By Devin D. O'Leary
NOVEMBER 23, 1998: The Russian-born writer, critic and translator Vladimir Nabokov caused quite a stir in post-war America when his controversial novel Lolita was first published in 1955. The novel, which told the story of a middle-aged college professor's obsession with a 15-year-old temptress, became a literary sensation. The book was lauded in the halls of academia, banned from libraries across the country and thumbed-through by horny teenagers for decades afterward. Its very title has become the dictionary definition for "a seductive adolescent girl."
In 1961, the often acclaimed, often misunderstood American movie director Stanley Kubrick decided to film his version of Lolita. The film, starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Sue Lyon as Lolita and Peter Sellers as the villainous Claire Quilty, debuted to even helpings of praise and condemnation.
More than 30 years later, another American director, Adrian Lyne, decided to take a crack at Nabokov's novel. Almost before completion, the film became embroiled in controversy. Could America finally handle this "adult" story or was Nabokov's novel nothing more than highbrow filth? Was Kubrick's version the quintessential Lolita, or could the director of Flashdance do Nabokov's masterwork one better? After nearly two years of backstage politics--during which it was roundly pronounced that no American studio would release the film--Lyne's version of Lolita is finally hitting American theaters courtesy of tiny Samuel Goldwyn Films.
So, after all these contentious incarnations, where does the true Lolita lie?
Kubrick's version received an undue amount of derision for its
"humorous" treatment of Nabokov's novel. At the time,
most considered it the only way to tiptoe around the film's scandalous
Kubrick's teen temptress is slightly less predatory than Nabokov's "nymphet." As played by Sue Lyon, Dolores Haze is the ultimate '50s teenager--a child on the cusp of a new era when childhood would be truncated and innocence would fly out the window at a far younger age. As virginal as most parents wanted to believe their sons and daughters were in the late '50/early '60s, most were already experimenting with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
In Kubrick's film, it is quite clear. Humbert is a high-toned European--a man who feels he is somehow above the brainless hoi polloi. And yet, he finds himself bewitched by a gum-snapping, comic book-reading American teen.
Adrian Lyne's version of Lolita is markedly less successful in achieving that central metaphor of culture clash. Oddly enough, Lyne seems to stick much closer to Nabokov's original screenplay. Early on, Lyne includes a flashback in which Humbert recalls his lost teenage love who died of pneumonia at age 14. Humbert, you see, isn't just an old pervert; he's merely trying to recapture his lost childhood crush. Although the sequence does appear in Nabokov's version, it's rather weak character motivation and smacks of some apologist rewriting.
In today's world, Lyne is able to be a little more honest about the sexual relationship between Humbert (Brit actor Jeremy Irons) and Lolita (American newcomer Dominique Swain). He even includes a particularly nasty scene (complete with naked body doubles) in which Lolita trades sex for money. (Nabokov was more genteel and far more subtle when he had his Lolita accept small "bribes" from Humbert--"From now on, I'm coin-operated," she tells her stepfather/lover.) More honest or not, Lyne's version bears the uncomfortable atmosphere of soft-core porn. (What can we expect from the director of 9 1/2 Weeks?)
A most telling moment occurs midway through the film. When Lolita is about to be shipped off to summer camp by her domineering mother (an excellent Shelly Winters in Kubrick's version, a grating Melanie Griffith in Lyne's), Nabokov's original screenplay instructs: "Humbert has come out on the landing. (Lolita) stomps upstairs and next moment is in his arms. Hers is a perfectly innocent impulse, an affectionate bright farewell. As she rises on tiptoe to kiss him, he evades her approaching lips and imprints a poetical kiss on her brow." In Lyne's version, Lolita races to Humbert and, in a lascivious slo-mo shot, leaps into his arms and wraps her legs around his body, her young buttocks quivering pertly at 48 frames per second. Much spit is swapped in their full-facial snog.
Sex aside, the biggest question surrounding Lolita (in any incarnation) is "Why does Humbert murder Claire Quilty?" (a segment that begins and ends all versions of Lolita, so I'm not giving any secrets away). Afterall, Lo's secondary suitor hasn't done anything to her that Humbert hasn't. Unlike Nabokov, Kubrick goes out of his way to stress that Quilty is not merely a writer, but a television writer. Can there be any more crass or commercial an undertaking? Humbert and Quilty are two sides of the same coin. Humbert believes he can seduce Lolita precisely because he is a sophisticated European aesthete. He believes Quilty cannot precisely because he is a low-class American pervert.
What strikes viewers of Kubrick's 1961 film, of course, is the inspired casting of James Mason and Peter Sellers. Sellers is a wonder as the utter decadent who "steals" Lolita away from Humbert. Mason, meanwhile, is the very model of fallen hubris and pathetic debasement. In Lyne's Lolita, Claire Quilty (Frank Langella) has been reduced to a ludicrous demonic shadow (his every mysterious appearance heralded by hellish smoke and flames). Langela does an admirable job, but he has almost no role to work with. Irons and Swain are fine as the quarrelsome lovers, but find themselves hamstrung at every turn by their leering director.
In the end, the line between Nabokov's original story, Kubrick's 1961 interpretation and Lyne's 1997 version is a razor thin one. Each has more in common than they do different. It's all a matter of style, attitude and interpretation. Each, of course, is a flawed work of art. Nabokov's is overly intellectual; Kubrick's is only half-serious, and Lyne's is pulp novel pornography. I guess we're still waiting for the definitive Lolita.
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