Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's in a Title?
(or, Feminist Manifestos in Swedish Crime Thrillers)

or, Feminist Manifestos in Swedish Crime Thrillers

I just finished reading the Millenium trilogy for the second time.  When you read things for the first time, you have to put a lot of energy into just understanding what’s going on.  But when you reread, you get to look beyond the basics of the plot, the character development, the setting exploration, and so forth.  That’s when you really get to think about the themes.

Now, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with “themes” in fiction, which perhaps I’ll explore in a future post.  For now, let’s just just say that, when I’m a writer, I don’t bother trying to put themes in everything I write.  But, when I’m a reader, I can’t resist looking for those themes, even if I’m reading my own work where I know damn well there oughtn’t be any themes, ’cause I didn’t bother putting any in.  This is sort of like how, when you’re driving, you curse those ignorant pedestrians who just blithely step out in front of you, and then, once you get out of the car and start walking, you curse all the moronic motorists who don’t have the good sense to stop when you step off the curb.

So when I read I look for themes, even though as a writer I don’t really believe in them.  And I usually find them.  In the Millenium trilogy, the themes aren’t exactly subtle, but I was struck by how much the original title of the first book would have been more appropos: Men Who Hate Women.

For those who haven’t read these books, I’ll try to keep my comments spoiler-free, since spoilers aren’t necessary for the point I want to make anyway.  (Of course, if you go around clicking links in this post, then you’re on your own.)  Basically, the trilogy consists of three books: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Well, those are the English titles anyway.  It turns out that the original titles in Swedish would translate into something like Men Who Hate Women, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Aircastle that Was Blown Up.  Now, that last one is a bit clumsy (when translated), granted.  It’s apparently because we don’t have a great approximation of the Swedish concept of “aircastle,” although the English expression “building castles in the air” gives us a hint what it means.  Some Wikipedia editor has suggested that a good translation might be “The Pipe Dream that Blew Up.”  Still a bit clumsy, in my opinion.  All in all, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” isn’t a bad choice at all.

But how about “Men Who Hate Women”?  What’s wrong with that one?  Couldn’t be more clear, it seems.  And it has two major advantages over “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo.”

The first (and less important) is that, if you were to go along with “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the titles would then somewhat mirror the structure of the trilogy.  Your typical trilogy is really one big story arc that’s just been stretched out across three books.  But the Millenium trilogy is a bit different.  The characters and setting are very consistent across all three books, but, in terms of plot, the first book is really a self-contained story, while the second two books are one big story.  In fact, coming to the end of the second book is somewhat like those cliffhanger season enders of your favorite TV shows.  If you’re prepared enough to have purchased the third book ahead of time, there’s just no way you can put down The Girl Who Played with Fire and not immediately pick up the next installment.  It’s a pretty clever structure, actually.  It means that the first book of the trilogy allows you a gentle introduction to the characters and the world they inhabit, while not having to bother with setting up the important plot points (that’s relegated to the first third of the second book, which is actually somewhat slow going; once that part is over, the remaining book and two-thirds takes off like a shot).  But you wouldn’t want to have a book that does nothing but introduce characters and setting, right?  So Stieg Larsson creates a whole separate plot to keep you engaged.  The first book in the Millenium trilogy reminds of the old Bill Cosby line: “Now, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”  So, a set of trilogy titles where the last two of the three follow a pattern, making them similar, but the first one doesn’t, making it stand out somewhat, would be very appropriate, all in all.

