Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We could learn from the Swede

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Entertainment Weekly, the Bible of pop culture, calls The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest "The hottest book on the planet," or so we are to believe from the ever-present advertisements that extol its virtues.

Certainly, the third in a trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson is a phenomenon, with more than one million copies sold nationally and 30 million worldwide and not in paperback, but in hardcover. I've read the first two in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. I watched the Swedish film version of first novel on DVD, having just missed it during its short subtitled run in theatres, but was in time to rush out and watch the second at Grant Park.

 

I have stubbornly resisted shelling out for the hardcover version of the third novel, partly in resistance to the hype that goes with it, but who am I kidding? I've a plane ride coming up this week and I fear resistance will be futile. I am hooked.

Now Daniel Craig, the latest British actor to be James Bond, is to play Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hero of the novels and the little-known actress Rooney Mara plays the withdrawn, super computer-hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander in the American version of the movie of the first book.

Not since the release of the Harry Potter novels and subsequent films has there been quite such frenzy over a series of books. The Harry Potter books, though, like the Twilight series have gained their popularity in part because their readership and audience are young. Young people tend to be more caught up in the popular culture of the moment than their older counterparts.

The Stieg Larsson novels may be read by young people, but they are not aimed at the youth set. The popularity of the Larsson novels is hard to explain. Blomkvist is in his mid-40s and, while the enigmatic Salander is in her late 20s, the novels are written for a mature audience. The first is about corruption in business and a 40-year-old mystery that delves into Sweden's Nazi past. The second novel is steeped in the history of the Cold War. Neither are subjects that touch the zeitgeist of the Twilight set.

But they sure are compelling and I find their popularity both exciting and encouraging because the subject matter, setting and characters break all the rules.

On the whole, only journalists think that journalists are interesting as characters. The problem is that journalists don't actually do anything. As action heroes, they spend a lot of time on the phone, looking at computers, talking to people and sifting through documents. Unlike police, who get to arrest people, or lawyers, who get to defend and prosecute them, the best a journalist can come up with is a story that leaves it to others to deal with the bad guys.

There are exceptions, but this is why there are so few journalistic heroes in print, film or television. While Lisbeth Salander is a very interesting creation, her primary function is also to sit at a computer. What she does is hip and modern but is hardly the stuff of the spy movie Salt.

What's more, the novels are set in Sweden, a country known for super-safe cars and an elaborate welfare state. A key and unusual success of the second novel is to convincingly place a Russian defector and all the attendant skullduggery in a country with so little to win or lose in the spy game.

In Larsson's hands, it's all very refreshing. In writing style, the books are much like many other blockbusters, but there's just enough of a difference to set them apart. It makes me wonder if a writer might still be able to do the same for Canada and create a popular, mythic hero celebrated worldwide.

Anthony Hyde almost did it with The Red Fox in the mid 1980s, but it never got the film treatment and, unlike the Larsson novels, it is not steeped in the culture of Canada in the way Larsson's trilogy deals with Sweden.

Sweden doesn't have the problem of having the dominant culture of the United States just next door. When it comes to spies, action and general thuggery, fiction in Canada is always in danger of appearing to be America-lite.

But if you see the Swedish version of first Blomkvist film, you have to hope. Much of its power comes from the bleak, cold winter it portrays. It's just like Canada. The landscape becomes a character in the story. I just wish that it were Canada and that Canada could have the same pop cultural phenomenon that Larsson has given Sweden. It would be good for Canada to have "the hottest book on the planet." We need popular fictional Canadian heroes.

 

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2010 A12

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