Noomi Rapace versus Rooney Mara: who is the best Lisbeth Salander ?

This isn’t going to be the kind of rant that one usually hears from die-hard Millenium Trilogy fans, i.e. the Swedish version was so much better, the American version was an abomination, adapting his work was against Stieg Larsson’s principles, so why make movies in the first place? This is simply a question of doing a comparison between two critically acclaimed masterpiece interpretations of the most original female protagonist ever written. ‘The best’ won’t necessary mean the person who is closest to the book: it could simply turn out to mean the person who best incarnates the book while bringing her own magic to the table. So. Let’s talk about Lisbeth.

Noomi Rapace


Bursting onto the screen like a bat out of hell each time you see her, Rapace is brilliant at bringing to the surface the more disturbing psychological aspects of Lisbeth’s character, whether she’s running screaming after Martin Vanger’s car swinging a golf club or sporting her characteristic indifference when shoving an anal plug up Bjurman’s (deserving) ass. She is also undisputed mistress of Lisbeth’s primary on-the-ground weapon, the deadpan stare that is both a shield for dealing with scum like Teleborian and something she presents to people she’s relegated to the idiots’ club, which comprises most of the human species. But even with those she’s decided to respect or even trust, Rapace’s shield stays up: she may show part of herself to the other person, but never lets them completely in, a notable exception being the abrupt ending of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. The shield goes up and comes down simultaneously, and we know when it’s happening. She unfolds like a black lotus. We see it; we sense it. Because of it, her smiles, even her willingness to listen, are like gifts. Rapace does, however, tend to make Lisbeth’s deep-set anger and aggression something that comes pouring out of her a little too easily and sometimes with too little reason, risking her looking like a simple crazy bitch. Nevertheless, this aspect of her performance does represent a good transition from book to film. Making Lisbeth’s anger more obvious while still somehow managing to maintain the character’s spirit is good both for people who don’t know the book well and for the quintessential cinema audience that doesn’t respond well to too much subtlety. From Rapace, we get both subtlety and explosion, and her performance is deservedly iconic.

Rooney Mara


Rooney Mara steps into Noomi Rapace’s enormous shoes with bravery and individuality. Her Lisbeth is silent as a ghost and deathly soft spoken when she does speak. Lisbeth’s psychology is evoked with just as much power, but in a much quieter way, the dead-pan stare coming up both when she’s fiercely angry and when relegating somebody to the previously mentioned idiots’ club. This makes her bone chilling and frightening, something that is particularly well-evoked in her slow walk across the car park to Martin Vanger’s burning car, its (deservedly) terrified occupant watching her approach before going up in flames. Like Rapace, she is monstrously convincing as an asocial personality with strong psychopathic tendencies, but in capturing Lisbeth’s vulnerability, she’s in a league of her own. She presents Lisbeth as someone who is capable of letting her shield down and who endures shame and pain from the moments that she does so, ex: the movie’s last scene. She is regrettably at the disadvantage of appearing in a badly-written adaptation and performing the role in English with a dorky Swedish accent (I mean whose idea was that?), which can distract the viewer at key moments, notably the revenge scene.

So who’s better?

Rooney Mara.

It is tempting to consign Rooney Mara to the scrap heap because the American version spent too much money on cinematography and nothing on script. In spite of all this, she is the closer of the two to the Lisbeth of the book. Her performance is more introverted, and sometimes we don’t understand her, but we still feel we have some notion of what’s going on inside her head, a privilege the books frequently accord us. She’s Lisbeth the maniac, but also Lisbeth the human being. David Fincher’s decision to end the film just as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ends gives us an insight into Lisbeth at her most vulnerable, showing us the moment of crushing humiliation that spurs her on to retreat deeper into seclusion and to cut ties with Blomkvist. She’s separate from us, but we somehow feel like we know something about her.

An audience can adore Noomi Repace, but can’t really relate to her: she remains aloof, an enigma, a mystery. It’s a totally different way of playing the character, and a brilliant one. In essence, Lisbeth remains her own ‘property’; she doesn’t lay herself open to prying eyes; she’s a stranger. This creates magnetism and a great admiration for what she does. But she’s so far away from us.

Rooney Mara’s performance is better because to a certain extent, she lets us in: we can see she’s vulnerable and susceptible to the same emotions as the rest of us, but remains extraordinarily individualistic, like no one on earth. We relate to her, but still see her from afar. This is the ultimate strength of her performance.


Literary playlist for mildly eclectic bookworms.

For those of us who like to listen to our books, but don’t really like audiobooks.

A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin) – The Howling (Within Temptation)

Fallen asleep from our vanity, might cost us our lives
I hear they’re getting closer
Their howls are sending chills down my spine
And time is running out now
They’re coming down the hills from behind

When we start killing
It’s all coming down right now
From the nightmare we’ve created,
I want to be awakened somehow

When we start killing it all will be falling down
From the Hell that we’re in
All we are is fading away
When we start killing…

a-song-of-ice-and-fire-al_b33dfThis song is great as being evocative of any kind of battle scene, but the way it captures each aspect of the infinite number of titanic battles that take place in GRRM’s monumental saga is so dazzling you can almost believe the song had been written with these books in mind. The lyrics, as well as the beautiful, warped battle cries that constitute its refrain, perfectly capture the red mist that descends on those possessed by bloodlust, as well as those unfortunate enough to witness the fields of blood, and the smell and the sound of men dying without the comfort of this primal state, so that something inside them shrivels and dies as well (‘all we are is fading away’). The song creates a world saturated with mistrust and the howls of both men and wolves, two things that readers of A Song of Ice and Fire understand all too well.

Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) – One of a kind (Placebo)

The back of the class is where I was
Keeping quiet, playing dumb
Can’t you see these skies are breaking?
Cos the back of the class is where I’m from

0156This book is an allegory of society as it was between the two world wars: hierarchical, monarchist, rigid, dying, and Peake’s villain Steerpike comes straight from the gutter, but has ambitions for the top. To accomplish this, he will deceive, humiliate, kiss an infinite number of asses and ultimately, murder (an awful lot of this), all without once getting his hands dirty. He prefers torture of a more psychological sort, long, drawn-out, agonizing, the assassination of each region of a person’s mind, isolation, or just plain old starvation, each time remembering that he’s better than all of them, but would never have been allowed to be if he had chosen a different life. So in a way, his life is murdered by society, and in revenge, he murders society back, dismantling it one bloody gash at a time. When you listen to this song you can almost hear the monstrous little demon scurrying from one roof of the castle to the other (he’s a climber), being everywhere at once, a kitchen boy in the midst of the powerful people and taking such a perverse pleasure in the game till he has to run somewhere private to scream with delight, since ‘on top of the world, you get nothing done.’

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) – Fire and Ice (Within Temptation)

You run away
You hide away
To the other side of the universe
Where you’re safe from all that hunts you down

But the world has gone
Where you belong
And it feels too late so you’re moving on
Can you find your way back home?

Mar11a5This is a song for a fugitive, for the underscore of her life. Jane succeeds in making a new life for herself when her irresponsible but completely justified departure from Thornfield ends in that little squid St John offering her a job as a teacher. But let’s be serious now: while Jane does manage to make a new life for herself and even to prosper, she still has a specter chasing her and bursting through the door at night and during quiet moments (I will not say ‘calling across the moors,’ even under torture). She is far from Rochester and there’s no chance of him finding her, but while her whole life is now her pupils and her new life keeps her safe, she wants to return to him, even though she thinks she never will, because going to him is the same as going home.

North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell) – The Enemy (Mumford and Sons)

Give me hope in silence, it’s easier, it’s kinder
And tell me not of heartbreak, it plagues my soul, it plagues my soul
We will meet back on this road
Nothing gaining, truth be told
But I’m not the enemy, it isn’t me, the enemy.

north-and-south1In its incessant repetitions of the word ‘nothing’, we see the kind of self-effacement that Mr. Thornton feels after Margaret rejects his proposal of marriage: he’s angry and heartbroken, and Margaret acted with uncharacteristic unfairness and lack of intelligence, but he still believes that in spite of it all this, he was rejected because he was not good enough. He has spent his life trying to better himself, studying the classics, paying his workers better, looking after their health, and yet because he is brusque towards them, and a tradesman, she believes he is capable of no emotion but greed and cruelty. Worst of all, the poor man keeps coming back for punishment and in the first line quoted here ‘Give me hope in silence, it’s easier, it’s kinder’, there are echoed the whispered words of a lone dark figure watching a carriage drive away in the snow: ‘Look back.’* The song’s primitive instrumentals and raw vocals show someone trying to master a medium of expression he half knows, without realizing that it isn’t him who has to change – it’s her.

Northern Lights (Philip Pullman) – Adiemus (Adiemus)

Northern-Lights_novelLyra rides Iorek Byrnisson across the ice – above them is a sky so complex, so beautiful and so deep that this majestic praise song could have been written for it. In its intervals Iorek tells Lyra to look up, and dotting the landscape of the northern lights are witches riding to war. It’s a glorious, shouted out hymn to the beauty of the world about to be torn asunder by the wings of angels.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) – All this and heaven too (Florence + the Machine)

Words were never so useful
So I was screaming out a language that I never knew existed before.

13182844_225x225-75In this case, I will take the liberty of using an excellent ad that ITV ran a few years back for their Jane Austen season that explains this better than I could ever hope to do:

‘There is an honesty behind a glance, a meaning behind a touch, and faith cried with a tear. There are lies behind a pass, importance in a whim, and deceit sealed with a kiss. There is hope behind a gesture, value in a token, and unspoken love delivered with a smile.’

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter) – Haunted (Evanescence)

Watching me, wanting me
I can feel you pull me down
Fearing you, loving you
I won’t let you pull me down

img072smThis collection of short stories abounds with women conscious of the sexual danger they place themselves in. In some of them (The Earl King), the narrator knowingly risks both her life and her freedom by giving herself to the person most capable of taking them from her, in a place where no one will come to help, the Earl King’s forest resembling a rustling, independent-thinking labyrinth with no structure and no walls, all wildness and darkness, like being indoors. In others (The Bloody Chamber), the narrator could have run ages ago: now that she can’t, she discovers her own predilection for the more horrific aspects of sex and disgusts herself because of it. With twisted, gothic voices as contradictory as the narrator’s attitude to her own trap, Evanescence gives us the sound of darkness both natural and manmade, the desire to run, the desire to stay.

The Millenium Trilogy (Stieg Larsson) – Thoughtless (Korn)

All of my hate cannot be bound.
I will not be drowned by your thoughtless scheming.
So, you can try to tear me down,
Beat me to the ground,
I will see you screaming.

IMG_5523This song should be Lisbeth Salander’s anthem. Closer to the fearless cry of a human voice than a tune, this song is as dedicated to righteous vengeance as Larsson’s avenging angel who maims, kills and terrifies not just for herself but for the whole of her sex. Korn surf wave after wave of brief calms and intense storms, of deadpan stares and small smiles. Lisbeth’s life.