Recently for class I had to experience Lolita in its three most popular forms — the original 1958 novel by Vladimir Nabokov and the two film adaptations, the 1962 version directed by Stanley Kubrick and the 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne.
The 1958 novel doesn’t really need any introduction from me. It’s considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, with one of the most controversial characters and storylines in literary history. I read it for the first time last year (review found here) and wasn’t surprised that Robertson Davies once wrote that the ‘them is not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.’
The protagonist and narrator, the pathetic Humbert Humbert, is so clever and funny that you’re momentarily willing to put his transgressions in the background and go along for the ride. Momentarily, of course.
The 1962 film by Kubrick was an interesting one. It starred James Mason as Humbert, Sue Luon as Lolita, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze and Peter Sellers as Claire Quilty. The screenplay was attributed to Nabokov (and he actually got an Oscar nomination for it), but in reality it was mostly re-written by Kubrick and James Harris. Nabokov published his version of the script separately in 1974.
The 1962 Lolita was a product of its time, unfortunately, meaning it was heavily held back by censors. Needless to say, Kubrick is no prude (one only has to watch Eyes Wide Shut) to know that, but his version of Lolita was very tame, with almost none of the sexual innuendos littered throughout the novel — in fact, there was very little physical contact between Lolita and Humbert, the scenes often fading to black before anything happens.
Kubrick in fact said that if he could have done it again he would have emphasised the erotic aspect of the novel with the same weight Nabokov did, and that if he knew censors were going to be so tight he might not have made the film at all.
I liked the 1962 film a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s one of Kubrick’s best efforts but considering what he had to work with I think it was a splendid effort. The film managed to capture both the tortured soul of Humbert and his cunning. Obviously, it was impossible to replicate nuances of the book, but Kubrick came closer than I could have imagined.
I don’t know if this is a complaint, but Quilty was given a much bigger role in the film than the novel, which threw me off a bit. He didn’t really feel like a character that deserved more screen time in the book, but I guess because Sellers played him Kubrick decided to give him free reign to do his impersonations.
The other thing was Sue Lyon’s Lolita. It was a good performance but she looked too old to be the target of a paedophile. I thought she could have easily passed for 18, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole thing.
This one, directed by Adrian Lyne (who was at the helm of 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and later, Unfaithful) was made at a much more liberal time, so it was more explicit in the eroticism. It was also more faithful to the original as Stephen Schiff, the first time screenwriter who penned the script, lifted a lot more dialogue directly from the book and had more voiceovers from Jeremy Irons (who interestingly also voiced the audio book version of the novel).
On the other hand, this was a completely different film that didn’t capture any of the black comedy of the novel. It’s beautifully shot, with long, sweeping scenes and this tender, moody tone. As some critics pointed out, Lyne seemed to have missed the point of the novel, creating a pure tragedy that’s all emotional torture and no fun.
I think it’s unfortunate that people will always inevitably compare adaptations and ‘remakes’ with what has come before it. It’s human nature, I suppose, but is it entirely fair? Why can’t we judge them as separate and distinct works of art?
I didn’t really enjoy the 1997 version, but I could definitely appreciate the aesthetics of it. Jeremy Irons is always good to watch on screen, and Dominique Swain showed so much promise in her first role — what ever became of her?
But anyway, I found it interesting that a lot of my classmates found the subject matter difficult to digest. They weren’t able to read and enjoy the book because mentally they could not separate the fiction from the reality and repulsion of paedophila. Stylistically, many also thought Nabokov was overrated, too clever for his own good and a bit of a one trick pony (at least in this book). They thought maybe, and there’s probably sliver of truth in this, that the book has done so well because of the subject matter as opposed to the masterful writing. I dunno. I’m still mightily impressed by the man’s wordplay and the confidence with which he can weave sentences in a language that’s not his first.
Will Lolita ever be remade again? I assume it will be, eventually. Maybe someone like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen would be a good choice to direct a movie about paedophila?