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
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
subject matter. Although comparing books and films is like comparing
apples and oranges, an examination of Nabokov's original screenplay
(commissioned by MGM, dumped by Kubrick, but reprinted last year
in paperback by Vintage International) reveals a wealth of humor
if not outright parody. (At one point, Nabokov himself appears
as a character in the screenplay.) Nabokov's jokes, however, were
confined to stolid academic subjects and winking intellectual
puns. Kubrick knew he was making a broad comedy about sexual mores
and tempered his humor accordingly.
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
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.