Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2011, 5:30 pm

Augustana professor sees strength of 'Girl' power

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By Jonathan Turner,

Rooney Mara stars in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.'
Augustana professor Larry Scott
Not since the upbeat, bubble-gum pop of ABBA 30-plus years ago has U.S. mass-market culture been so transfixed by a Swedish export.

The new American film version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- a movie based on the first in the staggeringly popular "Millennium" series of crime novels -- focuses on the dark, violent underbelly of the usually peaceful Scandinavian nation. The new flick will be closely watched by Larry Scott, an Augustana College professor and chairman of the school's Scandinavian department, where he's worked for 30 years.

"It's very hot now," he said this week of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, which also includes "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." More than 27 million copies have been sold worldwide.

For the past four years, Dr. Scott has used the books ("Dragon Tattoo" was first published in 2005 in Swedish, and in English in 2008) in his class on Swedish crime fiction.

"It's so new; it's also an extremely interesting book, really good to teach," he said of the first one. "It's contemporary Sweden, not through rose-colored glasses, but warts and all."

Sweden is of particular interest to Augustana. The private college in Rock Island was founded by Swedish Lutheran immigrants in 1860 and is the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S. with Swedish-American roots. Augie's Swenson Center is a national archives and research institute providing resources for the study of Swedish immigration to North America, communities the immigrants established, and roles the immigrants and their descendants have played in American life.

The real reason for the "Girl" books' popularity is their revenge-seeking, tattooed, pierced punk protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, said Dr. Scott, who earned his doctoral degree in Scandinavian languages and literature at the University of Washington. "She's very strange, very violent, sort of a modern anti-heroine," he said.

In Mr. Larsson's story, Lisbeth is declared incompetent as a child, and her sadistic guardian brutally rapes her. She tortures him in return. A computer hacker, Lisbeth works with the publisher of a Swedish political magazine, Millennium, to investigate the 36-year-old murder of a CEO's great-niece, which puts them on the trail of a serial killer.

Dr. Scott -- whose mother's family is from Sweden and who has taken a group of Augie students there virtually every summer to study for six weeks -- said the "Girl" portrayal of Sweden is "exaggeration for effect," but reflects some truth.

"We see a disturbing view of Sweden, which I don't necessarily think it's true. These monsters are lurking just below the surface," Dr. Scott said. "The Oslo massacre (right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik is accused of killing 77 people in Oslo in July) shows it could happen; it did happen. It is evidence that he was right."

Homicide in Scandinavia, which includes Norway and Denmark, is rare, Dr. Scott said. Mr. Larsson --- who died at age 50 of a heart attack in 2004 -- was an "extremely paranoid" journalist, said Dr. Scott, who has a good friend who knew him.

"He was extremely radical in his views, a real crusader, an anti-Nazi," he said. "I've never seen Nazis there (in Sweden); never seen Russian trafficking in women and drugs. I don't know how widespread it is."

"Dragon Tattoo" is "a little on the potboiler side," but a "really good mystery," Dr. Scott said. "The books are "long and turgid, not particularly well-written. He was a journalist, not a novelist. But they're page-turners." He added that director David Fincher ("The Social Network," "Zodiac" and "Se7en," among others) is a natural to take on the brooding, complex tales.

"It's going to be very interesting to see. David Fincher is always interesting to watch," Dr. Scott said. "I have high hopes for this." The meticulous director spent 14 weeks shooting in Sweden.

The high-profile film -- which co-stars Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, and Rooney Mara (who was in "The Social Network") -- is not the first cinematic treatment of the Larsson books. The trilogy was released in Swedish-language versions (starring Noomi Rapace) in 2009, and Dr. Scott has shown them in his class.

Even though the bleak, tense thrillers address corruption, anti-immigrant attitudes and the abuse of women, they're popular also because the main characters seek justice, Dr. Scott said.

"The system is very corrupt -- there are good people who will fight the good fight, but there are a lot of enemies in high places," he said of "Tattoo." "They are absolutely cinematic books, the way they're written. This is one of the hottest things of interest to our students."