Nabokov's masterpiece crosses the line
by Peter Keough
LOLITA, Directed by Adrian Lyne. Written by Stephen Schiff adapted from the novel by
Vladimir Nabokov. With Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, and
Frank Langella. A Samuel Goldwyn Film release. At the Kendall Square.
The new adaptation of Lolita has struggled against so many
obstacles before it reached the screen that whether it is any good seems almost
irrelevant. Pedophilia was just the beginning of its problems -- what about
Adrian Lyne? Was the director who blew Glenn Close away in a bathtub in
Fatal Attraction the best person to deal with a subjective narrative
that's immersed in the most sublime English prose of this half-century and told
from an utterly unreliable narrative point of view? Was the guy who sent Kim
Basinger crawling after greenbacks up to translating onto film this masterpiece
of sexual obsession?
Some misgivings are eased in the first few minutes. Humbert Humbert (Jeremy
Irons), rueful, resigned, and magnificently ruined, drives his 1948 Plymouth
"woody" down a rolling highway past shimmering landscapes, his hands
bloodstained and clutching a bobby pin, swerving from side to side on the road
with deliberate indifference. "Lolita," he says in voiceover, "Light of my
life, fire of my loins. My soul, my sin."
The obvious question -- what's the number of your agent? -- I never asked.
Stephen Schiff, former film editor of the Boston Phoenix and
screenwriter for Adrian Lyne's new adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's
Lolita, still had plenty to talk about. Being on the receiving
end of moralistic attacks, for example -- not just for his role in bringing to
the screen one of the most controversial films in Hollywood history, but for
reviewing such films.
"Feminist groups picketed the Phoenix for my review of Brian De Palma's
Dressed To Kill," he recalls. "They also graffiti'd my name somewhere. I
remember all that -- going on the talk shows and having angry women call me. In
your archives, probably, there's this follow-up article about how I became an
enemy of the people. I was pretty surprised about the reaction. I've been more
surprised about Lolita, though."
And well he might be. A high-budgeted studio adaptation of a prestigious work
of literature by a major director with big stars and positive reviews, it's
been kept from the big screen by the subtlest and most insidious kind of
censorship -- self-imposed commercial cowardice. "Nothing like this has ever
happened before. There has been all sorts of governmental censorship, often
with movies of a much smaller scale, but for a movie of this dimension and high
profile, not to mention budget, to be given an R rating with no problem and
then de facto banned by the industry itself is a unique event.
"I think it happened for a number of reasons. The broad one is that at this
moment we seem to have a shrinking culture, and for my entire adulthood we've
had an expanding culture. In a way the two Lolitas to me are like
bookends of a cultural moment. The Kubrick Lolita happens in 1962, when
things are just beginning to loosen up and be liberated. That's the sensibility
of that movie, this kind of wink and smirk, naughty glee -- oh look at what we
can get away with -- even though there's nothing more salacious in it than a
peck on the cheek.
"And now, the other Lolita comes at a moment when suddenly the culture
seems to be getting smaller. And that which has been brought out from under the
rug, we're being told, must go back under. When we began showing Lolita
to the movie studios, it was March 1997. December 1996, three months before,
was when JonBenet Ramsey was murdered -- the air was full of that, and full of
the Belgian sex murders and a dawning awareness of how much pedophilia was a
problem, as it had always been.
"There are lots of other factors. We got these raves from studio heads, but
when it came time to step up to the plate and distribute the thing, the doors
closed. It began to become a de facto banning. They were worried about what had
happened when feminists went after The People vs. Larry Flynt. It was
felt it crippled the film's box office and its chances for awards at the end of
the year. They were cowardly, but not cowardly without reason in the current
Schiff notes the irony that the same people who would condemn his film are
responsible for polluting the media with the far more graphic and demoralizing
details of the Monica Lewinsky case. "The so-called spokespeople for the
culture, when the Monica Lewinsky story broke, thought, `This is the most
shocking thing in the world! They'll hound him out of office in a week.'
