Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Problem of Casting Literary Heroes

A great deal of fun has been made this week (and, let's face it, ever since the film was announced) about the potential casting of what is the most coveted female role in Hollywood today: that of Lisbeth Salander, the punked-out anti-social heroine of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. Yesterday The Daily Beast reported that the casting process has been narrowed down to four final candidates, none of whom would be considered major stars. (The final choice will probably break early next week.)

Personally, I'm thrilled by the approach David Fincher is taking in his American version of the thriller. (Noomi Rapace, the extraordinary actress that played Lisbeth in the Swedish film version, reportedly declined the role.) I've been imagining different actresses in the role for months, and none of them seemed quite right. (Imagining Natalie Portman or Kristen Stewart simpering their way through the role didn't seem right at all). But I also wonder if these unknown actresses might be forever branded should they win the coveted role; when a character is this iconic, and already this imagined in the minds of readers across the world, how can any actress's talents rise above the written role? Or even live up to all those readers' expectations?

People take very different approaches when weighing whether or not to read a book before its film adaptation: if you see the film first, you risk knowing too much when you read the book, but then you might also have your narrative experience further expanded by all the nuance a book provides--imagine how much richer a reading of Pride & Prejudice might be after having Colin Firth's sulky handsomeness imprinted on your brain. Or how much better a book like The Devil Wears Prada might read when you consider
the gravitas Meryl Streep brought to a previously flat and caricatured villain.

On the other hand, the liability with seeing the movie first is that you don't allow your imagination to run wild with too many visual and casting guidelines to how you should interpret the story. Thank goodness I read Atonement before watching Keira Knightley take on the role of Cecilia, or else I would never known how much depth the character was supposed to have. And no matter what I do, it's impossible to read a page of a Harry Potter book now without envisioning Daniel Radcliffe in the part. (Thankfully, he's doing his best to break out of the post-HP casting rut.)

Lisbeth Salander is unlike any character recently introduced in fiction, and definitely unlike most roles for actresses in contemporary film: she's hard to the point of self-destruction, antisocial, sexually unconventional (both in her appearance and in the way other people objectify her), and constantly beating people up (and being beaten-up herself.) Whoever plays this character, she will be forever identified as Salander, and if she does it well, it may be impossible to see her in any other role ever again. Is this an opportunity, or a liability? It would certainly help the readers to have an unknown in the role, so we don't ascribe any characteristics of the actress onto the final performance. (This was enormously successful when unknown actress Gabourey Sidibe played the lead role in Precious--but she had to go out of her way to demonstrate to the rest of the world that she was not, in fact, the same person as her character.) Yet when our interpretations of fiction become so tangled up with their onscreen iterations, will we ever be able to picture Salander with as much freedom of interpretation?


  1. Good. All these women are sufficiently weird-looking.

    Although I'm disappointed in Daniel Craig as Blomkvist. He looks so much like the actor they cast for the Swedish films.

  2. I'm not at all surprised they went with Craig--I'm very glad, though, that they're going with Europeans in all the lead roles and not Americans. Same technique as HP casting, stay true to the integrity of the story.