Just Like a Woman

Adrian Lyne’s Lolita stops way short of pedophilic perversity.

Directed by Adrian Lyne
Showtime (Click for air times.)

The Lolita in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is a 12-year-old child. The Lolita in Adrian Lyne’s adaptation of Nabokov’s novel is a 14-year-old girl played by a 15-year-old actress, Dominique Swain, who is not nearly as ripe as the Lolita played by Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation. (Kubrick, too, changed the character’s age to 14; the way Lyon played her, she could have passed for 20.) But Swain is not prepubescent, either: She has a figure. And although in some scenes she acts gawky and goofy, like a little girl, in her sex scenes she acts just like a woman. She is too young for Jeremy Irons’ Humbert Humbert, but she is not too young for love. If this actress had starred in a remake of The Blue Lagoon instead of in a remake of Lolita, it would not have occurred to anyone to raise a fuss.

Lyne has created, from a screenplay by Stephen Schiff, an earnest movie about a man who, by falling in love with his emotionally immature stepdaughter, ends up destroying himself. His movie is not, contrary to expectations that may have been raised by the trouble it had getting shown in the United States, a titillating or sensationalist interpretation. “Incest is hell” is the general idea. As Irons has suggested, the only men who will walk out of this movie wanting to sleep with their teen-age stepdaughters wanted to sleep with their teen-age stepdaughters when they walked into it.

But this is not quite the story Nabokov wrote. His novel is about a middle-age man having sex obsessively with a child. Nabokov described the sex in figurative language, but he did not merely hint at it: You know exactly what Humbert was doing to Lolita and how many times he did it. Nabokov’s Lolita does not moan with pleasure or act the temptress; she is only resigned or wretched. And Humbert is not in love with her (or at least, not until it’s too late); he is just a sexual solipsist who can’t believe his luck. He is attracted to Lolita not because she is a child with a woman’s body but because she is a woman with a child’s body. It’s the absence of most of the usual secondary sexual characteristics that turns him on. In short, you cannot film this story accurately and stay out of prison. A book that was written almost 50 years ago is still beyond the grasp of cinema.

Kubrick’s adaptation is famous for its cast, which includes, besides Lyon, James Mason as Humbert; Shelley Winters as Lolita’s duped mother, Charlotte Haze; and Peter Sellers as Quilty, Humbert’s elusive rival. Swain makes a much more affecting Lolita than Lyon did. Lyon mostly exuded a precocious self-possession; she was allowed to appear petulant, but not childish. Swain, on the other hand, was directed to remind us that, despite budding appearances, she is still a kid at heart. She can switch from sultry to silly in a second. If Lolita really was supposed to be 14, Swain would be perfect.

Irons makes Humbert a little too passive: He should be superior and suave, not pained and awkward. Humbert is (until his world collapses) a scheming criminal with carefully disguised contempt for everyone around him, not a man who simply can’t help himself. Still, Irons has the European looks. Melanie Griffith makes a very respectable Charlotte, and it’s to her credit that she has allowed herself to appear florid and blowsy. Kubrick compensated for the elisions he was obliged to make in the story–the word “nymphet” is never uttered in his movie–by inventing a number of big set pieces for Sellers, who responded by chewing up all the scenery in sight. Lyne and Schiff have reduced Quilty to his original proportions and, played by Frank Langella, he is appropriately dastardly and louche.

But he’s not funny, and the lack of wit is the principal weakness of this new version. For Lolita is a very funny book. A lot of the humor arises from Humbert’s sublimely mordant narration, and some of this does get into the movie through the use of voice-over passages straight out of the novel. But too often the dialogue needs an extra beat (or two or three), and the direction goes flat. When the movie does make a stab at a funny scene–for instance, when Humbert is confronted by school authorities concerned that little Lolita is not learning the facts of life at home–the joke seems tame and obvious. As always with adaptations, viewers who don’t know, or don’t remember, the original are likely to have a better time.

The novel seduces you to Humbert’s side by forcing you to agree with him that, next to his exquisite passion, other people are pretty dull and worthless. Lyne seduces you to Humbert’s side by making you feel sorry for him. But this misses the wicked pleasure Humbert takes in indulging his secret vice right under the noses of people who are dumb enough to believe there is something more important in life than taboo sex. The filmmakers were evidently afraid that if they adopted a more satirical style they would risk being criticized for flippancy. They erred on the side of dutifulness. And a lot of good it did them: Every major American distributor refused to touch their movie until Showtime picked it up.

Why did Lyne make the movie? Because, he says, he admires the novel. Then why did Nabokov write the novel? Publicly, he purveyed a mandarin aestheticism. He ridiculed “the novel of ideas” and sneered at moral-hunting critics. He took the position that the only end of art is bliss–and, since a novel is made from words, words are the basis of Lolita’s art. This is, of course, why it is impossible for a movie to match the aesthetic achievement of the book simply by reproducing the plot. There is no cinematic equivalent for the appearance, at the climax of the novel, of the word “waterproof” (read the book and figure out why). The filmmaker has to invent his own kind of astonishment.

But Nabokov also believed that the essence of art is humaneness, which is why Lolita is not an amoral book. He had his own life violently disrupted by inhumanity three times: He was exiled from Russia in 1919 after the rise of Bolsheviks, from Berlin in 1937 after the rise of the Nazis, and from Paris–again because of the Nazis–in 1940, the year he came to America. He was 41 when he arrived and had already written eight novels, all in Russian. Lolita, published (after great difficulties) in the United States in 1958, was his fourth book in English.

It is not without autobiographical import. Lolita is the story of a European whose lover (she is called Annabel) is taken away from him when he is 15, and who ends up, in middle age, in a vulgar country where he finds a vulgar child for whom he feels no respect but with whom he can at least simulate the satisfactions he might have enjoyed with his lost mistress. Then, in spite of himself, he falls in love with her, too. Lolita is not “America,” (though Lolita is very much a book about America). She is the American language.

“My private tragedy,” Nabokov wrote in a little essay now printed as an afterword to the novel, “which cannot, and indeed could not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.” He managed to squeeze a little bliss out of her anyway.