Finally, they had the brilliance to turn to the culture and poll them, and the
culture came back and said, `Shut up and let him do his work.' "
Schiff wants those "spokespeople" to let him do his work, too, which is to
subject the extremes of human behavior to the clarifying and redeeming power of
"Of course Humbert's a monster, but it was very important to me to make him a
sympathetic monster. I think one of the great things that art can do and
literature can do is put you deeply inside someone whom you would never
otherwise be inside of. It expands us by making us understand that which we
cannot understand even though we condemn it."
It's the first of the film's generous quotations from the novel, and from that
moment on it will be impossible to hear Nabokov's prose in any other voice than
Irons's. This capturing of the voice of the novel goes a long way to making its
despicable events not only comprehensible but tragically moving -- as well as
defusing the film's lapses in taste. Throw in Lyne's (for the most part)
uncharacteristic visual restraint and inspiration, Stephen Schiff's shrewd
screenplay, and solid performances headed by Irons's best since Dead
Ringers and Lolita the movie comes close to transforming the sordid
case history of a fortysomething European pedant obsessed with a precocious but
otherwise ordinary 12-year-old girl into a universal ode to loss and desire.
For Humbert is not so much a pervert as a romantic. In one of his best
sequences, Lyne relates the explanation of Humbert's tendencies -- an
adolescent love that ended with his beloved Annabel's sudden death from typhoid
-- with a gold-tinged, fade-to-black series of flashback episodes that give
credence to what could have come across as pat rationalization. Years later,
adrift in small-town American academe, Humbert, already an acknowledged fancier
of "nymphets" (sexually awakened girls of the same age as the late Annabel),
meets his match in Dolores Haze (newcomer Dominique Swain, a bit horsy but
deftly balancing guile and ingenuousness). In one of Lyne's too frequent
kitschy groaners, Lolita, as the ready linguist Humbert will dub her, is
spotted lolling under a lawn sprinkler, more a candidate for a wet-T-shirt
contest than a Dantesque vision.
But then, the point of the book and movie might be that both are one and the
same. Lolita is the daughter of Charlotte (Melanie Griffith, making blowziness
a virtue), Humbert's widowed landlady, a vulgarian jealous of her daughter and
hot for Humbert. He exploits Charlotte to gain access to Lolita, and the
awkward dance between avuncularism and eroticism between him and the teasing
Lolita aches with possibility and frustration. A catastrophe intercedes (Lyne's
handling of this accident, as with a later scene of violence, is subtle,
shocking, and surreal), Humbert's dream comes true, and he flees across America
with his illicit beloved, pursued, it turns out, by more than his guilty
This odyssey is long and troubled not just for the runaway couple. Nabokov set
his story in a late-'40s America that was as alien, appalling, and as
attractive to him as, well, a 12-year-old American girl is to his hero, and he
reproduces the milieu with hallucinatory accuracy. The filmmakers are less
rigorous. Anachronisms coupled with Lyne's predilection for the garishly trite
(a scene with a bug zapper is especially egregious, and Lolita's food fetishism
à la 9-1/2 weeks is laughable) come close to smashing the
artifice to pieces. On the other hand, Schiff creditably fills the gaps left by
the text in the details of the pair's lives on the road together -- the bizarre
but eerily familiar mix of parent/lover, idol/annoyance that is their
As for the sin of pedophilia, it goes neither unpunished nor uncomprehended.
As Lyne suggests, the distance between Humbert's point of view and reality
grows the farther he and Lolita flee, and so does his awareness of his
culpability and doom. In the inexorably wrenching ending, a return to the
opening images that fulfills the promise of their poetry, Humbert realizes that
his love for children is compensation for the loss of childhood itself, the
innocence before words and images got in the way. For most of us, there is the
consolation of art -- which Lolita, both Lyne's and Nabokov's, fulfills.