My Dragon Tattoo: A Book and Movie Review

Last Wednesday, I sat down with a friend at the Regal Cinema nearby to watch “the feel bad movie of Christmas.” For the uninitiated, that’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an American film based on the international best-selling book by Stieg Larrson. Yes, I knew that the movie would be gritty. I read half of the book before arriving–including one rape scene–so I knew the milieu I was getting into. This wasn’t going to be Secretariat or Fireproof. But I had read enough to know that Stieg Larrson was a first-class storyteller in terms of craft. I had some reason to hope it would be thought-provoking evening, at least.

A lot of Christians wouldn’t consider reading or watching this story based on the the subject matter. Adultery, sexual violence, murder, feminism, leftist politics–to name a few boogie men. And that’s not a bad thing. In all honestly, I chose to afflict myself with the book and movie for one simple and rather personal reason: when I was a young adult, I would have latched on to just this sort of movie. Strong young heroine, a little edgy but still considered artistic or cutting edge in some way.  I wanted to investigate how the film might have impacted me.

As it turns out, Stieg Larrson’s story isn’t really all that groundbreaking in terms of plot and resolution. Definitely a little more gritty than G. K. Chesterton, but like many modern mysteries, it involves a group of suspects–this time a Swedish family–with Nazi ties, “right-wing” religious zealots, and lots of weird sexual hang-ups. (And consciously so: he name drops Dorothy Sayers and aknowledges common mystery conceits and devices.) In short, a sleuth and his assistant must unravel the secrets of a young girl’s death, and outsmart the killer to stay alive.

What is new, for mainstream audiences at least, is two-fold: first, Lisbeth Salander. Black boots. Black piercings. Bleached eyebrows and black tattoos. She is bisexual, but her sex life seems to be the only thing that is open about her. In most every other way, she is locked under years of bruises and callouses built up by the hands of her tormentors–her father, her schoolmates, her lovers, and most recently, her government-appointed advocate (social worker). She is part of a Swedish subculture that audiences haven’t seen before–yet she isn’t all that foreign really, as the soundtrack by Trent Reznor illustrates. Some version of the Nine Inch Nails crowd can be found at just about any American high school or community college.  I know because I had a good friend and roommate who gave me access to the Mississippi version during my college years. Salander is someone I respect greatly for that reason; I know what it is like to love and be loved by someone like her, to be allowed in to the closed rooms of her heart…even just for a season.

A lot of people will be repulsed by Salander because she is “different.” But what scares me isn’t her difference–it’s how much we are alike. In many ways, the Salanders I knew grabbed on to anything–sex, cigarettes, narcotics, music–that made them feel in control and significant, part of a family of misfits, in a world that for them was chaos. Even though I chose the role of the good girl most of the time, even though my preferred veneer was pink lipstick and blonde hair and winsome humor, I was just as hungry and empty as Salander.  Still wrestle with these feelings today.

Unfortunately, however, director David Fincher takes this underbelly of society and its “grittiness” to a new low. Part of the reason is just poor storytelling. The rape scene in Kite Runner was nauseating, but it had meaning. Unfortunately, because the story never comes together in Dragon Tattoo the movie, we are left with a potporri of meaningless relationships and ravaged flesh. One particular scene stands out as a for instance. Viewers follow Salander into a room as she is handcuffed to a bed and a rape scene ensues. The camera slowly backs out until the door shuts, and we are spared the visual carnage–only forced to hear the screams coming from inside. We are spared…but only for a moment. Suddenly the camera jumps back inside the room and we are forced to witness a play-by-play of Salander’s wretched ordeal.   Why? Is that really necessary?

The reality, though, is that director David Fincher has only represented, albeit poorly, something that was at the heart of the book. While I do believe that voyeurism and the desire to shock or provoke is at play here, there is also something noble behind it. Isn’t at least part of the reason Larrson and Fincher want us to visualize what happens to Salander (and later other people) because we don’t want her in there alone?

I mean, I think about my own mother, on the night she died, in desperate pain and how hard it was for me to be in the room with her. I prayed over and over again for the strength merely to be in the room with her, the courage to lay next to her and listen to her strain to breathe. I think authors like Larrson rightly feel that the brutalized people of the world ought not to be alone. And even if we can’t fix it, we can at least be with them in their sufferings. As J. K. Rowling describes those who ignore the evil of life, “many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.”

