‘Lolita’ has become a recognizable word in the English language, having taken up a life of its own, with ever widening connotations and rarely if ever a reference to its literary progenitor. ‘Lolita’, the now word, is a term used to describe a certain type of young woman-usually a teenage girl with precocious sexual drive that proves ruinous to the life of a sinful older man. The word (often lower-cased to ‘lolita’) connotes badness for both sexes, but it is especially demeaning to women. Unfortunately, life itself has furnished plenty of examples to establish this negative vocabulary: not very long ago, Amy Fisher, named the “Long Island Lolita”, was convicted for having shot the wife of Joey Buttafuoco, her older male friend, and spent seven years in prison. In more recent times, the scandal between President Clinton and one of his interns has brought about the same worn out eponym to Monica Liewinski. Books have been written on the subject, and videos and films made. The Amy Fisher story spawned several TV and film versions, while many young Hollywood actresses, from Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin, to Brook Shields, Linda Blair, and Drew Barrymore (the list is long), have been relegated to this dubious category of stardom. The word was coined soon after an obscure literature professor, Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian émigré, published a novel, in 1955, descriptive of the obsessions of a middle-aged man for a twelve-year-old girl. Though the book was thought scandalous, it catapulted its author to fame and fortune, and soon attracted the attentions of Stanley Kubrick, who brought it to the screen in 1962. Today, the word ‘Lolita’ has expanded to a myriad of connotations-none flattering to the human race: it is the title of a notorious novel (some think it the greatest novel of the twentieth century); it passes as a pseudo-literary term in academia; it has become the source of an endless list of mostly sordid films; and it is a pop-term exploitative of pornography in video and internet sources . and so forth. Though the controversy surrounding the word has somewhat obscured the original novel’s (and the author’s) literary stature, the two films mentioned in our title add to the mystique of the Lolita saga and are worthy of attention for their own sakes.
As all literary movies must do, both Kubrick’s and Lyne’s versions have eliminated a great deal of material from the original novel, obliged to do so by the laws that dictate a film’s time constraints-laws by which a novelist does not have to abide. Entire scenes are cut, minor characters eliminated, prefatory material excised, and plots simplified. Films that come from novels (not necessarily from plays or short stories) must usually suffer such fate. Nabokov’s book is a lengthy and elaborate excursion into regions of the human male psyche the depth and dimensions of which are impossible in these films. Before any action takes place, Humbert Humbert, the novel’s tortured protagonist, has embarked on a soul-searching exposition of his life and times, documenting in minute detail his background, mental habits, predispositions-all this buried in elaborate treatises on pedophilia, prostitution, virility, ill health, and insanity. These are given side by side with literary observations, condescending views on past and present art, and a pervasive melancholy that foreshadows the story’s tragic end. The reader knows Humbert very well before the latter even meets Lolita. All this background is cut out in Kubrick’s film, which starts at the end, with the murder of Clare Quilty by Humbert, while it scrupulously avoids the erotic content of the book, due to the difficulties with censorship and the Production Code, then in full effect. For similar reasons, Kubrick’s movie was made in England, depriving the viewer of Nabokov’s colorful descriptions of the American landscape, and thus eliminating most of exterior shots that could have enhanced the movie’s visual attractions. Lyne’s movie, on the other hand, maintains most of those advantages; it is free to do as it wishes, finally breaking loose from the restrictions of the various censorship codes imposed on film in previous eras, and even ridding itself from imputations of moral turpitude. It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. Though sex is now displayed blatantly on the screen-and often for no reason at all-the topic of pedophilia, the relation of a man in his forties to a twelve-year-old-girl, is still regarded as a taboo subject, and a downright immoral topic to deal with at all. It was not easy for Lyne’s movie to be shown to mainstream audiences; distributors in the United States shied away from it, following its theatrical release in Europe, but the movie was picked up by SHOWTIME Channel, which showed it on August 2, 1998. Subsequently the film was released to video stores and on DVD, the 1999 edition of which contains an illuminating commentary on its making by Lyne himself.
