the core identity of their oeuvre and characters, falls into an equally questionable category.
Svante Weyler, former publishing director of the books' Swedish publisher Norstedts, acknowledged these complicated obligations in his reflection "The Stieg Larsson Phenomenon" (contained in On Stieg Larsson).
"What role did Norstedts have to play in all this?" he writes, referring to the controversy over who ought to control Larsson's literary legacy. "Formally speaking, none at all… but from a moral point of view we were deeply involved. We tried to mediate regarding emotions and points of view between the two "sides" in the hope of achieving a more equitable outcome than that prescribed by the law, an aspiration clearly hoped for by all parties. I do not know if we could have done something differently at the time, or if it might be possible to do something different now."
As Weyler observes, the third-party corporations might be able to avoid legal complicity, but their moral complicity and responsibility is deep and indisputable. It ought to make us ask – how can film companies like Columbia Pictures and publishers like Penguin Books (the North American publisher) get away with complicity in this exploitative misuse of Larsson's work, made possible only by the misogynistic laws which allow them to appropriate his work despite his partner's best efforts to protect it?
The treatment of the Millennium series by its publishers, film producers, and by David Lagercrantz (the author assigned by the publishers to continue the series) represents the worst abuse of these two principles: a bald effort to appropriate and profit from Larsson's work without the consent of his partner, who has been sidelined due to an antiquated and sexist Swedish marriage law. What's just as awful is that a series which Larsson wrote partially in an effort to expose and tackle the issue of societal misogyny and sexism has been appropriated by Lagercrantz and his publishers in such a manner for profit, and in a way that's manipulated sexist laws against Larsson's partner toward the benefit of the (mostly men) who now profit from Larsson's work.
The Sequels That Undermine Everything Larsson Stood For
One of the trademark characteristics of the original series, as written by Larsson, was that the primary villains all turn out to be men. That doesn't mean there are no unpleasant women characters, but the ones responsible for the true villainy – murder, child abuse, sexual assault – are men. This is consonant with Larsson's aim with the series: to use it to reveal the stark and often ignored reality in today's world of "men who hate women".
I don't think it's that Larsson didn't think there were villainous women out there. As a journalist, he came into contact with racists and violent nationalists and did not hesitate to write about them, in a responsible way. But in a still heavily misogynistic and patriarchal society, he saw no point in further fuelling the misogynistic and unsympathetic portrayal of women in his fiction.
His principled approach to the portrayal of crime and victims is reflected in correspondence with his publishers at Norstedts, some of which has been published. In an email to his editor, Eva Gedin, written on 30 April 2004 Larsson writes: "In many respects I have gone out of my way to avoid the usual approach adopted in crime novels… A rule of thumb has been never to romanticize crime or criminals, nor to stereotype victims of crime… I have tried to avoid making victims of crime anonymous people."
One of the worst things about Lagercrantz's sequels is that he manages to promptly throw this principle out the window. It's quite telling about the pervasiveness of the 'villainous woman' trope that Lagercrantz makes his novels rely so heavily on it. In counterpoint to Lisbeth Salander's strong woman character, Lagercrantz introduces in his first sequel The Girl in the Spider's Web a character only cursorily mentioned in Larsson's originals: Lisbeth's sister, Camilla. Camilla is not just any antagonist; she's a stereotypical female villain. She's portrayed by Lagercrantz as fantastically beautiful, and uses her sexuality to manipulate the men around her. She's also cruel and hell-bent on revenge against her sister. And whereas Larsson always included strong backstories to explain his characters and help us understand them – even his villains – Lagercrantz depicts Camilla as being sadistically evil almost from birth.
It's actually quite astounding that Lagercrantz flew like a magnet to the overused trope of the villainous, hyper-sexualized woman. In a book centred on hacking and computer culture, Camilla is not even a hacker, but rather relies on sexually manipulating the male hackers around her.
Camilla is mentioned only briefly by Larsson in The Girl Who Played with Fire, and then only to say that she is "completely different" from Lisbeth. This could have meant anything: for all we know, this could mean she's a political activist, or that she joined the army. Larsson does mention that her reaction to their father's abuse of their mother was to ignore it and try to pretend their family was normal (in contrast to Lisbeth, who tried to kill her father). But Lagercrantz has taken a character who suffered childhood abuse and depicted this abuse as making her into a hypersexualized villainous adult. So much for respecting Larsson's determination not to stereotype victims.
