'The Girl in the Spider's Web' and When Stories Grow Beyond an Author

Lisbeth Salander cannot be contained. For fans of the Millennium series, this information is nothing new. Salander, known for both her sleuthing skills and punishment of deserving men, has become an iconic figure, one unbound to any singular novel or adaptation. She is one of those prized creations that has grown beyond country, actress or even author. Like so many works adopted into the world of popular culture, the posthumously published Stieg Larsson novels have matured beyond his pen. This weekend’s release of Fede Alvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, adapted from David Lagercrantz’s 2015 novel of the same name, is mounting evidence that Lisbeth Salander and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo brand has become its own entity, separate from the impetus of its creator. If Salander has truly grown beyond Larsson, then what exactly does that mean for her future? When characters and concepts grow beyond their creators, are they irrevocably damaged, or are they allowed to become something more meaningful and contemporary?

The case of Lisbeth Salander’s division from Stieg Larsson, if that’s indeed what has happened, isn’t new. From Middle-Earth, Westeros, comic book universes, and galaxies far, far away, popular properties are severed from the names of those who bore them. While they're not exactly operating in the no-man’s land of public domain, there is a shared sense of entitlement attached to these concepts that were once considered to be visionary works of individuals. J.R.R. Tolkien may have introduced us to hobbits, George R. R. Martin to White Walkers and George Lucas to Jedi, but these creations have become untethered from their points of origin and developed into something communal and franchise-able. It’s not simply the process of adaptation that has stripped so many characters and concepts away from singular authorship but the relinquishing of rights and the giving up of properties, either personally or by way of an estate, that has allowed so many others to take their own stab, for better or worse.

While still novel compared to the aforementioned works, Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium series find themselves evolving from Larsson within a pop culture space that continuously promises new talent and fresh takes. New television series that take the fantasy realms Middle-Earth and Westeros past the written words of Tolkien and Martin, new Star Wars movies and spin-offs that recontextualize George Lucas’ universe, and new superhero films and shows comprised of a medley of voices and artists from different decades are just the past few months’ worth of developments that promise new voices and new visions. Despite our quest for the new, all of these works hold a personal place for their creators, perhaps as both triumphs and burdens. The worlds they conceive and the characters they populate them with are extensions of themselves. Anyone who has worked in a creative medium can understand that. But sometimes works are so personal that an adaptation that seeks to change or sequelize the original is painful.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining immediately comes to mind. King has made no secret of his displeasure with Kubrick's adaptation over the years, even going so far as to pen his own, directed by Mick Garris in 1997. Kubrick’s film is brilliant, but as an adaptation it fails to capture King’s very personal struggle with his own addictions and inner demons that went into the creation of the novel. Perhaps no adaptation could quite capture King’s personal stake in the story, but nevertheless, The Shining has become an iconic film that fails to mingle with the blood spilt on the page.

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has weathered similar criticism. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, and some fans of the books have voiced displeasure with Jackson’s films, citing an overreliance on action and a lack of the poetry that defined Tolkien’s prose. It is difficult for both creators and fans of original works to fully detach themselves during the process of adaptation, despite an awareness that any transition from one form of media to another will mean its fair share of changes. 

But some works are so personally tied up in the identity of their creators, at least what we know of them, that to separate the two would be to lose what made it work in the first place. This brings us to Larsson, who unfortunately never lived to see his novels grow beyond the page. But, it should not be forgotten that the Millennium trilogy held a very personal place for the writer. Lisbeth Salander, both in first name and in her story, is defined by Larsson’s own experiences as a teenager, when he stood by and did nothing when he saw a girl he knew attacked and raped by three men. She never forgave Larsson, and he never forgave himself. The Millennium trilogy and the personal convictions Lisbeth became defined by became a means for Larsson to process his guilt, a burden he would share with the world after his death in 2004. It seems strange, perhaps, that a series with such a heavy backstory would become so beloved in popular culture, the subject of movies, graphic novels, parodies and collector’s merchandise. But Lisbeth Salander and her journey to punish men who hate women struck a chord, and beloved is exactly what the punk heroine became.

When The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Men Who Hate Women, as it was originally titled in Sweden, was released in 2005, it quickly became a global phenomenon, a literary event for adults that had a similar hold as the dystopic YA novels that had caught the attention of younger readers. Not only did the novel become an international best-seller, but it and the two subsequent books in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007), formed the basis for a series of Swedish television films released in 2009, starring Noomi Rapace as the incomparable Lisbeth Salander. These adaptations stuck close to Larsson’s works, though the first, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, offered more style than the subsequent two, directed by Daniel Alfredson. These films not only brought a sense of closure to Larsson’s work, given that there’s perhaps no stamp of finality and lasting legacy more official than a well-received film adaptation, but they also found an audience in America in specialty theaters and on Netflix, something not so common in the foreign film market. It seemed, at least for a time, that the Millennium trilogy had managed to secure its global position without separating itself from Larsson or the personal experiences that inspired it.

