How Millennium films tap deep into Swedish angst

Is there any truth in the image of Sweden portrayed in the Millennium books and films? Stockholm University ethnologist Jonas Engman argues that the stories have tapped into Swedish fears that their society’s success is not all they had been brought up to believe.

How Millennium films tap deep into Swedish angst

The enormous worldwide popularity of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and the movie ”The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo”, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, have trained the world’s eyes on Sweden once again.

The attention may have brought plenty of tourist kronor, but within the country itself it has also produced an unprecedented wave of introspection. Just how representative the picture of Sweden and Stockholm in particular is, has caused much debate on home and foreign soil.


”You can’t really portray a true picture of a country or culture. The best you can do is construct one from its history, literature, religion and culture, these kind of factors,” Jonas Engman, Stockholm University lecturer and ethnologist tells The Local.


Beginning in the 1800s, a conscious effort was made made to construct and show off the so called ”Swedish model, ” a concept which gathered pace during the 1930s and after World War 2, according to Engman.


”Since the Second World War, we have made strong efforts to form something, not just for ourselves, but to send a message overseas that ours is the best country, the best social system and the most tolerant society. In fact, we have considered the model so good we have tried to export it to places like Africa and Vietnam among others,” says Engman.


”It can be seen as a kind of colonisation, that has been gradually developed over time at specific flash points, like the Vietnam War, The Cold War etc. you could say ‘Bad Russia’ versus ‘Good Sweden,’”he adds.


To a great extent, this method has been successful. In 2007, Sweden was rated best practising democracy by The Economist, least corrupt nation by Transparency International, most equal in gender relations by the World Economic Forum, and most generous donor of overseas development aid by the OECD.


Meanwhile, Engman points out, during the 1960s and 70s, Swedes were brought up to be proud of their country and its culture. For people of that generation, it is this ideology and belief system that is now under threat as they are plunged into questioning mode themselves.


Larsson’s Millennium books, like fellow Swede Henning Mankell’s Wallander thrillers, uncover unpleasant undercurrents beneath Sweden’s tranquil social order. In Mikael Blomkvist and Kurt Wallander’s Sweden, racism is rife, violence against women is commonplace, and high-ranking lawyers and doctors collude in child sex trafficking. It is hardly the stuff of tourist guides.


According to his creator, Wallander was born out of a need to talk about the xenophobia and racism he saw in Sweden in the late 1980s, rather than create a character, because, said Mankell, the issues were always more important than the people involved.


In a similar vein, The Millennium Trilogy documents multiple murders, neo-fascism, state-sanctioned violent sexual abuse, paedophilia and rape. Larsson, like Mankell, pulls apart the stereotype of perfectly educated, socially democratic tolerant Swedes.

While the dark side of Sweden shown in Larsson and Mankell’s novels is far from the experiences of most Swedes, they tap into a natural human instinct that evil can lurk in unexpected places.


”They are classic cases of dramatology, showing another side of a society gripped by something dark and frightening, similar if you like to the movie Jaws,” says Engman.


Perhaps an even better analogy is the series of submarine sightings in Swedish waters during the 80s. Much of the media believed they were Soviet vessels, while others suspected they belonged to Nato. Here you have a literal case of something untoward lying beneath the smooth surface and disturbing the normal sense of calm.


Meawnhile, had the plotlines surrounding the murder of Olof Palme and the downfall of Göran Lindberg, former chief of police of Uppsala come from a Swedish thriller novel, the chance are the writer would be accused of stretching the boundaries of realism way too far.


The news of Lindberg’s secret life certainly rocked Sweden. The revelation that such a senior police officer and high-profile advocate of women’s rights was, in reality, a serial user and abuser of prostitutes caused widespread astonishment and chipped further at the perfect model of society.


The consequences of this introspection, according to Engman, has also led to the rise of a far right wing that has become ever more threatening in recent years.

”Cultural ambivalence has been questioned for first time”, he says, ”And for people questioning themselves, as well as society and its values, it has been a painful awakening.”