Nabokov’s Lolita became a controversial topic for a number of reasons, some having nothing to do with its sexual content. A few critics were more offended by the book’s stylistic extravagance (the frequent pauses, parentheses, exclamations, etc.) and by what was perceived as the author’s sardonic rejection of America and its values than by the subject matter itself. The attacks prompted Nabokov to issue a defense of his work in the form of an epilogue to a subsequent edition, in which he stoutly claimed that he was neither a pedophile nor anti-American. But it was mostly the book’s subject matter that gave it its notoriety and propelled it to heights of publicity that it may not have had, had it not been a story about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. Nabokov’s philosophy of “nymphets,” young girls with daemonic qualities, added to the controversy regarding this particular work and made it taboo material when it came to turning the novel into film. By the time Stanley Kubrick decided to make Lolita, the novel had earned the condemnation of the Legion of Decency and the Catholic Church, and it was doubtful that Hollywood, where the Hays Production Code still reigned supreme, would touch it. Kubrick sought the collaboration of Nabokov, who readily wrote the script, sharing the chores with Kubrick, and of James B. Harris, a producer with M-G-M backing, who decided that the film would be better made in England. After the movie was finished in 1962, it lay around unreleased to theaters for six months due to the undying controversy. Eventually (around 1962), it was seen in USA theaters, but the film was thought disappointing by many who found it meandering, unequal in merit to the novel, and, more importantly, lacking the novel’s erotic content. In hindsight, critical views have evolved, and Kubrick’s Lolita is now in the canon of classic films, though perhaps not one of Kubrick’s greatest.
Unwilling to dwell on the novel’s sexual content, Kubrick turned the first part of Lolita into a social satire (undoubtedly in the book), devoting the early section of the film to Charlotte Haze’s comic marriage to Humbert Humbert. By tipping the balance of the movie to create a different organic whole, he demonstrated that film is capable of exploring the depth of a famous literary work in a variety of ways depending on the circumstances and the time it is made. In the Kubrick version, James Mason, though an excellent choice as daffy Charlotte Haze’s conniving husband, looks grandfatherly to Sue Lyon’s Lolita (Lyon was fourteen, he was fifty three); furthermore, he is overshadowed by Peter Sellers’s portrait of the twisted Clare Quilty, who serves as Humbert’s nemesis. In fact, the entire first part of Kubrick’s movie focuses on the triangle of Humbert/Quilty/Charlotte and hardly pays attention to Lolita, who enters relatively late and has only a few strong scenes that seem to intrude on the flow of the Humbert/Charlotte romance. As soon as Humbert (whose first name is also his surname) enters Radmsdale, the suburb in New England where he is to spend a summer before he goes to teach at Bearsdley College, he encounters Charlotte (Nabokov’s “the Haze woman”), a widow who makes it plain to him that the European professor can have not only the room but the attractions of the environment. Kubrick teases his audience into believing that Charlotte actually encourages Humbert to flirt with Lolita, referring to her daughter as her “cherry pie” (Nabokov’s “my lilies”) and lets the viewer see the trio in a drive-in watching a Frankenstein movie, all seated in the front seat, their hands entangled on their knees. Of course Charlotte becomes insanely jealous when she realizes that Humbert is there because of her daughter and sends her away to a camp (“Camp Q” becomes the “Camp Climax” of the film); she still marries Humbert, though, planning to send Lolita away for good, to a school in Europe. This portion of the movie ends with Charlotte’s death, after she reads Humbert’s diary, finds out the truth of his feelings, and rushes out into a storm where she is hit by a car. The rest describes the picaresque adventures of Lolita and Humbert, who embark on what seems an endless car tour, with a brief interruption at Beardsley, where Humbert teaches; the sexual tensions are minimal, the eroticism of the book is eradicated, and the action centers on a dissolving relationship between a middle-aged and rather inept lover Mason and a repulsed Lolita trying to get away from his clutches. The only interest here is provided by a relentless Quilty, who in his various disguises (Dr. Zempf, a lunatic psychiatrist, is his best) pursues Humbert like a fury. With the graphic murder of Quilty already out of the way, and Peter Sellers, who lent his manic energy to this film, gone, the ending of the movie is only the rueful tale of Humbert’s last failed attempt to re-capture Lolita, now a matron with child in an impoverished environment. Kubrick’s movie, more English than American, more comedy than tragedy, is subtle in its imagery yet comes nowhere near capturing the literary involutions, moral outrage, and the passion of Nabokov’s novel.