In Lagercrantz's second Millennium book, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, he continues undermining Larsson's good work. The book opens with Salander in prison, where her foes are a gang of women bullies. Soon after, another villainous woman appears: the evil woman scientist Rakel Greitz. It's as though Lagercrantz is trying to make up for lost time; where Larsson avoided depicting women in casually misogynistic, stereotypic ways Lagercrantz works overtime to fill his books with as many stereotypical, negatively portrayed women as possible. In this he is not too different from many other crime thriller writers. But Larsson's work strove to challenge and move away from this trope, not reinforce it as Lagercrantz does.
Further, when it comes to some of the truly interesting, strong women that populated the original series, Lagercrantz ignores them entirely. Harriett Vanger, an interesting albeit secondary character who winds up bankrolling Millennium magazine, is written off as a business failure in Lagercrantz' sequels, barely even appearing on stage. More shockingly, Monica Figuerola, the strong and well-crafted female police officer who was in a romantic relationship with Blomkvist at the end of the original trilogy (and who dreamt of using neo-nazis as punching bags), disappears with no explanation in Lagercrantz' sequels, as though she never existed in the first place. According to Larsson's colleague Dan Burstein, Figuerola "would have become a recurring investigator and love interest in future Larsson books (with her well-described combination of Olympic athleticism, intellectual brilliance, strong moral sense, and comfortable belief in sex without commitment)…" Apparently she was too strong a female character for Lagercrantz to know what to do with, so he simply erased her.
In The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye Lagercrantz also, incredibly, weaves in a gang of murderous Islamists. In this sub-plot, Faria, a young Bangladeshi woman, is portrayed as the victim of her radical Islamist brothers and their friends, who fit every trope in the book. It's ironic in the worst way that Lagercrantz chose to reify such a stilted and stereotypic image of the angry Islamist immigrant (coupled with the helpless Muslim woman). Larsson, in his journalistic capacity, worked tirelessly in opposition to these very tropes. In 2004 he co-published a book on 'honour killings' (with anthropologist and journalist Cecilia Englund, titled in Swedish Debatten om hedersmord, or The Honour Killing Debate), in which he argued against stereotypes which highlight Islamist misogyny and violence against women while sidelining, ignoring or otherwise differentiating the violence and misogyny perpetrated by western men against women. Larsson and Englund's book was driven by the public discussion which erupted around the murders of two women: Fadimeh Sahindal, a Kurdish refugee who was murdered by her father in retaliation for her activism, and Melissa Nordell, a Swedish-born fashion model murdered by her boyfriend. Public sentiment predominantly labelled Sahindal's murder an "honour killing" rooted in Islamic culture, while Nordell's murder was considered "a 'normal' Swedish killing, born of jealousy", writes Holmberg (in an essay titled "Stieg Larsson: The Un-Swedish Author" contained in the short collection On Stieg Larsson, Knopf, 2010).
"But to Stieg, this was taking the easy way out," writes Holmberg. "He called the two women 'sisters in death', and took the position that they had both fallen victim to the same male inclination to control women with violence… The public debate, in Stieg's view, aimed at stigmatizing violence against women by immigrants in order to cover up the hatred against women displayed by western males. This gave him the theme, and his intended overall title for the novels: "Men Who Hate Women".
Larsson would doubtless have had angry words to say about Lagercrantz's lazy reliance on Islamophobic stereotypes to build a second cohort of evil villains in the book (in a preposterously laughable denouement, the end of that book sees the villainous women prisoners and the violent Islamists gang up together against Lisbeth).
For all its faults, at least The Girl in the Spider's Web reads with a sense of momentum, plot cohesion and suspense. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is, comparatively, a mess of lazy writing and bewildering plots. The poor quality of the narrative aside, the book butchers Larsson's hard work at building credible, progressive-minded characters in the original trilogy. Larsson worked hard to explain how the characters enacted their complex sexual and emotional relationships with each other. His characters worked very hard and very realistically to manage these relationships, in particular the ones that were outside the heteronormative, monogamous tropes. Lagercrantz doesn't seem to know what to do with any of this.
Take, for instance, Blomkvist's frequent trysts with his editor, Erika Berger, who is married in an open relationship. In the original trilogy Larsson explores these relationships from the perspectives of each of the characters involved, realistically presenting their aspirational yet conflicting feelings, treating them sensitively and with respect. Lagercrantz, on the other hand, has Berger stumble upon Blomkvist in bed with his ex-girlfriend Malin Frode, and immediately the two women fly into a jealous rage over the man: "The women began to argue with each other, and then they argued with him too, until Berger marched off in a fury, slamming the door behind her." Where Larsson treats women, especially women in non-normative sexual relationships, with respect and maturity, Lagercrantz' narrative dissolves into a miasma of poorly-written, sexist norms and stereotypes.