Stockholm meanwhile, is a metaphor for Swedish society in the book and the film.  For personal and business reasons, Stockholmers have long cultivated the idea of the ”perfect city,” of sparkling waters, and healthy people basking under cloudless skies in the ”Venice of the North”, the utopian vision of ”Folkhemmet”, the vision of a welfare state that would literally be the ‘home of the people’.

So while the Millennium books and films are fiction, pure and simple, they tap into a sense of anxiety that the Swedish utopia was never more than a vision, that the dark side of human nature was never far from the surface.

Article sponsored by Stockholm University

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Lisbeth Salander is back in fifth Millennium book

The Millennium series' famous computer hacker Lisbeth Salander is set to grip readers' imaginations again as the fifth volume hits the bookshelves on Thursday.

Lisbeth Salander is back in fifth Millennium book
Author David Lagercrantz. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

The new book by the 55-year-old David Lagercrantz, titled 'The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye', promised to reveal more secrets surrounding the mysterious Salander's troubled childhood and the true meaning behind her iconic dragon-shaped tattoo.

When Lagercrantz's 'The Girl in the Spider's Web', which received mixed reviews, was launched in 2015, he was met with overcrowded press conferences, journalists waiting in the queue for interviews, and he signed books until midnight.

The launch of the fifth volume is more low key as Lagercrantz will make no public appearance until he kicks off his book tour on September 10th.

'The Girl in the Spider's Web' was the first to continue the trilogy conceived by Stieg Larsson, who became one of the world's best-loved crime writers.

But Larsson's fame came posthumously as he died at the age of 50 from a heart attack in 2004, a year before the release of the first book in the series, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', followed by 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' (2006) and 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' (2007).

'More banal'

While many Larsson fans rejoiced over the continuation of the trilogy when Lagercrantz was selected to write the fourth book, some – including Larsson's longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson – vehemently opposed him taking up the torch, calling him “a totally idiotic choice”.

“Everybody was very curious. We wanted to see if he was going to succeed,” Kerstin Bergman, literature professor at Lund University, told AFP.

“It was a good crime novel, very different from Stieg Larsson's,” she said, referring to the fourth book, which sold six million copies in 47 countries.

“There were introspective characters,” Bergman added.

Lagercrantz intends to transform the series and convince those who criticize his endeavour.

But as much as readers can't get enough of Salander's punk-rock style and feminist flair, the hype over Lagercrantz's continuation of the series is not what it used to be.

“Now it's more banal. People love characters and want to read about their adventures,” said Bergman, who is also a specialist in Nordic Noir, a genre that mixes crime fiction and social criticism.

“Continuing the series as it did is extremely unusual (…) it's an exclusively commercial project, but the choice of Lagercrantz is probably the best,” Bergman said.

'More sensitive character'

In 'The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye', Lagercrantz throws Salander “into the worst prison for women, where she immediately encounters a lot of problems”, he told AFP in the spring.

Alongside Salander, readers will find Mikael Blomqvist, a talented investigative journalist who's also worn out by life.

As the duo investigate the abuse of power and the social injustice that Salander has gone through, they try to overcome new obstacles.

And if the author believes that Salander has seen enough in the previous crime novels, then the worst may be yet to come.

Lagercrantz has admitted that bringing this young woman with a dark past back to life in the books has caused him a headache. Contrary to Stieg Larsson, Lagercrantz said he would have chosen a heroine with a “sweeter, nicer and more sensitive” character.

In a relentless search for inspiration, Lagercrantz wrote on his publishing company's website that he interviewed “doctors, archivists, robotics researchers, Bangladeshi bloggers threatened to death” and visited a prison in south-eastern Sweden.

'The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye' is to be published in 34 countries. Twenty-six of these countries, including Sweden, Britain, the United States, Germany and France, will release the book on Thursday.

A former journalist, Lagercrantz was previously best known for his biography of footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Lagercrantz has also signed on to write the sixth book, which he insisted would be his last in the series.

Article written by AFP's Camille Bas-Wohlert