I certainly don’t want to be a steel-hearted ostrich.  So, shouldn’t I celebrate the new “gritty realism” Larrson and Fincher represent?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.  Even if we set aside the argument that Salander will be a negative role model for millions of girls struggling with sex, drugs, and relationship addictions. Even if we wink at the fact that this movie will be as enjoyable for perverts as those who suffer at their hands…even so, I would ask, what solution has Larrson really given us?

An empowered female protagonist perhaps? But Salander is fiction. She’s a technological genius and a Nine-Inch-Nails She-ra, able to leap sado-masochists with a single bound. In reality, how many battered women will be able to turn the table on their tormentors? Not many.   So even on that account, I would say this movie raises hopes for something it can’t possibly deliver on.

But the real danger of this movie is that it offers a false gospel, in ever more tattered clothes. The farther we get from God as a culture, the less we feel His Spirit speaking where we have no words and healing the bruises no one can see… the more we will need our fellow men with us in the rape rooms of life.  We are alone. We want intimacy. We are bored. We want stimulation. We are bruised and bleeding beneath the fig leaves of fake smiles and sentimental holiday music. We want a rebel to break through the stupidity of it all and offer something real.  Be real.  Make us real.

The truth is, the Salanders and I and you and everyone are desperate for life. But there is only one who can give us that–who can uncover our nakedness without exposing our shame. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shuffles us a little farther down the line of baseness and perversity that we as a culture are willing not just to tolerate, but to promote.  In contrast, the tattoo of Christ–His death present in our bodies by the Spirit–goes deeper than any mortal stain, and it alone can make us the glorious creatures we were meant to be.

For links to more dark fiction reviews, as well as a download of Janie’s series on dystopian fiction for YAs, click on over to our Dystopian Download.  Or to go deeper about what the gospel really means, see Janie’s article this month in World Magazine, The God without Pride.


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  1. Sherry on December 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Although I find your insights about the movie much more incisive than mine after reading the book, here’s my book review for what it’s worth:

    I don’t think I can “be in the room” by watching the movie; the book was about all I could take. And I had to keep telling myself that it was fiction. Not true, just fiction. Only if you’re right, and I think you are, there is an element of truth there that is disturbing to say the least.

  2. Jess on December 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Wow. I haven’t read the book or watched the movie (and am not interested in doing so). But this was really beautiful. It moves beyond the basic pros and cons review to something on a level much more personal, almost like poetry. It says so much more than what the book is about and why we should/shouldn’t read it. Thanks for that, Emily. 🙂

  3. Renee Mathis on December 27, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Timely read for me as I just finished watching the Swedish version of the film. I’m 48 and wondered “Am I just not ‘cool’ enough to get this? Should I be willing to enter into the grit and the violence in order in order to understand what the Lisbeths of the world go through?”

    I’m afraid not. Call me an uncool ostrich.

    Emily, seeing a thousand of these movies would not have prepared you to accompany your mother through her final hours. Spending time in the presence of the One who can and does fight for us is our first order of preparation. No one wants to be alone in suffering but do we want an sympathetic hand patter or do we want a warrior? Lisbeth needed a savior in that room and without one she could only hope to perpetuate the cycle of violence.

    You are right. At its heart Dragon Tattoo is a murder mystery. All the gritty realism in the world won’t add to the story and my fear is it only offers a false sense of sympathy.

    Thank you again for being willing to tackle some hard questions here. I appreciate your talent and your transparency.

  4. Kim on December 27, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I was only able to read half the book before I just could not allow myself to continue reading. I forced myself to return it to the library and then Googled how it ended. He is an incredible storyteller and I wanted to keep reading and know how it ended, but I couldn’t justify continuing to fill my mind with the sexual descriptiveness he strings throughout. I did not realize this was a YA book, and I am so sad to discover that it is.

    Thanks for your insightful review. I’m always interested to read how other believers interact with our culture.

  5. Gently Mad on December 27, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I haven’t read the book or the movie but what you’re describing is pornography. The question is, is it sinful to watch a movie like that? Did the Holy Spirit lead you to a place so you could witness horrible, despicable acts committed against a young girl? Why would He do that? Once those images are in your mind they can’t simply be extracted.
    Would you want your husband to watch that movie?

    I am already aware of human suffering. God’s Spirit has moved me in many ways to do what I can to help through donating to Christian groups that combat child abuse and sex trafficking to becoming a foster parent. I never needed to watch a movie filled with graphic sex and violence to become inspired to help.