But the larger reason is that this is really what the book— nay, the whole triology— is about: men who hate women.  Wikipedia tells us that Larsson witnessed a gang rape when he was a teenager, and was thereafter haunted by his inability to go to her aid (or reluctance, if you prefer, but I think a 15-year-old kid should generally be forgiven for not jumping on a gang of violent rapists).  This, opines an unknown Wikipedia editor, “inspired the theme of sexual violence against women in his books.”  It’s safe to say that there’s a theme of sexual violence against women in the books, and that’s why Men Who Hate Women is such a perfect title.  But I’ll go farther: it’s not just about men who hate womena, it’s about men who marginalize women, men who condescend to women, men who ignore women.  It’s about men who think women are inferior, and the things they do every day, which range from the banal to the sensationalistic, to put them down.  Nearly every female character in the series, from the major to the minor, faces some level of discrimination from male colleagues: Lisbeth Salander, the series’ true hero (Mikael Blomkvist is really just an author stand-in, in classic Mary Sue fashion), takes the brunt of it, certainly, but look at the others.  Monica Figuerola has to put up with derision from her peers because she’s a tall strong woman.  Miriam Wu is accused by the police of being a dangerous deviant because she’s a lesbian.  Sonja Modig is subject to all sorts of ridiculous prejudice.  And others, such as Harriet Vanger, are in nearly as bad a position as Lisbeth herself.  Even Erika Berger has to suffer through a largely unnecessary subplot, seemingly just so we can learn that even the editor in chief of Millenium is not immune to male condescension.

So it seems to me very clear that there is a strong feminist message in the Millenium trilogy.  (If you want a competing viewpoint, you could check out this blog post; I disagree with many of her conclusions, but she has a major advantage over me in that she is an actual woman.)  Thus, it seems that Men Who Hate Women is not just an appropriate title, but a perfect one.  Why was it changed?

Well, a Publisher’s Weekly article gives some insight into the US publishers’ thinking, but note that they were discussing whether to change it back to Men Who Hate Women; the original change to The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo was made for the UK version.  Not much official insight on why that was done, although there are some apparent comments by the English version translator (although certainly that can be considered non-authoritative on several levels).  The common guess that everyone makes is, “marketing.”  After all— so goes the reasoning— who would want to buy a book called “Men Who Hate Women”?  Sounds like a self-help book.

In 1997, J. K. Rowling published the first of the Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  If you are American, you may not even realize that that is the proper title of the book; you almost certainly think that the first HP novel is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  But what you don’t realize is that Scholastic, who bought the American publishing rights, decided that no self-respecting American kid would buy a book with “Philosopher” in the title.  What is that, some sort of textbook?  No way dude!  American kids, of course, are too stupid to realize what the philosopher’s stone is, or to have any concept of the history of alchemy.  J. K. Rowling has said that she regrets agreeing to this change.  Had she but known she would soon be the world’s richest author, she could have told ’em to go stick it.

For a sillier example, IMDB tells us that the original title of Zombieland was “Another Day in Zombieland,” but the studio was worried people would think it was a sequel.

If you want to know why marketing is destroying our society, you don’t need to listen to me: go ask Craig Ferguson.  But it does seem a shame that marketing has so low an opinion of our intelligence that they pre-pablumize even our book and movie titles for us.  Here’s an author gone and put out a perfectly lovely book, just for us to read, and put a perfectly lovely title on it, which sums up all its themes and aspirations perfectly, but we have to change all that, so people will realize that they want to buy it.  And I don’t want to lay all the blame on the advertising executives.  I think the lawyers bear some responsibility as well: often titles (and many other things about a book or movie) are changed preemptively to avoid legal hassles.  That is, they are changed not because someone has been sued.  They are changed because someone might be sued.  You know, just in case.  Similar to my theory on how political correctness results in self-censorship, here it seems like we don’t really have to worry about people mucking up our entertainment for us because we’re perfectly capable of doing it ourselves.

I do think it’s important to know the proper names of things.  Original names are often lost, but they signify something.  Does not semiotics teach us that all a name is is a signifier?  It’s an arbitrary sign that we hang onto a concept in an attempt to clarify it, to communicate it, to assign meaning to it.  The name of something as given it by its creator is surely more meaningful than a name assigned after the fact by someone attempting to sell that concept to as many people as possible.  Although I suppose you could argue that all advertising is communication, really.  Well, sorta communication.  Demented and sad communication, but communication.  Right?

There are good reasons to change titles.  “The Aircastle that Was Blown Up” definitely needed a change.  But “Men Who Hate Women” was pretty spot on.  I’m a bit sad to have lost it.

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