I recently read Steig Larsson’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for the first time, and when I was done I decided to watch both movie adaptations. What I found most surprising was the stark difference between Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara in their portrayal of the story’s iconic antihero, Lisbeth Salander. It was like watching two entirely different characters.
Which Lisbeth Salander was better?
In my opinion, Rooney Mara knocked it out of the park hands down, while Noomi Rapace missed the point of the character entirely.
Yeah, it’s harsh, and I know a lot of people disagree completely with me on this. But it all comes back to an old problem I have with how people handle characters like Lisbeth.
Here’s the breakdown of the two portrayals as I saw it:
At the heart of it, Lisbeth Salander is a paradox. She’s a mix of strong and weak. The same things that make her an unstoppable force also make her incredibly vulnerable.
Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth is the bad bitch. She has a tough look and an almost threatening demeanor.
Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth, on the other hand, has the demeanor of an eccentric. Everything about her is antisocial.
With Noomi Rapace, you get the sense that her defenses are up at all times. She has been mistreated by society her entire life, and through a series of unfortunate circumstances and the way she tended to react, she’s been branded unfairly as mentally unstable and unfit for daily life. The personality we see that both caused this and was further forged by it is emphasized by her extreme appearance. Her default expression is pissed off, impatient, jaded.
That same appearance serves a different purpose for Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth. This Lisbeth’s default expression is vapid, almost empty of any emotion at all.
You get the sense that she processes emotions differently than other people. She rarely makes eye contact and doesn’t seem to understand when conversations end. She doesn’t follow social cues at all. Her look isn’t as much about being fierce as it is a demonstration of how utterly different she is and how little she fits in. She’s lost when it comes to people.
But she’s dealt with it. Despite not really understanding the world she’s a part of, she knows how a person like her has to live and she has no problem doing whatever she needs to do in order to survive.
In my mind, Rooney Mara’s portrayal IS the paradox of Lisbeth Salander. We have trouble defining her as either strong or weak because we’re keep seeing both in her. Visually, she’s a mix of both. Her behavior is at times so vulnerable that she’s almost childlike, and at times so bold that it makes us uncomfortable.
None of her is a single trait, it all comes down to her complex relationship with people as a whole, which itself is just an outcome of the way she processes emotions. This is the kind of depth I love seeing in characters.
Noomi Rapace’s portrayal is not deep at all. There’s no paradox. She’s tough. She’s capable. She’s a no nonsense badass. And that’s about it. She’s the classic antihero–not likable on the outside, but willing to grow closer to you if you give her the chance. You don’t usually see this archetype in a woman, and that’s what makes her compelling. She has her own set of challenges and conflicts due to being a woman in a male dominated society. But at the end of the day, it’s a character we’ve seen many times–straightforward, simple, and definitely powerful, but this time with an interesting twist to boot.
However, this gap of complexity isn’t the reason why I like one portrayal over the other. It goes a step beyond that.
WHY did Noomi Rapace play the character the way she did?
Why was she cast because of it? Why DO some people like her so much in that role? Why do some people think Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth is just an inferior and less fierce version of Noomi Rapace’s?
The answer comes down to a false premise widely held throughout western society. Namely, that:
Antisocial behavior is malicious.
I first discovered how this mistake played out in fiction through one of my favorite movies of all time, Princess Mononoke.
This was the first movie of famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki that was released in the US, and they made sure to get top quality people for the job. They hired none other than Neil Gaiman to adapt the script and managed to get a whole slew of Hollywood actors do make the English dub. The finished product was amazing.
EXCEPT for Claire Danes, who ruined all of it.
Claire Danes played San, the wolf princess who was the sole human fighting with the animals of the forest against the industrialists of Irontown. She was raised by wolves and she saw herself as a wolf, despising mankind for destroying her home.
With San, as with Lisbeth Salander, it’s her against society, and also like Lisbeth, she is portrayed in two utterly different ways by the two actors who play her.
Claire Danes’s San IS an animal.
She’s feral. You can hear the roughness of war in her voice even when she’s not fighting. She’s suspicious of any kindness from humans because she’s fierce in general.
Ishida Yuriko, the Japanese voice actress who played San, took a much different route.
Ishida’s San was passionate, but not at all inhuman.
She had violence in her when it was time for battle, and gentleness when it was time for peace. She fought because she cared, not because she was violent by nature.
To me, it was obvious Claire Danes missed the point plain and simple. The theme of the movie was that neither side of the war was evil by nature, but that violence was what made them evil. The whole point of having the main character spend time in both Irontown and the forest was to show how different they were when they weren’t fighting.
But no–Claire Danes took one look at San and saw antisocial behavior. She fights, she must be a monster. She’s against society, she must be an animal.
This is the same reason why our culture has such an ingrained prejudice against introverts. If you’re shy or like spending time alone, there’s something wrong with you. You need to get out and be friendly and social like everyone else.
Noomi Rapace’s interpretation of Lisbeth Salander wasn’t that she was necessarily evil, but that her antisocial behavior was rooted in an inner violence. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth said the opposite, that violence came as an unnatural result of society’s misunderstanding and mistreatment of her antisocial behavior.
In my mind, that was the entire point of the character. That there is hope for someone like this. Even the most oppressed outcast of society can survive, grow strong, and find success and fulfilment in doing what is right. Perhaps most significantly, it showed that people like Lisbeth can even make friends.
Thanks for reading! Like the Facebook page if you haven’t already and I’ll be back in two weeks for another post!