In the seven years since Stieg Larsson’s sudden death of a heart attack at age fifty, the sudden, head-spinning success of his books has permanently altered the lives of those he left behind. There has been enough drama, controversy, and cliffhangers to fill a separate series of mystery novels about what happens when a novelist dies on the eve of the release of his blockbuster series of novels without writing a will codifying his wishes for who should oversee his trilogy of bestsellers and the fortune they've earned. As it stands, that job has fallen to Stieg's younger brother, Joakim, who has become the custodian (along with their father, Erland) of a literary empire, the size and scope of which nobody (least of all the books' author) could have fathomed while he was still alive.
The appeal of Larsson’s series of mystery novels has transcended culture, class, gender, and geography. As a result, its commercial success continues unabated in all media. The books have become worldwide bestsellers. The Swedish films have broken box office records throughout Europe and were among the highest grossing subtitled films ever to be released in the U.S. And with visionary director David Fincher presiding over a star-studded English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Millennium is poised to continue its reign as the kind of global pop culture phenomenon that comes along only once a generation.
However, from the very beginning, the trilogy’s rocket ride has been trailed by a blaze of heated conflict. Stieg Larsson's girlfriend of thirty years, Eva Gabrielsson, contends that she was instrumental in crafting the stories and that the author would have wanted her to be the series’ creative gatekeeper. However, the couple never married and Larsson never made official his wishes for Gabrielsson's right to retain control of his books. As a result, Swedish courts have awarded Stieg’s family full control of his estate. Perhaps the biggest source of contention and speculation concerns Gabrielsson’s claim that she possesses a laptop computer containing an unfinished version of the fourth installment in the Millennium series. Though Gabrielsson has said she hopes to finish and publish the novel, she has no power to do so without the consent of the Larsson family, which retains full control over Stieg’s literary legacy.
Much of that enormous responsibility falls upon Joakim, who was recently in Los Angeles to visit the set of the Fincher film. While in town, Joakim granted Signature a rare interview. Seated in a hotel bar overlooking the Pacific on a blustery Friday afternoon, with his twenty-four-year-old daughter, Therese Larsson, at his side, Joakim offered his thoughts on the film adaptations, the sources of his brother’s creativity, and the future of the franchise.
Signature: What aspects of the books are most important for you to ensure are preserved in the film adaptations of your brother’s books?
Joakim Larsson: Violence against women. My brother had a strong view about that. He was a feminist, anti-racist, and investigative journalist.
SIG: Were those things that drove him personally and professionally from an early age?
JL: Yeah, ever since he was a teenager.
SIG: Where does that come from?
JL: From my mother mostly. Both my mother and my father are socially engaged. My mother didn’t call herself a feminist, but she started the first equal women’s committee in our hometown. We were brought up to respect women. My father also. We were brought up in the early Sixties and my father was the only father who played with the kids. He took care of the laundry. In those days that wasn’t done.
SIG: Did they encourage creativity in you and Stieg?
JL: Oh yeah. Reading books and seeing movies and all that. Politics. They were both in the union.
SIG: Were you surprised to see the Swedish Nazi movement featured so prominently in his books?
JL: No, no. My brother founded an investigative magazine called Expo that focuses on Fascism.
SIG: I think the rest of the world was surprised because we hold Sweden on a pedestal. We think of Sweden as progressive and perfect and the ideal society.
JL: Many things in Sweden are good. Free hospital and so on. But since the Eighties things have been more to the Right.
SIG: When did that become a particular crusade of your brother’s?
JL: All his life. Since he was fifteen, sixteen. When he was fifteen he saw a sign for some Nazis. And he said, "Nazis nowadays? I thought they were gone after WWII. Who are these people? Who could be a Nazi today?" So he started to collect information. Since high school he was fascinated with what sort of people would do something like that.
SIG: When did you first know he had a talent and passion for creative writing and storytelling?
JL: We always knew. Since he was a little kid. When he was twelve or thirteen my parents bought a typewriter as a birthday gift for Stieg. It was very expensive for them but they saw a talent for writing. And he started immediately to write on the typewriter. Story after story. It was mostly detective novels and stuff like that. Hardy Brothers, that sort of thing.