Near the end of the trilogy’s peak popularity, David Fincher delivered his own adaptation, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), starring Rooney Mara. Despite the enthusiasm that had been building for the series and it being the strongest adaptation of Larsson’s work to date, Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo didn’t pull in quite the box office numbers it had been expected to. It made $232.6 million on a $90 million budget, and received several Academy Award nominations and a win for editing, certainly not a bad result, but it didn’t lead to the immediate franchise potential it deserved. Some pundits placed blame on the December release and the film’s tagline “The feel-bad movie of Christmas,” which didn’t exactly hold the promise of holiday spirit. But Fincher, and a cast that included Daniel Craig and Robin Wright alongside other notable thespians, should have had a better hold. Arguably, Columbia Pictures’ modest disappointment in Dragon Tattoo’s returns could be attributed to the fact that the trilogy had been so widely read, adapted once, and had unfortunately reached its conclusion, given the death of Larsson. Perhaps the Millennium trilogy had run its course and become finite. But in the background, there remained the unshakable fact that Larsson had reportedly planned for his series to span 10 installments. It was not so finite after all.

Enter David Lagercrantz. The Swedish author and journalist was contracted in 2013 to continue Larsson’s series. While rumors of unfinished manuscripts by Larsson circulated on the internet, Lagercrantz set off on his own course and in his own style. The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015) and its sequel, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (2017), not only received strong reviews but also put Lisbeth Salander back on the best-seller list. The first of Lagercrantz’s follow-up novels, which forms the basis of this weekend’s film starring Claire Foy, ups the stakes and sees the investigator caught in a global conspiracy involving the NSA and nuclear codes. In other words, it finds her a long way from fictional Hedestad, scheming plots of wealthy families, and child murders with religious undertones. What began as a series centered on murder mysteries and the world of journalism transformed into a broader espionage plot. The trailers for The Girl in the Spider’s Web let us in on the change in tone and scope early on. While Spider’s Web still promises mystery and uncompromising personalities pitted against a world of darkness, the soft reboot sees Lisbeth transition from investigator to spy as espionage substitutes for homegrown murder mystery.

When it comes to the establishment of Lisbeth Salander as a gun-toting action hero walking away from explosions, and the marketing push that has branded this latest film as “A New Dragon Tattoo Story” in a way that suggests a need-not-concern attitude about the events of the two previous novels, James Bond immediately comes to mind. Like Ian Fleming’s super spy following his entry into Hollywood, Lisbeth Salander is a faceless instrument, given agency by the multitude of hands that seek to continuously contemporize her. Already in her third portrayal, Salander is in her Roger Moore years, if we’re maintaining the Bond comparison, and she’s got to entice a world that’s very different from the one she was created in. This evolution is not necessarily a negative one, and it’s impossible to know what Larsson would think of these developments. But it is worth considering the ramifications of a character born of a personal failure seemingly becoming caught up in what looks to be a popcorn movie. Perhaps Lisbeth can stand out in the espionage world and make a case for her own existence outside of comparisons to Bond, Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, Red Sparrow, and Black Widow. And perhaps the film’s marketing has been somewhat misleading, highlighting the action beats in what is otherwise a somber and calculating film. There’s no doubt of Alvarez’s craft, as displayed in both Evil Dead (2013) and Don’t Breathe (2016), and The Girl in the Spider's Web is strong film on a technical and performance level. It's a film that remains true to the voice of Alavarez, a merit of its own, even if the truth of Larsson's world presented here is up for debate. A strong film and a strong direction for Lisbeth Salander aren’t necessarily the same thing. A character created to fight against corrupt men set against a female villain with designs on comic-book villainy seems to, at least based on some reactions, veer away from what may have made Lisbeth so singular to begin with.

There’s no answer when it comes to determining whether characters and concepts that grow beyond their creators are destined to be greater or lesser than what has come before. Admittedly, it seems like something best determined on a case-by-case basis. But it does leave us wondering about the sacredness of a work or an author, and how far we can take an idea before it becomes something else entirely. Are Watchmen outside the hands of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons still Watchmen? Is Bond still Bond if he’s not white and we take into account the racially troubling content found in Fleming's work? Is a Luke Skywalker who abandons his friends and family to never wield a lightsaber again the same Luke fans met in 1977? And is Lisbeth Salander still the girl with dragon tattoo once she takes on a kind of iteration-by-iteration impermanence not befitting the original ink spilled over her? Now more than ever, so many of the things we love and celebrate have moved beyond their original creators. This isn’t a path toward our condemnation of that fact but a chance to seriously ask ourselves how far from the baseline a can property move before it’s no longer recognizable. To borrow from Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” when is a pipe not a pipe? Our mileage may vary, but wherever we draw the line, we can be sure that these properties we love will inevitably cross it, if only to turn back or go further in search of a new fandom willing to adopt what it has become.