San Francisco Magazine
By Katy Butler
The latest version of Lolita still hasn’t gotten it right.
LAST SUMMER, IN A half-empty theater in Siena, Italy, I saw Adrian Lyne’s Lolita—a film that could not find a U. S. distributor, supposedly because of its shocking subject matter. (You can, however, see it on cable television this month and in some theaters next month) Once again, I saw professor Humbert, Humbert come upon 12-year-old Lolita, sunning on her mother’s lawn. It was a big improvement over the same moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, but it didn’t come close to the complex moral vision of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Watch either film, and you will see what my local newspaper called “a romance” between a 40-year-old professor and his “nubile” stepdaughter. Reread the book, and you will find the portrait of a young girl as seen through the eyes of a pedophile with a fancy prose style.
In the novel, when brown-haired Lolita first looks at Humbert over “stern dark spectacles,“ she sends him into a paroxysm of reminiscence of his first love. The self-described “nympholept” Humbert has already told us that, obsessed by the memory of this preteen romance, he used to haunt Paris parks watching girl-children with a newspaper over his swelling lap. In Kubrick’s adaptation, this is the moment when starlet Hue Lyon, all bleached hair and woman’s breasts, looked knowingly at James Mason over heart-shaped sunglasses and burned the word “nymphet” into our brains. Grown up and seductive, she was fair game.
In Lyne’s version, Lolita (Dominique Swain) is a child again, as unconsciously succulent as my own goddaughter, her cotton shorts and T-shirt drenched in the hypnotic spray of a circulating sprinkler. She smiles shyly at Humbert (Jeremy Irons), revealing the silver glint of her retainer. At that moment, the camera’s eye conveys her devastating loveliness without confusing for an instant who is predator and who is prey.
And make no mistake. Even though Lolita has been misdescribed as a “great love story” (as well as “sheer pornography”), the novel is about the relationship between predator and prey. With Nabokov’s help, the reader can peer through the topiary of Humbert’s self-justifying, French-bespattered prose for glimpses of the living child. Nabokov’s Lolita tongue-kisses her handsome stepdad and slips her hand into his. She has a crush on him. But she’s a kid with unwashed hair and grass stained shorts; she says “swell” and “swank” and “wow,” Though initially true to Nabokov’s vision. Lyne’s Lolita becomes more and more garishly made up as the film progresses, and she, not Humbert, is the sexual aggressor. In the novel, Lolita’s pubescent flirtations end after a night at what she later calls “the hotel where you raped me.” Over time, she becomes less love object than sex captive, kept malleable with bribes and judiciously applied threats of juvenile hall. As Humbert notes, she has “absolutely nowhere else to go” when, after her mother dies, he takes her on the crosscountry motel wanderings he later calls a “sinuous trail of slime.” He admits that “never did she vibrate under my touch” and that he listened to “her sobs in the night-every night, every night-the moment I feigned sleep.”
It’s still taboo to put this tragic aspect of the novel— and therefore give much meaning to Humbert’s final redemption—on film. It’s not considered too risqué to show Lolita bouncing on Humbert’s lap, but it’s still too shocking to show him persuading her to masturbate him underneath a schoolroom desk in return for 65 cents and permission to take part in a school play.
See the Lyne film for its fine acting and production values, but go back to the book—a brilliant satire by a mordant master of crosslingual puns and literary allusions. It is testament to its artistry that even today it can enthrall, and not enrage, a feminist like me. It survives in part because it so carefully describes a controlling one-sided obsession masquerading as love—an experience not limited to pedophiles. No filmmaker has yet had the guts to call Lolita by its true names: not passion or love but narcissism, domination, and vanity.
©1988 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.