SIG: What other writers was he passionate about?
JL: He liked British crime and detective novels. Then he loved to write science fiction and fantasy.
SIG: Was he looking to write an epic like Lord of the Rings?
JL: Not exactly. He did shorter fantasy stories.
SIG: When did he take up an interest in journalism?
JL: He really wanted to be a journalist and he applied to study journalism at University but he was rejected. But he came in as a graphic illustrator at the news agency in Sweden, Tidningarnas Telegrambyra. He worked for them beginning in the middle of the 1970s for fifteen years.
SIG: At what point did you realize he was working on these books?
JL: He came home and told us he had this idea for Lisbeth Salander. He said, "It’s Pippi Longstocking as an adult." That was the idea for Lisbeth Salander. And when he tried to describe her, he said she’s a little bit like my daughter – vulnerable on the inside but a lot of spirit as well. At that time my daughter wore a lot of black.
Therese Larsson: Black hair, black makeup, black boots!
JL: And she was into kickboxing.
SIG: What was that like to see parts of yourself turn up in that character?
TL: I don’t think about it much. It was interesting.
SIG: Were there other Larsson family members who turned up in the books?
JL: I haven’t found them.
SIG: Do you think he would have been surprised at the worldwide success of the books?
JL: He knew they were good. He was proud of them. But with books, some very good books don’t sell. Some bad books sell millions. You never know.
TL: But he did write an e-mail to you saying these books are very good and they’re going to sell.
JL: He was kind of joking, like "Here comes the new star. It’s me!"
SIG: Do you think he had a vision for a larger epic than the trilogy?
JL: He wanted to write ten books. If it was published it wasn’t that important to him. It was just the pleasure of writing. After three books he thought, the story sticks. It’s a good story. My father didn’t like the sex in the books. He told him, it’s too much sex. Stieg said, "No sex is what’s selling."
SIG: The sex in the books is not sexy. Fortunately most of the films have reflected that.
JL: Sex is often very stupid in films. When you watch James Bond, it’s stupid.
SIG: In these films it’s very emotional and terrifying. What do you think of the films?
JL: We’re very happy with the Swedish films. For Swedish films they’re very good. We were very proud of seeing my brother’s books on the screen.
TL: We have one dream that Stieg had been alive to see the books on the screen.
JL: It’s a tragedy. He died before the books were published.
TL: I think it’s fun because since I was a child Stieg has been telling stories and I was telling my friends how good he was and how much I like him. He was my and my brother’s idol. And now everyone can read his stories.
SIG: He was your cool uncle?
TL: Very cool!
SIG: Were you two always very different growing up?
JL: Very different. He was my hero, too. He was three years older than me. He was so kind as a person.
TL: You are too. You are not so different from Stieg. You have the same way of thinking.
JL: Stieg made something with his life. We were so proud of him for his work before the books for his work in human rights.
SIG: When he wrote these books, do you think he suspected they would be turned into films?
JL: Yes. He discussed it very much with the publisher. He said he wanted them to be movies. He said the publisher should decide who should do the film and so on.
SIG: Was he a big film fan?
JL: Yes. My father was an extra in movies. And my brother and I would go and watch films a couple of evenings each week.
SIG: American or European films.
JL: Mostly American but also everything. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A space Odyssey” was our favorite. He always loved science fiction.
SIG: Do you think he intended for Millennium to become an epic?
JL: He intended to write ten books. He thought most crime novels were a little bit boring. Wallander was so old and tired. He wanted to do something new. Instead of focusing on his hero’s struggles with alcoholism, his was more about the sex. They live without sex mostly, those old detective novel heroes.
SIG: Do you see any possibility of a fourth book ever coming out?
JL: No, I don’t see any possibility of that ever happening.
SIG: Would you like to find a way of making it happen?
JL: I want there to be ten books. But you know, he died. And he didn’t finish the books. They were nearly finished but not finished.
SIG: And what about the possibility of someone else finishing them or publishing them in their unfinished state?
JL: I don’t believe anyone else should write those books. They are his books.