Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series: The books that hooked the world
Larsson's books have become word-of-mouth literary smashes. Now, Hollywood steps in
From the archives: This article originally appeared in the June 25, 2010 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
During the summer of 2008, movie producer Scott Rudin was hanging out at his house in the Hamptons with his partner, who had recently picked up a Swedish crime novel. ”I knew nothing about it,” says Rudin, whose long list of credits includes No Country for Old Men and The Hours. ”I said, ‘Do you want to get lunch?’ He said, ‘Yes…in a week. Don’t talk to me. Don’t bother me. I’m reading!’ ”
The book, it turned out, was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Soon Rudin himself was hooked on the novel and its two sequels, a condition he shares with millions of obsessed Americans. ”I read it, and I read the second and a while later the third,” he says. ”I absolutely loved them. They’re just fantastic stories. I spent about a year and a half trying to get the rights.”
Now Rudin and director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) are in preproduction on the first of three major films for Sony Pictures, which means one of the biggest literary phenomenons in recent history is only going to get bigger. Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (collectively known as the Millennium Trilogy), have sold 40 million copies worldwide. More than 7.2 million copies are in print in the U.S. alone, and the books have spent a combined 10 weeks atop New York Times best-seller lists (Hornet’s Nest, which came out here on May 25, debuted at No. 1 on June 4 and is the series’ fastest seller). They’re available in more than 40 countries and have been translated into Chinese, Czech, Korean, and Russian, among other languages. ”It’s been magical,” says Eva Gedin, the editor who originally acquired the books for Swedish publisher Norstedts. ”I have pinched my arm a lot of times. I still can’t really believe it.”
At the center of all three novels are two unusually compelling figures: the antisocial, emotionally damaged computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Together, they battle bad guys, solve mysteries, and uncover deep-rooted institutional corruption. The first novel involves the search for a long-missing girl who disappeared off an isolated island; the follow-ups explore complex conspiracies related to Salander’s dark past. ”Lisbeth is an absolutely original creation, and the way the two of them work together is the heart of the book,” says Sonny Mehta, editor in chief of Knopf, the novels’ American publisher. ”She is extraordinary. She’s a heroine for our time, in some ways.”
And then there’s the series’ author, Stieg Larsson, an introverted and quiet man who has entirely missed out on his work’s success. Larsson died just months before Dragon Tattoo was published, leaving no will and a messy battle over control of the fortune his novels would soon generate. He never had a clue he was about to turn into the world’s most famous new writer.
A lifelong crime-novel fan, Larsson started working on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the early 2000s. It certainly wasn’t the most obvious career move: By day, Larsson was a serious antifascist journalist, taking on Swedish neo-Nazis as the editor of a small but influential publication called Expo (which, not surprisingly, closely resembles the books’ Millennium magazine). Even so, Larsson committed himself to the project, cranking out three hefty manuscripts in just two years. When he sent the first two off to Norstedts, he hoped to make enough money to retire on with his longtime live-in girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson. ”We could immediately see that they were really good,” says Gedin. ”You could see he was a full-grown writer. They didn’t look like first drafts.” Norstedts offered him a three-book deal, a rarity for a new author. The publisher had high hopes for the books, although now their expectations seem almost comically humble. ”In Sweden at that time, if you sold 10,000 hardcover that would be fantastic,” says Gedin. ”The first book, our goal was to sell 20,000.”
Gedin and Larsson worked closely for eight months, carefully editing Dragon Tattoo and talking extensively about the other two. As the first book’s pub date approached, things were looking good. ”We all had great expectations,” says Gedin. ”We had a lot of interest, so he could sort of smell the coming success. But the funny thing is, he was a shy person. In one of our first meetings, he said that he wasn’t keen on going on tour, signing books, or sitting on a TV sofa, doing all this PR. I was sort of thinking to myself, we’ll talk about that later.”
Around 10 p.m. on Nov. 9, 2004, Gedin got a phone call from Norstedts’ then editor in chief. ”He said he had something very sad to tell me,” Gedin recalls. ”Stieg had died. I couldn’t believe it. It was totally unexpected.” The 50-year-old Larsson had suffered a heart attack after climbing seven flights of stairs on his way up to the Expo office. ”We had a big meeting at the publishing house the next day and said, ‘Okay, what shall we do?’ ” says Gedin. ”Everyone was very certain that we were going to publish these three books. We thought we owed it to him.”
