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Revisiting Lolita


a film directed by Adrian Lyne


People reading Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time are often baffled by their own reactions. Those who haven’t read it for a while approach it again nervously, as if afraid of what they will learn about their old attitudes or their old selves. It’s not just that the book, the story of the loves, travels, and undoing of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, a middle-aged European man and a twelve-year-old American girl, is funnier than it ought to be, and more cruel than we want it to be. Or that Humbert’s tacky charm stretches much further than it has any right to. It’s that we really don’t know where we are: why we are laughing, what to do with our discomfort. There’s also the sense that Lolita, the girl rather than the book, has become part of our language, the name of a condition. But do we know what that condition is?

Nabokov’s Lolita appeared in Paris (in English, published by Olympia Press) in 1955; but then was banned in France in the following year, apparently because of complaints from the British embassy that too many susceptible tourists were buying it and smuggling it home. The ban was lifted three years later. Excerpts from Lolita were printed in the Anchor Review in 1957, but the book was not published in full in the United States until 1958 and in the United Kingdom until 1959. It instantly became a best seller, remaining at the top of the American list for six months, “until displaced,” as Norman Page puts it in Nabokov: The Critical Heritage, from which I take most of these details, “by Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.”

Meanwhile the book had been much read in its Paris edition, and much discussed. Graham Greene told the readers of the London Sunday Times that it was one of the best books of 1955, while John Gordon of the London Sunday Express found it to be “sheer unrestrained pornography.” When the book finally appeared in the United States, Orville Prescott, in The New York Times, occupied the cultural high ground by craftily placing literary taste before morality, or perhaps confusing the two:

Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.

But then another kind of high ground was occupied by the twenty-one signers* of a 1959 letter to the London Times, who were

disturbed by the suggestion that it may yet prove impossible to have an English edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Our opinions of the merit of the book differ widely, but we think it would be deplorable if a book of considerable literary interest, which has been favourably received by critics and widely praised in serious and respectable periodicals, were to be denied an appearance in this country.

This is pretty stuffy too in its way—not much hope for great books which are unfavorably received and don’t have respectable folks on their side—and Dorothy Parker’s militant exuberance is more cheering. Writing in Esquire, she said she couldn’t regard Lolita as pornography, “either sheer, unrestrained, or any other kind.” It was

an anguished book, but some-times wildly funny…. [Nabokov’s] command of the language is absolute, and his Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—alright then,—a great book. And how are you, John Gordon Esq., of the London Sunday Express?

Then things calmed down a bit, as Lolita became respectable, even a classic, much translated, reprinted many times, taught in literature courses all over the world, made into a funny but quite unscandalous film by Stanley Kubrick. Now there is a new stir, caused by the non-arrival on American screens of Adrian Lyne’s film of Lolita, and by the eagerness of certain conservative columnists in the United Kingdom to get the film banned there. The work, completed over a year ago, has been released in Italy, Germany, and France, and is scheduled for release in Britain in May, but as yet no American distributor has taken it on or currently seems likely to. Various none-too-convincing reasons are given for this lack of interest: the film is too long, too expensive, not good enough. Could the subject have something to do with it?

Celestine Bohlen, writing in The New York Times last year, suggested that the difficulty was not pedophilia in itself, which is quite widely discussed, but the film’s “multidimensional portrait of a pedophile.” “What people find troubling in America,” Adrian Lyne says, quoted by Bohlen, “is that they like Humbert Humbert and they don’t want to.” “Like” may be putting it a bit strongly, but certainly the complication of our feelings about Humbert is an important feature of any response to the novel, and to both of the movies made from it. Lyne also insists that Humbert, along with Lolita and Clare Quilty, the man who steals Lolita from Humbert, gets his comeuppance. “No one comes well out of it,” Lyne told Richard Covington of the Los Angeles Times. “They all die, for chrissake.”

I saw the film in Paris, in a small but fairly fancy movie theater on the Left Bank (14 Juillet-Odéon, seats you can sink into, screen high on the wall in front of you), but it was showing all over the city, in both French-and English-language versions. The theater was not full, and the audience seemed neither excited nor outraged: it was just a movie. The reviewers’ reaction in France has been similar, although some critics, cinéastes to the core, have seen the film as an offense not against morality but against Stanley Kubrick.

In general, European reactions to the film have been quiet, although there was some real enthusiasm in Italy, putting Nabokov’s novel back on the best-seller lists; and there was a move to boycott the film in Munich, on the grounds that it makes pedophilia socially acceptable, salonfähig, the equivalent of a criminal you wouldn’t mind inviting to dinner. One in every four girls in Bavaria, a leaflet distributed outside cinemas said, has been sexually abused before she is sixteen. And of course Europeans have recently been shaken by pedophilic murders in Belgium, and by a huge child pornography ring in France. A few years back there were so many accusations of child abuse in England that the very idea of childhood began to look like a sexual temptation.

