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Adrian Lyne's controversial Lolita finds its true home--cable TV.

By Coury Turczyn

AUGUST 10, 1998:  So it's come to this: After 30 years of going to theaters to see original movies, I'm forced to subscribe to Showtime to see the latest outrage. The cable movie channel has made Adrian Lyne's Lolita the centerpiece for its "No Limits" advertising campaign, blanketing magazine pages and airwaves with declarations of its fearless programming. Lyne's adaptation of the infamous Vladimir Nabokov novel was actually finished two years ago—and was refused by American distributors, thus sealing its fate as a direct-to-cable production. But is it really a cinematic "untouchable," a shocking foray into taboo areas of sexual perversion?

Not really. Certainly, its ostensible subject—the pedophilic relationship between a 12-year-old girl and her stepfather—is incendiary (the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families has declared that the film will increase child molestation and have a harmful effect on healthy men). But the actual themes of Lolita have less to do with salaciousness than with examining sexual obsession—what happens to a man caught up in his own psychological dark alleys and the damage this inflicts on his victim/lover. What is most troubling to readers/viewers/moralists is that Nabokov's main character isn't a complete monster but rather a reasonably intelligent fellow—and that Lolita isn't a gritty exposé of pure evil but rather a complex look at someone "normal" who finds himself doing abnormal things.

Whether Lyne's film will unleash dark impulses in otherwise healthy males is debatable, though I highly doubt it. (FYI: There are no actual nude sex scenes—though there is hugging, kissing, and implied coitus.) The bigger problem is Lolita's lack of thematic exploration. While Lyne has remained very faithful to Nabokov's book in scenes and dialogue, he's forgotten to include context and characterization—what he's mostly come up with is a particularly somber episode of The Red Shoe Diaries. With its glossy visuals, shallow characters, and lack of pacing, Lyne's Lolita could be more accurately described as a series of images from the novel rather than an adaptation of the story as a whole. These images can be arresting at times, but they don't really combine into much of a dramatic statement.

Jeremy Irons stars as Humbert Humbert, an Englishman who finds himself in a small New England town in 1946 to teach French literature. He becomes a tenant in the home of a lonely widow, Charlotte (Melanie Griffith), whose daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain) quickly becomes his romantic obsession—to the point where he marries Charlotte just to stay close to Lolita. As for his motivation for such conduct, Lyne provides a flashback where we learn that Humbert lost the love of his life at age 14, thus inspiring his lifelong yearning for a similar girl. Much of the movie consists of following Humbert and Lolita on a road trip they take together and tracking what appears to be their mutual seduction. But who is the mysterious Clare Quilty (Frank Langella), and why does he take such an interest in their relationship?

All of this is filmed with as much taste as Lyne can muster, with occasional flashes of eroticism—a glance here, a kiss there. But all his effort to be inoffensive seems wasted, since Lyne doesn't offer much food for thought to counterbalance his indirect approach to the subject matter. If he's not providing cheap thrills, as the protectors of morality fear, just what is he trying to do? What's the subtext? Lyne doesn't appear to know, either, and relies mostly on simply recreating scenes from the novel.

This begs comparison to that other Lolita adaptation, Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version. Although Kubrick was considerably more chaste in his imagery than Lyne, he also took great liberties with the source material, giving it a black humor that fed into a larger context. By setting the film in his present day (late '50s) America, Kubrick's Lolita posits the existence of a sexual underground at a time when such a thing was nearly unheard of. His characters speak in double-entendre codes and flash meaningful glances to one another. Everyone seems to be in on Humbert's dark secret—it's that obvious to them. And when Charlotte suggests hiring a French "servant girl," you begin to wonder what her motives are. It's an odd, surreal, ultimately compelling world—and it must have been uncomfortably revealing in 1962.

Kubrick also captured vivid performances from his cast, whose characters were sharply drawn. James Mason's Humbert is no wistful sap like Irons'—he's a cynical, dissipated user who's clearly not a lost romantic. Shelley Winter's Charlotte is a dowdy, desperate, irritating nag who's also trying to break free from her inner pain (whereas Griffith's Charlotte is...well, not much of anything). And Peter Sellers' Clare Quilty becomes a more major villain, a sort of decadent beatnik-artist-pornographer, gibbering in hipster patter (Langella's fine Quilty comes much too late and too little to provide any menace or perverse amusement). The only improvement in casting that Lyne offers is Swain as the title character. Her Lolita is constantly barreling forward, head down, elbows out—a young girl trying to grow up too fast; she is a picture of conflicting worldliness and immaturity. If only Swain had been given more to say.

Kubrick's Lolita may not be the better adaptation of Nabokov's novel, but it is the better movie. Both directors had to make compromises in trying to bring such sensitive material to the screen, but at least Kubrick created a film that tackled some complex issues of the time. Lyne, however, has simply directed a very pretty cable TV movie in an era when the loss of innocence at ever-younger ages has become a troubling sign of the times. Although Lyne's Lolita may get an art house release this fall, it's best viewed where it belongs—on the small screen.

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