When it came out nine months later, Dragon Tattoo was an immediate hit in Sweden. (It was originally published with a title that translates as Men Who Hate Women; the British publisher changed it to the more marketable The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) The second and third volumes sold even better, and the books also blew up elsewhere in Europe. In 2007, Knopf’s Mehta won an auction for the U.S. rights. ”At the time it was a good sum,” he says. ”In retrospect, it seems extremely modest.”
Breaking Larsson’s books in this country was far from a sure thing. ”Think of the situation: Here was an author who was not well known, and in fact was no longer alive, in a very competitive environment where the author being out meeting and greeting booksellers and the media is very important,” says Barnes & Noble vice president of marketing Patricia Bostelman. ”It had been doing very well in Europe, of course, but there was no guarantee that it would translate well with an American audience.” Dragon Tattoo hit U.S. bookstores in the summer of 2008. It has since sold 3.5 million copies.
Larsson’s lack of a will is especially problematic because though he and Gabrielsson had been together for more than 30 years, they’d never married — due, Gabrielsson says, to concerns over their safety relating to Larsson’s prominent antifascist work. ”With Stieg being unmarried in public records and only my name on our door and bills, our home was safe,” she explains in an e-mail. ”And Stieg did not have to fear any attacks on me as a way of getting to him.”
But the Swedish legal system doesn’t recognize common-law marriage, so Larsson’s estate — royalties, the right to make decisions about the books, even half of the apartment he and Gabrielsson shared — went to his father, Erland, and brother, Joakim. Gabrielsson got nothing. She has said she’s mostly upset about losing control of the books; she believes she has a much better grasp of Larsson’s wishes than Erland and Joakim (Larsson spent much of his childhood living with his grandparents in northern Sweden while his parents were working in Stockholm).
Erland and Joakim say they’re baffled by Gabrielsson’s attitude toward them. ”Me and my father have tried to do all we possibly can to solve this with Eva,” says Joakim. ”We offered her over two and a half million dollars for her personal living and to take part in our company. But we have failed with that. It’s difficult to tell what she wants. Right now, I think the chances [for a solution] are very low.” (Gabrielsson declined to discuss specifics of the dispute.)
Gabrielsson is trying to get the Swedish laws changed, but otherwise there’s not much she can do. (The Larssons did eventually give her the apartment.) ”It’s a sad family story,” says Gedin. ”I wish they had settled things earlier. I’m still hoping they will get things together and cooperate. I know that the father and brother want to solve this. But it’s a bit late in the day now. The best thing is if [they] can find a way to do it together.”
While Larsson’s survivors are wrapped up in the estate dispute, his fans are buzzing about a more pressing question: Who should play Salander and Blomkvist in the Fincher movies? ”I think it’s hugely important that these parts be immaculately cast,” says Scott Rudin. ”Because to me, yeah, the stories are great, the plots are fantastic, the twists and turns are completely delicious, but the relationship of the two characters is it. That’s what it’s about.”
There’s already tremendous speculation. Brad Pitt and Daniel Craig have been mentioned as candidates for Blomkvist, and actresses as diverse as Kristen Stewart, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Carey Mulligan are being talked about for Lisbeth. Rudin says casting should be wrapped up in a month or two, but nothing has been decided yet. ”I’m happy that people are speculating, but it’s all fantasy,” he insists. ”I would be careful about believing what you’re reading. Let me remind you that Katharine Hepburn was at one point announced to be Scarlett O’Hara. [Laughs] That’s not to say that it won’t end up being one of them, but you can certainly say it isn’t any of them yet.”
The Dragon Tattoo script, penned by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Schindler’s List), is already complete. Shooting will start in September, with the first film likely opening by Christmas of 2012. All three movies will take place in Sweden, not the U.S. (Rudin says they never even considered moving the setting.) And the novels’ extreme violence, which has put off some readers, won’t be toned down. ”They’re about sexual violence,” says Rudin of the books. ”I can tell you one thing: It’s not a group of filmmakers who are going to pull a punch. It’s strong material, and it’s going to be a strong movie.”