    I think that we can intellectualize and justify watching anything. The bottom line is the movie was made to give movie goers a salacious thrill-some blatantly so, others through the guise of going, “tsk, tsk, tsk.”

    What this movie exposes is the price of sexual freedom. People become so dead inside they need more and more perversion to stimulate them. This is more evident in Europe but is becoming more and more so in the U.S. I think that’s why these sort of movies are so popular.

    What scripture is there to support giving an audience to evil or turning our minds from the things of Christ?
    How does that movie benefit anyone?

  6. emily on December 28, 2011 at 6:33 am

    I really appreciate everyone’s comments on my post. Thanks for engaging the ideas and thinking through it with me. I am just so proud to have such a thoughtful, articulate audience! You guys really are the best.

    Kim, thankfully this isn’t technically a YA book. However, in the bookstore I visited over Christmas, this book was two shelves over from the YA section. And when I was 16, I always read from the adult section–especially if the protagonist was young and hip, and the story cutting edge in some way. My guess is that a LOT of teenagers, especially girls, will read this based purely on the young female protagonist.

  7. emily on December 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I agree with you, Gently Mad, that the movie is pornography. I closed my eyes through much of it, and if it hadn’t been for the blog post, I would have left the theater. I don’t recommend that anyone see the movie. Some people might benefit from the book, though I confess I have only read half of it. As far as why God would lead me, personally, into such a horrible vision, I sympathize with your question…but I would argue that He takes people into war all the time. He takes undercover policemen into strip clubs and porn rings, for the purpose of rescuing young girls who are sex slaves. That’s quite a different thing from leading general audiences there, which I would loudly disapprove of. My purpose was essentially the same–to engage readers who would be enticed by such a story and give them and my normal readers a glimpse of the gospel. I hope that that makes some sense, even if we have to agree to disagree. : )

  8. Gently Mad on December 28, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Emily: I guess what disturbs me is that sado-masochism has become mainstream entertainment. Everywhere I go I see people reading this book.

    I’m glad Christians like you are soundly condemning the book but it’s a travesty that our society as a whole lacks the critical thinking skills to understand that books and movies like that shouldn’t be allowed to make money.

    How old was that girl actor? Very young. When we put our money down for a ticket or the book we’re perpetuating the exploitation of girls like her. I wonder how her life has been affected by performing some of those scenes.

    Thanks for opening up the subject and allowing for this kind of discussion. Take care.

  9. Janie Cheaney on December 29, 2011 at 9:25 am

    The public taste for sado-masochism distresses me, too. That’s why I had no interest in reading the book. Still, maybe somebody has to do it. I’m not trying to be at all facetious here. About 25 years ago, Dr. James Dobson served on the [Atty. General Ed] Meese commission on pornography. He had to watch that stuff, day after day, a soul-killing experience, as he reported later. But the Meese Commission, if I remember correctly, laid some important groundwork for prosecuting child porn. Christians are called to be prophets in certain areas: to call out powers that be and speak truth both to believers and unbelievers. It doesn’t mean we should plunge ourselves into filth; far from it. But what Emily may be doing here is “making every thought captive to Christ”–even satanic thoughts. She certainly got me thinking!

  10. Gently Mad on December 29, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Janie: As I said, I’m glad that Emily opened up this discussion and I pray that the people I see (mostly woman my age!) devouring these books will come across your blog. Hopefully it will also get THEM thinking about it too! Take care and blessings to you both.

  11. Gina on December 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Name-drops Sayers, does he? Interesting!

  12. melanie on January 4, 2012 at 9:23 am

    I read the trilogy (I believe the first book is the most brutal and graphic sexually although the rest are quite violent). Your movie review confirms what I already thought – that taking the imagined images, easy to flip through in the book, once visual would be most unpleasant. Besides Larsson’s masterful storytelling, which is attractive to avid readers, I think it is also a window into Swedish culture and politics. It isn’t just the climate that is harsh! Also, I just wanted to note – some of the early reviews of this first book was that Salander’s character traits that lined up with an Asperger’s diagnosis. I think that was a hook, particularly for us Americans who like to label things…just an fyi.
    And yes, this book is shocking no matter how “immune” you think you are to content.

  13. emily on January 4, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Yes, I had forgotten about the Asperger’s angle. Thanks, Melanie.

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