If the critics are uncomfortable with the film adaptations of Nabokov's Lolita, says Irene Miller, they should read the book
Making Lolita grow up
Adrian Lyne began looking for distribu- tors for his remake of Lolita over a year ago. Now he has succeeded in the UK, overcoming similar hurdles to those which have faced Vladimir Nabokov's novel since its completion in 1955.
Nabokov's story of a middle-aged man's obsession with a 12-year old girl was originally refused by four different publishers. One claimed the story was too lacking in 'good' people, another recommended making Lolita into a boy to make the story more acceptable, and the last simply said he was not prepared to be imprisoned for it. Lolita was eventually published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1959, even though Nicolson, a Tory MP, was asked by chief whip Edward Heath to drop the book. In the USA Lolita sold only through word of mouth, and in New Zealand it was banned.
Nabokov always knew that his 16-year work would be contentious. More than once he was on the point of destroying the manuscript. But he went ahead in face of accusations that he himself was the pervert, a pornographer, or a man with an unhealthy interest in his son's girlfriends. Those who cried child abuse seemed incapable of imagining that a man could simply invent a story.
Such a hysterical response has greeted both film adaptations of Lolita: Stanley Kubrick's version, made in 1962, and now Adrian Lyne's film. When Jeremy Irons (who plays the paedo-phile Humbert Humbert in Lyne's movie) rebutted claims that Lolita would encourage paedophiles, the Daily Mail headlined its report 'Jeremy Irons in child abuse storm' (24 April), incorporating news of real life Belgian child-murderer Marc Dutroux into the article as though the stories represented one and the same thing.
Yet both Kubrick and Lyne have done more to make Lolita 'acceptable' than their panicky critics realise.
Nabokov's Lolita is a tale of obsession and tragedy which puts heavy demands on its reader. Nabokov's great achievement is to portray Humbert Humbert as a love-sick soul, desperate to please and be pleased, infatuated with a 12-year old - and yet the most sympathetic character in the book. The writing is so engaging and enchanting that as a reader you become involved in Humbert's plotting and enamoured by his relentless passion to the point that, against your own will and instinct, you desire him to succeed as you would in any other love story. Just as you begin to feel more comfortable, one paragraph, line or word will brutally remind you that this is a 12-year old girl - a girl who sucks on straws till her face hollows and picks her nose in public, who has not developed hips and refuses to wash her hair. Nabokov's skill is in making his reader implicit in the crime.
Both Kubrick and Lyne shied away from this challenge, by making Lolita two or three years older so that she becomes a sexual being, a pubescent rather than a pre-pubescent. Kubrick made Lolita a blonde, Lyne a sexy redhead, where she was supposed to be a brunette - we are led to see her as something of a sex kitten, and so it is less shocking that a grown man should take a fancy to her. What Nabokov had portrayed as a rude, defiant, fickle, shallow and sulky child, Kubrick and Lyne both present as an erotic, flirtatious, sexy teenager.
The Lolita of the films in part seduces Humbert, flutters her eyelashes and is aware of her sexuality. Lyne even makes Lolita jump on Humbert passionately. This interpretation misses the subtlety of the book, where it becomes slowly clear that Lolita's seduction of Humbert is purely his fantasy and his own wilful interpret-ation that her childlike actions are sexual. The films strip the story of much of its power, coarseness and beauty and turn it occasionally into farce - in Kubrick's version the collapsing bed sequence, Peter Sellers' characterisations and the music are on a par with a Carry On film.
Nevertheless, Kubrick's film, with James Mason as Humbert and Shelley Winters as the brash, unsophisticated Charlotte, is a stunning and stylish story with superb acting and some great moments. In 1962 it was well known that Kubrick was trying to avoid the censors by not making the film erotic and was unhappy with the results. Nabokov wrote the original screenplay, and was credited with it, but Kubrick used little of his draft. Kubrick's most erotic scene is of Humbert painting Lolita's toenails, showing beautifully his desperation and just how degraded he has become.
Lyne has been allowed a more explicitly sexual story. Yet in 1995, before he cast his actors and just as he had his writer, Lyne stated his intention to portray Lolita as she was meant to be - as a 12-year old. By 1998, Lyne was stating that he had to make her 14 because a 12-year old could not have played the 17-year old Lolita at the end of the film.
Lyne's Lolita, with Dominique Swain as Lolita and Irons as Humbert, is also stunningly filmed. Lyne deals with the storyline well, yet misses its essence. He sidesteps the moral pressures of Nabokov's Lolita by making the character a sexual being, cleavage and all, and so eliminating the discomfort one feels with the story. For all Lyne's determination to make the film true to the book, he abandons this goal at a key point; Lyne's Lolita may sometimes act in a childish way, but she is not childlike.
In the book, Humbert Humbert tells us that by the time we read his story of Lolita he excpects the two main characters to be dead, leaving a question mark over what became of them. By contrast, both Kubrick and Lyne think it worthy to have Humbert die, and Lyne goes further by making Lolita die too, all in ominous credits at the end of the film. It would appear that both directors ultimately felt some need to show punishment and retribution as the end to an already tragic tale - ironic in an age of Hollywood happy endings.
Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998