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 understanding 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.