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Adrian Lyne’s Lolita
Long ago, in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov published a scandalous book that remains controversial long after his death. Lolita chronicles the life of a teacher, Humbert Humbert, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and pursues her shamelessly. The novel is narrated by Humbert, which probably makes the book all the more controversial, since surely no one wants to read a rapist’s mind. Fortunately for Nabokov, he proved himself as a skilled writer, and the book became a literary classic. Stanley Kubrick released a film in 1962 based on the book, but censorship regulations at the time required certain scenes from the book to be omitted. Sue Lyons, who played the role of Lolita, was only 14 at the time of filming. Adrian Lyne directed the second screen adaptation in 1997. However, due to its content, Lyne had difficulty finding a production company, and the film was eventually released on a cable network. It was released in theaters this side of the pond, however, and received mixed reviews.
Jeremy Irons is Humbert Humbert, a professor who is going to teach in America. He remains deeply affected by the death of his childhood sweetheart, which occurred when he was 14, sparking a lifelong interest in teenage girls. For Humbert, his lost love was the embodiment of the ideal woman. Obviously, pedophilia has no excuse, which is what makes this film hard to watch, but his past heartbreak explains his unhealthy but conscious attraction to young girls.
The summer before his semester starts, he decides to finish his textbook and stays with the widowed Charlotte Haze. He is initially unimpressed with the messy house, but upon seeing Charlotte’s daughter, Dolores, still called Lo, for the first time, decides to stay. He calls her “Lolita” and looks at her with admiration and lust.
Humbert interprets Lo’s playfulness as flirtations and reacts with schoolboy embarrassment. Charlotte has a genuine interest in Humbert, and the two end up getting married. Charlotte, fed up with her precocious daughter answering her all the time, decides that Lo should go to summer camp and then to boarding school, where she will learn good manners.
Charlotte breaks into Humbert’s locked drawer and reads his diary, where she discovers he is obsessed with Lo and repulsed by Charlotte. Furious, she runs out of the house and meets her end by running in front of a car. Humbert retrieves Lo from the camp posing as her father, and the two begin a relationship and go on a trip.
Humbert freely refers to Lo as his daughter, conflicted between his duties as a stepfather and his desire for her. He advises her on schoolwork, gives her a weekly allowance, and attempts to discipline her. Lolita asks for more money in exchange for sexual favors, which Humbert obliges. She becomes increasingly difficult for him, which makes him suspect that she is plotting to get away. Humbert and Lolita find their relationship shameful, with Lo often crying after sex.
Sometimes Lolita is immature for her age, other times it’s the other way around, especially when you realize she had sex with someone at summer camp. She is also aware of incest and rape, but sometimes unaware of the reality that he is taking advantage of her. She is still a child and nowhere near old enough to make a conscious or informed decision about sex. Her father is dead, so she might be looking for a father figure while simultaneously confused by Humbert’s feelings for her. Some people believe that Lolita purposely manipulated Humbert, as throughout the film she is obsessed with money and ways to get it. We see Humbert riddled with guilt at times, ashamed of having taken away Lo’s childhood and how he is unable to redeem himself. As he is the narrator of the film, we never really see how Lolita was affected by all of this, only that she is growing up before her time. The film does not glorify rape or sex with minors, nor does it cast a romantic light on their relationship. Humbert tells the story as a kind of idealistic love story, but the viewer remains aware of the inappropriate circumstances unfolding before him. I haven’t read the book, but after researching I found that Humbert’s character is much less likable in the book. Additionally, it seems that Lyne avoided using certain parts of the novel in the film, perhaps for ease of viewing, and the sexual scenes are brief and opaque.
Jeremy Irons is perfect as a complicated, unsympathetic character haunted by the death of his childhood sweetheart. He is very believable as the well-spoken, intelligent but emotionally immature Humbert. Dominique Swain is also excellent, as she jumps perfectly between childlike innocence and manipulative teenager. You don’t have to admire the characters, or even like them. The content is controversial, it’s about a pedophile justifying his interest in an underage girl, but with Nabokov’s prose as the dialogue, the film is far more poignant and compelling than you’d think.
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