And if 2012 seems like too long to wait, Larsson admirers can always see three Swedish-language movie versions of the books, which have themselves been remarkably successful around the world, earning about $210 million globally. ”I wanted to make one of those films where you see the first images and think, F—, this is going to be really entertaining,” says Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the Swedish Dragon Tattoo (two sequels were helmed by Daniel Alfredson). ”You want that seductive quality. Yet at the same time you want the film to have that dark edginess that you connect with Scandinavian art cinema. We had discussions about how we could make the Swedish landscape and Stockholm be a character in itself, because that would be our counterweight to having a film with an American feel.”
In the Swedish films Lisbeth is played by an intense actress named Noomi Rapace, and many fans consider hers the perfect portrayal. ”I honestly don’t think there was anybody else in all of Sweden who could have done what she did,” says Arden Oplev. ”The producers showed me a clip of her in a film and I could see she was a strong actress, but she was way too beautiful. That really worried me. But we called her in and did a two-hour rehearsal, and I thought, this is it: This is Lisbeth. She has one hell of a dark energy.”
Rapace’s performance has invited suggestions that she reprise the role in the American movies, but she’s not interested. The part was just too harrowing, and she’s moved on. ”You have to find your own anger and contempt and hate and frustration and loneliness,” she says of the experience. ”I was terribly lonely. We were shooting for a year, and I was sitting in a corner drinking coffee and didn’t talk to anybody.” Rapace mentions Ellen Page and Christina Ricci as the kind of actresses who might make sense, but she would really love to see an unknown in the role. (In fact, Rudin says casting a new face is a real possibility.)
If Rapace’s experience is any indication, the actors who do win the leads in Fincher’s films should brace themselves. ”It’s strange, because I have my own relationship to Lisbeth, and then the whole circus is something else,” Rapace says of the Millennium phenomenon. ”Sometimes it’s scary — it’s so big. My whole life has changed. You meet people all over the world who have such strong feelings about this character — about me in a way. It’s like somebody’s looking inside me, just straight into my soul. And it’s weird sometimes. But it’s also fantastic.”
There is, readers eventually discover, one major problem with the Larsson books: He published only three of them. Once you tear through the trilogy there’s nowhere else to go. That could be a boon for other Scandinavian crime writers, like Swedish favorite Henning Mankell and Norwegian best-seller Jo Nesbø. ”Americans tend to be very xenophobic about books in translation, but Stieg has laid the foundation,” says Jessica Case, an editor at Pegasus Books, which has just published a translation of popular Swedish writer Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess. ”Now people will be more willing to read someone with umlauts in their name.” But don’t expect another Millennium Trilogy-size hit anytime soon. ”I think it’s dangerous to label stuff the new Stieg Larsson,” says Tor Jonasson of the Salomonsson Agency, who represents Nesbø. ”Every publisher in the U.S. would like to have a new Stieg Larsson. But to be honest, there is no new Stieg. There will only be new really good books.”
There might actually be another Millennium novel, though: Gabrielsson has said that there’s an incomplete fourth volume saved on a laptop in her apartment. Details are scant, but it seems clear that it will never be published unless she and the Larssons can settle their differences. Steve Murray, who translated all three books (using the pseudonym Reg Keeland), says he’s heard that 250 pages exist — a beginning and ending, but no middle — and that it’s set, for some reason, in northern Canada. And while Gabrielsson won’t discuss specifics, she does think it could be publishable at some point. ”It’s difficult to finish creative works and keep the same style,” she says via e-mail. ”Not undoable. But in need of a certain frame of mind, and a delicate finesse.”
That would be great news for readers — and, of course, for publishers, although neither Norstedts nor Knopf has rights beyond the first three. ”It would be a good thing if they did resolve it, because if there is a fourth book there’s a possibility that we’ll all have a chance to enjoy it,” says Mehta. ”Personally, I can’t wait to read it. But meanwhile we have a lot of copies of the trilogy to sell. There’s a whole audience that Stieg Larsson hasn’t reached yet.” (Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz and Kate Ward)
Ed. Note 8/15/2017: The series lives on! Swedish crime writer David Lagercrantz is continuing the series for Knopf. The Girl in the Spider’s Web was published in 2015, and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye will be released Sept. 12 2017.
Read EW’s Q&A with Lagercrantz about continuing the blockbuster series with one of the most recognizable characters in recent literature.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Book)