Comes Naturally #76 (October 23, 1998):
Not a Farce: Adrian Lyne Brings a Complex Lolita to the Screen

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COMES NATURALLY #76 (October 23, 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 David Steinberg


The first review I read of Adrian Lyne's film, "Lolita," shortly before it premiered on Showtime early in August, was by Barbara Shulgasser in the San Francisco Examiner. Shulgasser hated the film. She hated it, in her own words, because Lyne refuses to treat "Lolita" as a "comic character study," which is what Stanley Kubrick had done in his famous 1962 version of Nabokov's novel. Instead, to Shulgasser's horror, Lyne has the audacity to take Humbert seriously, "turn[ing] "Lolita "into something that is artsy and lyrical," which she decries as "an absurd misreading of [Nabokov's] material."

"Thank God," I said to myself, putting down the Arts & Ideas section with great contentment. "Maybe there's hope for this film after all."

Shulgasser is mistaken about Nabokov's "Lolita." While the novel is certainly full of bitter irony and self-deprecation on the part of Humbert Humbert, it is impossible to read it as anything other than a serious, complex, and most definitely lyrical examination of the intricacies of obsession in general, and of erotic adult obsession with young girls in particular. Nabokov imbues Humbert with enough insight to understand, and thus be able to show the readers of his diary, the sometimes comic desperateness of his situation. But the fundamental emotion of the novel is not farce but tragedy -- the tragic outcome of Humbert's well-intentioned but inevitably catastrophic sexual affection for a young adolescent.

If Shulgasser, and presumably a hundred million other Americans, need the relief of slapstick comedy to, as she says, "[make] it possible... to tolerate the details of Humbert's lasciviousness for a prepubescent child," then Kubrick made a sly choice in offering Nabokov to the public in such palatable form. The problem is that, in the process, Kubrick takes away the essential power of Nabokov's compelling prose, allowing his viewers to experience Humbert from the safe distance of ridicule and denial -- an alien, distorted pervert, unrelated to themselves, unrelated to anything they might themselves feel.

The brilliance of both Nabokov's novel and Lyne's film is that neither allows the observer to stand so pristinely outside of Humbert's world. For Lyne, as for Nabokov, it is not possible to dismiss Humbert easily as a farce, a joke, or as some sort of one-dimensional monster. Humbert's plea is for the reader (the ladies and gentlemen of his trial jury) to understand him and to understand his feeling for Lolita as something not so alien, not so ludicrous, not so different from something they might feel themselves. "I want my learned readers," Humbert says, "to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with... 'impartial sympathy.'"

It is the very lyricism of Nabokov's language -- and similarly of Lyne's direction and cinematography, combined with Jeremy Irons' marvelously pregnant expressions and gestures -- that seduces us into experiencing the particularities of Humbert's perspective, his desire, the complex of innocence and tragic loss of perspective that define his obsession. Once we thus enter Humbert's world, once we are complicit with him because we can feel, despite ourselves, even a hint of what he feels, then we no longer have the luxury of condemning him as completely other to ourselves. We can and do condemn him, even has he condemns himself, because the devastation he visits on Lolita, and even on himself, is horrible and undeniable. But we must condemn him with understanding and even some appreciation, not as an alien, but as a fellow human being, however misguided.

Interestingly, it is the fundamental innocence of Humbert's feeling for Lolita, elegaically portrayed, that entices us into Humbert's world. It is that innocence, inseparable from the destructive consequences of its fulfillment, that provides the electric tension that keeps Nabokov's novel from descending into what would otherwise be, as Shulgasser notes, merely the "dour recounting of a sick person's obsession," and it is that innocence that Lyne so effectively and faithfully captures in this film.

Humbert is not the child molester we keep reading about in the newspapers, the one that sheriffs warn neighbors about when he moves into the neighborhood, the one whose house frightened parents firebomb to protect their daughters and sons. That role is left to the sinister Quilty, whose presence dramatically highlights the difference between this sinister abuser and gentle Humbert. Quilty the profligate is ready to use Lolita for his own ends with no regard for her as a genuine human being. Humbert, by contrast, loves Lolita in his way, adores her, enthusiastically enslaves himself to his need for her. The ultimate tragedy is that it is Humbert, not Quilty, who does Lolita the most harm, who robs her of her childhood, whose innocence undoes her own, who brings Lolita, and even more profoundly himself, to ruin.

Lyne takes on a difficult task in trying to capture the essence of Nabokov's novel on film. How to translate into a wordless medium a magic built so specifically on Nabokov's use of words? It is, after all, Nabokov's language itself that almost perfumes us into forgetting the reality of what it is describing, even as the power of Humbert's feelings blinds him to the consequences of his behavior. Take, as one example, this description of Humbert secretly coming to orgasm while an unaware Lolita sits on his lap:

"Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobbysoxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa -- and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty -- between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock....

"As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body. What had begun as a delicious distension of my innermost roots became a glowing tingle which now had reached that state of absolute security, confidence and reliance not found elsewhere in conscious life. With the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion, I felt I could slow down in order to prolong the glow.... I had ceased to be Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would presently kick him away. I was above the tribulations of ridicule, beyond the possibilities of retribution.... 'Oh, it's nothing at all,' she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.... Blessed be the Lord, she had noticed nothing!"

