I tried to subscribe to Showtime a few months ago just to watch Adrian Lyne’s controversial adaptation of Lolita, but they couldn’t guarantee hooking it up in time.
I’m not the only person who called the cable company trying to get access to the film. That’s what happens with banned works. People clamor to see for themselves what all the hoopla is about. I finally saw it on videocassette, but now, you’ll have a chance to see this exquisitely acted, melancholy and quite tame film as it should be seen on the big screen at the Tower Theatre.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, with its story of a 40-year-old man who becomes obsessed with a 13-year-old girl, is now regarded as a classic though it created a sensation when it was published in 1955. Even 43 years after its publication, the book’s subject matter is considered so scandalous that Lyne’s film version of Lolita was not previously released in U.S. theaters, though it enjoyed wide-spread release in Europe.
Not even Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film created the controversy of Lyne’s film. Chalk it up to the times. We’ve become so sensitized as a culture to issues of child sexual abuse and incest that an art form which deals openly with such themes is considered not only politically incorrect, but way over the line.
I’ve never been in favor of censorship, so I was glad to see that Showtime had the courage to show Lyne’s thoughtful and sensitively portrayed film, which is far less objectionable than much of what shows up at movie theaters these days. If anything, the increased awareness of child sexual abuse lets audiences see this story with a very different understanding. Like Nabokov, Lyne neither excuses his protagonist nor denounces him. He makes no moral judgment. He is an artist whose only intent is to truthfully tell a story of obsessive love.
New Yorker writer Stephen Schiff penned an intelligent and emotionally complex screenplay that is a more faithful adaptation of the book than was Kubrick’s watered-down version. Like the book, Schiff’s script portrays these characters as tragic. Humbert Humbert, the well-bred and mannerly professor who marries a widow to be near her captivating young daughter, is the tragic victim of his own desires. Lolita, a capricious girl-child, tragically loses her innocence and childhood to that desire. Far from titillating, the tone of this film is decidedly mournful.
Keeping some of Nabokov’s narrative as well as much of his dialogue, Lyne’s Lolita is more sexual than was Kubrick’s film, but the sex, for obvious reasons, is very discreet. It’s more suggested than overt, which will relieve some and disappoint others. There’s virtually no nudity except for a quick glimpse of Frank Langella (who plays the dissipated playwright Quilty) in the buff under his robe.
Lushly filmed, the images in Lyne’s Lolita are rendered with as much tenderness as Humbert feels for his Lolita. Humbert’s attraction is explained by a love affair he had as a 13-year-old, with a girl about Lolita’s age. His love for that girl was so intense that when she died he was not only heartbroken, but emotionally stunted.
When Humbert first sees Lolita, lying on the lawn under the sprinklers, she appears to him from under the mist like a vision of longing from the past. Despite its erotic overtones, Lolita is primarily a love story. It’s not about sex as much as it is about romantic obsession. The predatory reprobate Quilty may see Lolita as a plaything, but to Humbert, she is the light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Schiff deserves credit for keeping a sense of Nabokov’s poetry in tact, but this film really belongs to the exceptional performances of Jeremy Irons and Dominque Swain as Humbert Humbert and the nymphet Dolores Hayes (Lolita). Melanie Griffith is the weak link as Mrs. Hays, Lolita’s sexually frustrated mother. But, as anyone familiar with the novel knows, she won’t be around for long.
Irons creates the consummate Humbert in a performance so carefully nuanced that his longing for the girl is almost a character of its own. He quivers at Lolita’s slightest touch, hungry for the least bit of affection from the child. It’s a doleful longing, and Irons shades his performance with a pervasive sadness.
Humbert realizes what he’s doing is wrong. He makes no excuses for it, but he can’t help himself. His longing knows no bounds. But he’s also a man who likely could not have made the first overture, no matter how often he had fantasized it. When Lolita whispers to him what she has learned from one of the boys after attending camp, Humbert trembles with anticipation. Shall I show you? she asks. So, Lolita seduces him, and Humbert is powerless to resist even though he intuitively knows this madness can lead only to tragedy.
Dominque Swain who has never appeared in a film before, let alone taken an acting class is absolutely stunning as Lolita, perfectly capturing the character’s childish impishness and petulance as well as her coquettish sensuality and vulnerability.
Lolita revels in the power of her sexuality without understanding it or its consequences. She is still a child, but a child who soon tires of the game she has naively initiated. She learns to manipulate her older lover, to make him pay for her favors. And her boredom soon turns to an abiding contempt. She may have been the love of his life, but, as she tells him in a confession that shatters him, he was never the love of hers.
This story, of course, cannot end happily. How could it? Humbert has destroyed Lolita’s innocence and his unchecked desire has in turn destroyed him. His obsession consumes them both. Though the final scene follows the book, Lyne unnecessarily prolongs the violence, which is my only objection to the film.