On the Success of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
With the Scott Rudin/David Fincher “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” film release this month, as well as the release of the eBook bundle of the entire trilogy, it seems like a good time to reflect on the huge success of the Stieg Larsson books. With over 65 million copies sold, and fans worldwide spanning ages, classes, and sexes, it’s clear that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is not only an enormous commercial success, it has directly impacted our culture. But why? What made these books so popular to begin with?
Any discussion of the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has to begin with a discussion of Lisbeth Salander – a name that has been on everyone’s lips since the first book first topped bestseller lists three years ago. Lisbeth is often suggested as Larsson’s secret to success. And it’s true that her appeal goes deep. Stieg Larsson makes it almost impossible not to root for her as our heroine. As a culture we abhor abuses of power, but we have an equally strong aversion to the weak and the powerless (see Lord of the Flies). We like the underdog who overcomes. And Lisbeth Salander is that in spades. Powerful abusive forces have consistently tried to make her a victim, and yet she comes to us a fierce warrior princess. (Add to this the fact that for much of the series we’re not exactly sure who has tried to make Lisbeth the victim; that mystery looms in the background like the smoking man from “The X-Files,” a puzzle to be solved with all the others.)
And then there is our culture’s modern fascination with fierce women characters who are more powerful than the men around them. Think “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” This is a difficult setup to pull off, though, because we also dislike milquetoast men, so any male character working with such a woman needs to be sufficiently cool and accomplished to maintain our sympathies – and so we have Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkvist is a victim as well, but we’re never in doubt that somehow, someway, he will claw his way out of his plight and reassert himself as a vanquisher of the powerful and corrupt.
I have always thought there was an interesting inversion in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, too. Lisbeth is the diminutive young hacker girl with a photographic memory – someone we’d normally see to be the damsel in distress – yet she turns into an action hero. Then there’s Mikael Blomkvist, the intrepid journalist who turns out to be the boy toy. And with these two, this tension allows for the constant possibility that the woman might seduce the man at any time – which has its own appeal.
In the year of Occupy Wall Street it’s important also to mention the victory of the regular man and woman (to the extent you can call Lisbeth regular) over powerful and phenomenally wealthy forces. Americans (and most of the world) like to see the rich and powerful brought back down to earth.
And one final consideration. It is widely known that Stieg Larsson was an inveterate reader of mysteries. A quick consult of Wikipedia comes up with the following list of his favorites (although I’ve also seen others): Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth George, Sara Paretsky, and Val McDermid. Stieg used his knowledge of the genre to great effect in all three books, not just in terms of writing riveting fiction with compelling characters, but also formally. The first book is essentially a locked-room mystery, woven together with a serial killer thriller, all within the frame of a financial thriller. The second book is more a police procedural, and the final text is essentially a courtroom drama blended with a spy thriller. They are all successful styles which readers have come to love individually, but Stieg Larsson managed to blend all of these various styles – and the whole history of mystery – into one superb, woefully short series of books.
But these are just my thoughts. What do you think is the secret to the success of this series? As an editor and a fan of the books, I would love to hear.