Lyne’s film, the Munich leaflet added, shows the seducer as a victim, and the victim as a seducer. This is true. It invites us to sympathize, fairly intensely, with the sorrows of a pedophile. But it doesn’t condone his acts, and it doesn’t make him into anything resembling a good guy. It also shows the victim as a victim, although in a slightly remote, conventionalized way. The main problem for Lolita, if we believe the images on the screen rather than the film’s faint verbal gestures toward her plight, is not that Humbert mistreated her but that she became a frump after she left him. She used to be fun and now she’s a housewife. We might regret this emphasis, and I do, but you have to see the film to arrive at this view, and there is no reason at all for it not to be shown in this country.

Distributors and moviegoers may well have thought they had reason to expect the worst from Adrian Lyne—the difference being that the worst, if by that we mean the scabrous, the sensational, was what they used to want. The very titles of a couple of Lyne’s earlier films—Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal—look like previews for a new offense, if not alternative titles for Lolita; and his 91/2 Weeks, all about sex as risk and risk as sexy, was described by an unkind English critic as “bump and grind for the Porsche owner.” Lyne’s Lolita, by comparison, is downright demure; deeply, almost debilitatingly loyal to Nabokov’s novel; shot in lovely pale colors for art’s sake; and accompanied by a score from Ennio Morricone which swamps everything in wistful, lyrical melancholy. You can imagine what Jeremy Irons’s pained presence as Humbert does to this. Dmitri Nabokov, the novelist’s son, finds the film “superb,” its only fault a slight excess of fidelity to his father’s text.

The difficulties of making a movie from a novel are never quite what they seem—or not only what they seem. It’s not just a matter of getting story and characters to come across in a new format, adapted for different time frames and modes of representation, it’s a matter of losing words as a medium, the very texture of a language. There are words in films, of course, and you can quote whole chunks of a novel verbatim, as Stephen Schiff’s script for Lyne’s Lolita does. But words are not a medium in film, only a piece of a medium; members of an orchestra, not soloists. This matters more for some novels than for others, and there are all kinds of ways of setting about the problem—directors from Hitchcock to Scorsese have devised brilliant solutions. But Humbert Humbert’s language, self-delighting, self-betraying, funny, sickening, and above all endlessly intricate and fluent, is the life of Lolita. Without it, we have only a plodding, if fairly powerful melodrama, and paradoxically the less we have of Humbert’s language the more we have of his angle: there’s only the story line and the story is his. Lyne’s movie, in particular, is Humbert’s movie.

Kubrick didn’t use very much of the screenplay Nabokov spent months writing—Nabokov still receives total screen credit—but he quoted generously from the novel, as Lyne does. Mainly, though, Kubrick decided to complicate and send up the melodrama through his actors. He let James Mason as Humbert do his dark, sinister stuff, along with some fine sardonic touches of comedy; got Shelley Winters, as Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, to play up her helpless lack of charm for all it was worth; and gave Peter Sellers, as Quilty, free rein to turn his whole portion of the movie into a farce with funny accents. Sellers/ Quilty also appeared in several other guises in the film, so that the novel’s paranoid pattern (Humbert the pervert dogged by another, even more perverted pervert) was nicely duplicated. Sue Lyon as Lolita was the amiable object of desire, lively at times but a little too successful at looking bored.

The total effect was of rather slow-moving black comedy. Nabokov was disappointed to see so much of his labor vanish, but he liked the macabre ping-pong match between Quilty and Humbert, and the sight of Mason floating his Scotch in the bathtub, his mouth against the moving glass’s edge, happily thinking of Winters’s untimely death and his long future with Lolita. Another wonderful moment is Mason’s reading to himself Winters’s declaration of love for him. His amusement is slow in coming, but when it comes, it knows no bounds. It’s worth saying that the jokes against Charlotte, in both movies, although often funny, are broad and familiar in their attack, old jokes about lonely and pretentious aging women, and form an insidious misogynous part of the pedophile’s case for his vice: little girls are not just little girls, they are not adult females.

  1. *

    J.R. Ackerley, Walter Allen, A. Alvarez, Isaiah Berlin, C.M. Bowra, Storm Jameson, Frank Kermode, Allen Lane, Margaret Lane, Rosamund Lehmann, Compton Mackenzie, Iris Murdoch, William Plomer, V.S. Pritchett, Alan Pryce-Jones, Peter Quennell, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender, Philip Toynbee, Bernard Wall, Angus Wilson.

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