There is plenty to critique in Lyne's translation of "Lolita" from words to images -- particularly Lyne's habitual insistence on prettiness (at times bringing to mind the facile gauziness of David Hamilton's photography), and the film's almost complete elimination of the acrid nastiness that overtakes Humbert and Lolita in Nabokov's tale as soon as they actually have intercourse. (Lyne's version of the above scene, by the way -- the most evocatively sexual scene in the film, taken out of context and awkwardly situated in time after Humbert and Lolita have become fully sexual -- entirely misses the scene's basic point, which is that Humbert finds a way to get off with Lolita while she is completely unaware of what he is doing, thus, he believes, preserving her innocence and demonstrating his concern for her wellbeing.)

But, despite its flaws, Lyne has indeed managed to bring the feel of Nabokov's language to the screen with great authenticity -- the essentially romantic quality of Humbert's infatuation with Lolita; the jarring and repeated collision for Humbert of dream and reality; the fall from the romance of yearning to the banality of obsession repeatedly consummated; Humbert's manic need to control and possess every significant aspect of Lolita's life; and the eventual unraveling that results.

Lyne and Irons accomplish this, I should say, because it is from the poignant, almost painful, vulnerability of Irons's gestures and his eloquent and complex facial expressions that the film gets its heart -- the childlike adoration with which Humbert looks at Lolita; the exaggerated ecstasy he derives from her slightest touch; the awkwardness and embarrassment that overtake him at every turn as he stumbles over the unmanageable intensity of what he feels. Irons is brilliant as the otherworldly obsessive, limited and ultimately consumed by the one-dimensionality and self-absorption of his desire. His face, his stance, his liquid voice-over narration, all convey his hapless, touching helplessness with the same brush as Nabokov's.

Unfortunately, the picture we get of Lolita from Dominique Swain is a good deal less compelling. Swain is often excellent as the emerging adolescent, the girl who teeters precariously between the world of the child and the world of the adult. She is perfectly and preciously believable when she demonstrates to Humbert the kissing technique she has learned at summer camp, and likewise when she proudly takes charge of their first overtly sexual encounter. ("I'm going to have to show you everything," she tells him.) Lyne's use of her orthodontia to convey her youth (she removes her bite plate with an only slightly embarrassed grin when she and Humbert have sex), is effective, if heavy-handed.

But although Swain is charmingly adolescent, the Lolita she portrays has little depth or complexity, and the profound misery that ultimately leads to her escape, reduced to one scene where she cries herself to sleep for some undisclosed reason, becomes something we must take on faith rather than something we can see and feel.

It doesn't help that Lyne portrays Lolita as a traditional, if young and generally unintentional, seductress. For our first glimpse of the young nymphet, Lyne sprawls a wet and translucently dressed Lolita under a lawn sprinkler. Later, he has her dance provocatively around the living room, showing lots of skin in a short skirt and halter top, while Humbert practically falls out of the porch swing, craning his neck to watch her. These stock images take us into the realm of familiar adult eroticism projected onto the young Swain, quite a different thing from the very unadult erotic appeal of the Nabokovian nymphet who can be discerned, Nabokov pointedly tells us, only by more subtle "ineffable signs" that have nothing to do with soft porn iconography -- "certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm... the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate."

More problematically, Lolita's superficiality results from the most serious error of the film, the decision by Lyne and screenwriter Stephen Schiff to essentially excise the cruel and cunning aspects of Humbert's personality, perhaps in an attempt to make Humbert more palatable to the audience. If Kubrick's bow to American sensibilities was reducing Humbert to a clown, Lyne's seems to be reducing him to a sweet, if oblivious, romantic. Not so Nabokov. In the novel, we are consistently aware both of Humbert's tenderness and of his driven determination to get what he wants, and his rageful frustration when he is thwarted. No sooner are Lolita and Humbert overtly sexual than Humbert makes it clear to her that she is essentially powerless, that if she uses the one power left to her -- exposing him -- she will only end up miserable in an orphanage. Humbert's complexity derives from the combination of his real love for Lolita and his complete willingness to manipulate her to have his way with her, sexually and parentally. Lolita's bitterness and retaliatory manipulation of Humbert -- demanding money and gifts from him in return for sexual favors, exploiting his dependence on her when she can -- only makes sense if this is understood.

But in the film, this entire side of Humbert has been removed. We are shown a Lolita who is in many ways as much in control of her life and her relationship with Humbert as any teenager would be. Lyne and Schiff even give Lolita and Humbert a rather romantic post-intercourse honeymoon period, where they play together and tease each other delightfully, two mutually-infatuated neophytes on a carefree cross-country adventure. When the relationship sours, it seems to do so as much from the monotony of traveling from motel to motel, week after week, than from its imbalanced premise. Lyne allows us to see occasional outbursts of rage and frustration from Humbert, but he never allows Humbert's darker motives to cast a significant shadow on his enduring sweetness.

This is a serious flaw in the film, and a serious capitulation by Lyne, but the degree to which Lyne has been willing to go in bringing Nabokov's "Lolita" to the screen is far more significant than the places he was not willing, or able, to go. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that the film has barely been able to make its way to American screens at all, even with its not insignificant sugar coating. And artistically, as well as politically, the film as a whole is profoundly successful. It will reach into the hearts and guts of the people who watch it, and provoke something meaningful and uncomfortable in them, whether that be reflexive disgust or a deeper and more complex understanding of themselves and the convoluted dynamics of obsessive sexual desire. At a time when these complicated issues are generally being reduced to the most one-dimensional of horrified cliches, this is no small accomplishment.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

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