When he's been interviewed on the topic of Gabrielsson's expropriation of rights to Larsson's legacy, Lagercrantz has adopted an essentially paternalistic approach to the dispute which has to be galling to anyone who is sick of hearing men try to situate themselves as somehow above and beyond the misogyny in which they are directly implicated.
"I have the deepest sympathy for Eva Gabrielsson as well, of course. This has been the most passionate project in my life, but the only thing that makes me sad and troubles me is that she is so angry," he stated in a 2015 interview with the Belfast Telegraph. "She can say anything bad about me and I will always have the deepest sympathy for what she has gone through… I would love to meet her and talk to her and maybe understand."
This response is disingenuous. He is profiting off of her dead partner's works. Why should she have to meet a man she considers a "grave-robber"?
It's difficult to imagine a more insensitive response. In the time-old tradition of misogynistic gaslighting, he sanctimoniously implies that she is the unreasonable, irrational one. He situates himself as an innocent writer. Yet how innocent is he? He is the one who made the decision to accept a contract to write the books, in full knowledge that Larsson's partner opposed it. He is the one who decided, fully informed, to put his ambitious career and lucrative royalties above the objections of a woman whose ethical right to decision-making in the matter was being trampled over by a misogynistic and antiquated law. It is Lagercrantz, not Gabrielsson, who needs to answer for his actions.
The distinction between Larsson and Lagercrantz is starkly symbolized in their different engagements with writing. Larsson is depicted by his friends as a man who took immense joy in writing the books. Writing them was his way of relaxing from his busy and stressful work as a journalist. In the many published reminiscences by friends, a ubiquitous image is that of Larsson sitting with his laptop on his knee, smiling away to himself joyfully as he wrote his novels. He wrote them in public cafes; at his office; at a friend's cabin while on summer holiday with Gabrielsson (where Jonas Sundberg, a colleague at Expo magazine, recounts waking and finding Larsson out on the porch, happily typing away at them "as if nothing would give him more pleasure at three o'clock in the morning").
Lagercrantz, on the other hand, reportedly met the publishers in a secret basement to negotiate the deal to sign the books, and had to write the books hidden away from the public, without even an internet connection (lest a hacker manage to steal a draft before it was done).
Compare the two: Larsson, full of life, writing with joy in all the places he moved in the world. Lagercrantz, skulking in basements with publishers, writing the books in secretive cubbyholes cut off from the world. These two contrasts underscore that there is something very wrong with how Larsson's legacy has been handled.
We live in a world which is increasingly holding authors to account for their complicity in profiting off others' oppression. Lagercrantz, his publishers, and the film industry tapping into this misuse of Larsson's legacy deserve no less.
Would Larsson have approved of other writers taking his characters? Probably not. He was not opposed to his books making money – in fact he considered them his "pension plan" and had plans for many more. His emails and the few comments he made around the series which are publicly available suggest that while he was delightfully amenable to collaborative editing and publishing, he had clear boundaries he intended to enforce (on the covers for his books: "I will probably have views regarding the cover visuals," he wrote to his editor on 4 August 2004. "Sexist covers are banned.").
What we can be 100 percent certain of, however, is that he would be an implacable foe of his creation being used in the way it has: to marginalise and sideline a woman who was an integral part of his life and work, for the benefit of ambitious men and corporations. Lagercrantz' sequels are an example of the worst case of literary treachery. One can only hope that the growing movement to rectify exploitative wrongs against women will expand to include rights in the literary and entertainment sphere, and that, regardless of what Swedish law allows second-rate novelists and grasping corporations to get away with, Gabriellson's moral rights to have a say in her partner's literary legacy will be restored to her.
Gabrielsson has hinted she has access to the bulk of a sequel written by Larsson himself, and notes toward a fifth book. She, his closest collaborator, has suggested she'd be open to completing these. A fitting tribute to Larsson, and compensation for the exploitative damage done to his work and to his partner, would be for the film companies and publishers to apologize to Gabrielsson for their complicity in the entire mess, and arrange for her rights to control his legacy to be restored. If this cannot be accomplished in Sweden, at least it shouldn't be aided and abetted in North America, where the latest film in this exploitative saga is currently playing in theatres.
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