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.