Contrary to popular belief, I prefer erotic thriller maestro Adrian Lyne’s Lolita adaptation to the one made 35 years prior by Stanley Kubrick. But do either do Nabokov’s novel justice?
Calling Lolita controversial feels like the understatement of the century.
Many will know Lolita‘s famed storyline, but for those unacquainted: Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European and academic, is tormented by his secret paedophilic desire for those he calls ‘nymphets’ – girls aged 9 to 14. He becomes particularly enamoured with one twelve-year-old named Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita. In order to remain close to Dolores, he marries her mother, and when she dies, Humbert assumes guardianship of the orphan and grooms, exploits and rapes her.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita is odd. Instead of focusing on the quiet evil of Humbert – his manipulation and grotesque grooming of Dolores – he instead decides to make Lolita a comedy, an odd Orton-esque thing that pulls us out of the horror of paedophilia and instead makes us laugh. He establishes this tone from the get-go: Humbert asks “are you Quilty?”, to which Quilty responds “no, I’m Spartacus” – an oddly-placed gag referencing Kubrick’s prior film. The film is full of such jokes that do not land considering the subject matter: Dolores is sent to ‘Camp Climax for Girls’; the film opens on a shot of a foot so obvious it’d make Tarantino quake; Peter Sellers adopts a variety of guises like he’s doing a comedy sketch. Peter Sellers is indeed funny, but while we’re laughing at his German professor impression, there’s still the thought in the back of our mind: hang on, when are we going to address the sex abuse?
Watching the 1962 version begs the question: God, is this riskless film really the work of Stanley Kubrick? It was only after that the film ended and I did some research that it all became clear, with the director stating that “because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did,” saying he “probably wouldn’t have made the film” if he had known this.
Enter Adrian Lyne.
In 1997, which was post-censorship, yet crucially before the moral wokeness of our current generation (I dread to think of the *discourse* of Lolita being adapted post-#MeToo), the time was ripe for a filmmaker to attempt to faithfully adapt Nabokov’s tale. And who better than Lyne, who had tackled controversial, torrid eroticism previously in 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal?
The main quartet in Lyne’s version features Jeremy Irons as Humbert, Dominique Swain as Dolores, Frank Langella as Quilty and Melanie Griffith as Charlotte. Crucially, Jeremy Irons’ Humbert possesses a necessary sleaze that James Mason’s did not. It should be noted, no disrespect to him, that Jeremy Irons is exceedingly good at playing the creep: just look at his fawning over teenage Liv Tyler in Stealing Beauty, and his role in Louis Malle’s Damage (the less said about that, the better). The important thing to note is that in the latter version of Lolita, we are disgusted by the manipulative Mr Humbert, and in the former, we view him as a bit pathetic, as opposed to genuinely dangerous.
One way that Kubrick attempts to reduce the disgust we feel is that Sue Lyon is deliberately made to look far older than she is. In the book, Lolita is twelve; in the film, her age is not mentioned, but she could easily pass for sixteen, if not eighteen. Her hair is coiffed, her face made-up in eyeliner and mascara. Dominique Swain, despite being a year older than Lyon when filming the role (Swain was 16, Lyon was 15), is actually allowed to look like a young teenager, which helps the audience feel more revolted by Humbert’s grooming of her. She wears dresses, has pigtails, a goofy smile with braces. She certainly isn’t first introduced in an obviously placed pose, wearing a bikini and a knowing look, like Lyon is. While Kubrick oddly attempts to make the paedophilia more palatable, Lyne succeeds more in making the audience squirm. Of course, no matter how ‘old’ a victim can pass for, the rape is still just as abhorrent – but it’s still worth mentioning the director’s choices here.
Something that the 1962 version fails to achieve is that the smarmy, manipulative, unreliable-narrator vibe that Humbert gives readers in the novel, where he outlines his grotesque justifications for paedophilia. Adrian Lyne actually deigns to provide a scrap of context for Humbert’s paedophilic fixations, where we see how, like in the book, he manipulates the reader/audience into feeling sorry for him, informing us how his predatory behaviour stemmed from a teenage heartbreak. This is crucial in understanding the vile nature of the protagonist at hand and his underhand methods of sympathy-seeking. By allowing Humbert to speak directly to the audience, we feel that same insidious unreliable narration that we do in the novel. But that isn’t to say that Lyne ignores the black-comic elements of Nabokov’s tale (like Humbert slipping on a very phallic banana when he suspects Dolores has a secret lover) – he just doesn’t over-dwell on them. Some have criticized Ennio Morricone’s swooning score in the 1997 version for sentimentalizing this story of abuse as a love story. But if anything, it acts in a twofold way: it encapsulates the love Humbert professes to feel for Dolores, while also possessing a sad, synthetic, saccharine feel.
Whereas this 1962 version presents a satire of American libidinism, Lyne is more successful in looking at how Humbert tries to manipulate the audience into thinking he is better than Americans, ergo his actions are somewhat justified, less evil, academically-minded, even. While both films contrast stiff-upper-lip Europeanism with the lackadaisical, gum-chewing crassness of American culture, Kubrick’s version misguidedly seems to explore how certain authoritarianism and control is rooted in sexism as opposed to an explicit analysis of paedophilia. Charlotte Haze is depicted far too cruelly as an irritant and a dimwit, swanning around in leopard print and discussing her love for the artist “Van Gock.” The sexism feels odd and misfocused.
Is the discussion of controversial art, whether that’s literature or film, worth what Nabokov’s Lolita spawned? Those who failed to grasp the novel’s intent and romanticized the tale helped create a torrid zeitgeist which prevails today. Pop stars purloin the imagery of bubblegum and lollipops and sing about daddy issues; Urban Outfitters sell red heart-shaped sunglasses; the #lolita hashtag on Instagram spawns over half a million pictures of young women with schoolgirl garb and girlish hairstyles. Lana Del Rey’s song “Lolita” features the lyrics “would you be my baby tonight / Could be kissing my fruit punch lips in the bright sunshine.”
When a book about the sexual exploitation of a pre-teen girl becomes a fashion aesthetic, the parlance around Lolita becomes far more insidious. I suppose in reading it and watching its adaptations, reception and re-interpretation, we have to remember what Nabokov himself stated: “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.”
Words by Steph Green
Recommended reading and listening
▷ Hunting Warhead, a podcast about child sex abuse
▷ Forgetting Lolita: How Nabokov’s Victim Became an American Fantasy, The New Republic
▷ Time’s finally up for Hollywood’s Lolita complex, The Guardian
▷ Lolita at 50: Is Nabokov’s masterpiece still shocking?, Slate