'The Girl in the Spider's Web': If James Bond and Dirty Harry Were a Swedish Superheroine

In the latest adaptation of Sweden’s bestselling ‘Millennium’ series, Claire Foy takes on the role of Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander. Though it’s an effective espionage thriller, here again the protagonist is more compelling than the film

Claire Foy in a scene from "The Girl in the Spider's Web."
Reiner Bajo / Sony Pictures / AP

The official trailer for “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” opens with the scene that appears at the beginning of the film. A bleeding, frightened woman sits on the floor, and a man standing above her says, “Sorry I said those things. You know how much I love you.” Suddenly a woman dressed in black appears. “I’m a fan of yours,” she says to the appalled man. “A CEO who beat up two prostitutes, but then got acquitted in court yesterday.”

The two are obviously not evenly matched – the next thing the man knows, he’s hanging upside-down from the ceiling. The woman in black transfers all his money to the women he attacked and to his wife, and for dessert she subjects his penis to an electric shock. In the latest film adaptation of the “Millennium” bestsellers, the character of Lisbeth Salander is showcased impressively as an avenger in the spirit of vigilante movies – which are currently enjoying a comeback. But in short order the picture refocuses on action in the spirit of the standard routine.

The Swedish author Stieg Larsson didn’t live to see the success of Lisbeth, the protagonist of his books; he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50, a year before publication of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in 2005. That book, which was translated into English in 2008, quickly became a global cultural phenomenon. By 2017, more than 85 million copies of the books in the series had been sold worldwide. In Sweden, Larsson’s trilogy was adapted for the cinema already in 2009, but the film largely missed the latent potential.

Hollywood’s point of departure (most American viewers aren’t familiar with the Swedish versions) led to a second adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher in 2011. In both cases, the actresses who played Lisbeth – Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film, Rooney Mara in the American version – succeeded in transcending the pedestrian scripts and preserving interest in the character of the brilliant, mysterious hacker heroine.

Hollywood has chosen to try again, although the result is not exactly a sequel. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is not based on Larsson’s trilogy, but on a book by David Lagercrantz, who was entrusted with the task of continuing the story of Lisbeth and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Sony Studios chose to leap over the other two Larsson books in the trilogy and plunge straight into the fourth episode – the one by Lagercrantz – because they found it the most convenient for familiarizing a new audience with the story.

Fede Alvarez got the directing nod after creating a successful fusion of tension and horror in “Don’t Breathe.” The mission of adapting the book for the screen was initially given to Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplay for “Eastern Promises” and created the British television series “Peaky Blinders.” Cast in the lead role was Claire Foy, star of the series “The Crown,” who makes the sharp transition from Elizabeth to Lisbeth.

Covert violence

Indeed, prior familiarity with the characters is not essential, as the film is entirely occupied with a return to the sources of the girl and the tattoo. The plot begins with a bitter childhood memory of a violent father and an unknown sister, whom the girl Lisbeth abandons. Subsequently we meet the adult Lisbeth – older than the character played by Rapace and Mara – who has taken it upon herself to seal the fate of men who attack women without suffering any consequences. But the appearance of a scientist, played by Stephen Merchant (creator of the British version of “The Office”), hurls her into a new world of espionage games. The scientist, who has developed a program that is capable of destroying the world with nuclear bombs, is afraid that it will fall into the wrong hands. The plot thickens when Lisbeth finds herself coping simultaneously with the Swedish espionage service, the U.S. National Security Agency and a Russian gang that has an interest in spider tattoos.

Lakeith Stanfield, Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason and ameron Britton in "The Girl in the Spider's Web."
Reiner Bajo / SONY PICTURES

Without getting into comparisons between the books and the movies, it’s worth looking at the differences between the Swedish and American versions of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” In all three films, Lisbeth and her journalist ally are caught up in the midst of a psychological thriller that’s occupied with the more or less covert violence that Swedish society prefers to forget. They pursue justice, but at times do not practice it in their deeds; they are burdened by the past and their reactions are often exaggerated. Little of this exists in the new film, which has turned into a worldwide espionage thriller, centering around an omnipotent heroine whose gist is action, rife with shootings and bomb blasts.

The literary material, itself problem-studded, has undergone a kind of distillation so as to leave only what suits a standard Hollywood box-office hit. With Lisbeth already positioned as a central heroine and Mikael as her helpmate, the director and the screenwriter have sloughed off layer after layer, leaving the basic set of qualities that action heroes require: a formative trauma, an impulse to revenge and an army of villains ripe for liquidation.

But even as an action heroine, Lisbeth undergoes a shift. At the start of the film she is presented as a kind of Dirty Harry and gains fame as “a woman who hurts men who hurt women.” That’s a revenge fantasy in the #MeToo world, but based on rules and codes of action that operate in disconnect from it. All this only intensifies when it turns out that she has to save the whole world within the framework of espionage games.

Claire Foy does as much as she can with the character she’s been given and is able to preserve some of the vulnerability that stirred interest in the trilogy of novels and in the films. The trauma is identical, but the transition to an action-spy movie alters the meaning. The dragon emblazoned on her skin still gets a host of close-ups, but no longer evokes associations of a psychic wound that will not heal. Now it recalls the symbol of an avenging superhero, such as the “Punisher” or the “Dark Knight,” of a kind that makes it possible to characterize and identify him, and – God and the box office willing – to become merchandise. Although Lisbeth is less interesting as an omnipotent heroine at espionage games, Foy takes advantage of the few opportunities that are given her for forging reminders of humanity. The result, once more, is that the protagonist of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is more interesting than the film itself.

Despite everything, with an adjustment of expectations it’s possible to enjoy “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” or at least parts of it. The action is fast-paced if not creative, and the tension is sustained, even if the plot is forgotten. The fact that Lisbeth is undergoing a third cinematic incarnation – Rapace, Mara and now Foy – while entering a production line in the spirit of James Bond and Jason Bourne, only heightens the likelihood that we’ll see her again, even if “The Girl in a Spider’s Web” doesn’t fare well.