Now, the Lyne version takes a few steps in the right direction. For one, it has no lengthy digression, as Kubrick’s film does, into the Charlotte Haze-Humbert Humbert affair. The mother, in the adequate acting of Melanie Griffith, comes in at the right time-shortly after the beginning-performs a minor function (that of a minor character), and exits, logically and briefly before the first third of the film is over. From the very start, what matters in this movie is the obsession of Humbert, played by a brawny, attractive and “just right” Jeremy Irons, with a young girl of twelve, an instantly recognizable unnatural relationship. Following the book’s linear story more or less literally, Lyne has an actual twelve-year-old (Dominique Swain) play the role of Lolita. In contrast to Sue Lyon of the Kubrick version, who, at fourteen, was elegant, balletic, and somewhat prim, Swain exudes sexuality-and plays her role with abandon. Humbert seems at once a helpless man, paralyzed by his intense passion, and Irons, adapt at playing sexual roles (witness Damage), looks like a man capable of being driven mad by the little intrigues and mannerisms of a nymphet. Borrowing verbatim phrases from Nabokov’s vocabulary, Irons, while confiding to his diary, describes the child as “demonic,” possessing a power over others of which she is unaware. Irons’s Humbert is also quite conscious of his provocative blasphemies-and in that sense very much resembling Nabokov’s self-loathing HH. He is only too ashamed of himself when he entices Lolita into the plush hotel, repeating to himself that if he had any sense at all he would immediately “leave this place, this country, this planet.” His contrition and his guilt do not help to free him from his bondage, though. He remains enslaved to the end, a victim of his weakness: “I know I am in paradise,” he murmurs in self-acknowledgment of his sorry plight, “surrounded by the flames of hell . but still in paradise..”
He and Lolita, after the early death of Charlotte, drive around the country aimlessly, she acceding to his demands and wishes (for the most part), he becoming more insatiable and debased, having to purchase her services to keep her his. What is notable in this movie-in contrast to the other-is the nearly total absence of Quilty as the pursuer. Played by Frank Langhella (and very well), Quilty stays in the shadows, uttering very few words, doing hardly anything, and he does not show up until the end, when an exasperated Humbert finds him, and the truth about him, and shoots him down in a bloodbath unimaginable in Kubrick’s early days. This turns out to be something of a drawback, as an ending, for not a sufficient rationale has been established for this outrageous and bizarre murder, coming as a shock after the soft-core pornographic content of the preceding two-hour action of this movie. There is also another incongruity. Humbert asks Lolita’s pardon, after he gives her a substantial amount of money, and she calls him “dad,” implying she has forgiven him. This ending does not exist in Nobokov, whose protagonist is incapable of moral remission-or contrition-only confining himself to admission of guilt. The film also, and quite adeptly, introduces another idea, something actually taken from the Nabokov book: that Humbert Humbert, when fourteen, had an affair (or a love connection) with a young girl of his age, Anabel, who had died of typhus. His yearning for a twelve-year-old nymphet is a remnant of this suppressed desire. This does not work as cause-and-effect, at least not enough to justify Humbert’s self-acknowledged and detestable pedophilia; a yearning for one lost at fourteen does not justify an adult pursuit and exploitation of a minor. Humbert knows this too, and this self-knowledge is what makes him interesting – a tragic, though not an acceptable character. If anything, this film, equaling the novel’s moral fiber, demonstrates the possession of a man by a demon-the demon inside him. Lyne’s story shows the tragic consequences of a liaison that is not only unnatural and repugnant, but the weakness that lies in the enticement itself, the horrifying precipice on which the adult Humbert lives, constantly for years and years, unable to break his bonds and free himself. He chooses freely, though, and, in doing so, he is free to fall.
Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, New York: A Frederick Ungar Book, 1993
Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita, edited with Preface, Introduction, and Notes by Alfred Appel, Jr., New York: Vintage Books, 1995
Sinclair, Marianne, Hollywood Lolita: The Nymphet Syndrome in the Movies, London: Plexus Publishing, Limited, 1988
Lyne, Adrian, “Commentary”, in DVD, Trimark Home Video, 1999