Book Awards E-MAIL US




Vidmark / Trimark




Variations on an Obsessive Theme

Why would you want to remake a movie that many critics already consider a classic?

That's the question Gus Van Sant faced last year when he dared to remake Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. And Adrian Lyne certainly faced it two years ago when he decided to take on Lolita.

Not only did Lyne have the (then) living, towering figure of Stanley Kubrick to contend with. He also had to face the formidable ghost of Vladimir Nabokov and deal with the forty-one-year-old controversy over the original novel's moral value.

But Lyne had one advantage. Whereas Kubrick had to produce his version during a time of moral repression—back in the days when all movies had to "pass the code" in order to get released—Lyne merely faced the MPAA ratings board.

Or so he thought.

As it turned out, few studios were willing to gamble millions of dollars on potentially bad publicity. Apparently, now that the studios are multi-national conglomerates concerned more with revenue share than perpetuating art, no one wants to be associated with a movie that portrays a middle-aged man and the nymphet who captivates him.

Go figure.

But that didn't stop Lyne—just as the morality issues didn't stop Kubrick thirty-five years before. If Nabokov's novel is ultimately about obsession, so, it seems, is the story behind its translation to film.


When he began working on Lolita, Kubrick was still riding high on two solid pictures, Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) (Click here for Stanley Kubrick's Filmography). Despite their obvious differences, both films were examples of the macho America-as-Superhero genre then in vogue. Thus, Kubrick had begun to amass a certain amount of power, and he was willing to take on Hollywood's establishment—and Lolita would give him his first opportunity to butt heads with studios and the censors.

If his gamble worked, he knew he would be able to call his own shots for years to come.

Still, MGM Studios was leery of the backlash that would surely come from making such a controversial film. Kubrick didn't help matters much by leading the world to believe he was really going to give them a faithful adaptation of Nabokov's erotic masterpiece.

Unfortunately, he gave us something else entirely.

The original tag line for the movie was "How did they make a movie out of Lolita?"—to which the New York Times responded quite succinctly, "They didn't."


The critics and the eros-seeking audience weren't the only ones disappointed. Nabokov himself was not at all pleased with the way his novel was translated to the screen. (This was a charge that would be leveled against Kubrick again, most notably by Stephen King for Kubrick's version of The Shining.)

In public, Nabakov played the diplomat, enjoying the limelight that went along with his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay adaptation. But in private, he groused that very little of what he actually wrote made it to the screen. In fact, Kubrick himself did the adaptation and allowed Peter Sellers (as the quirky, wisecracking Quilty) to improvise dialogue and situations. (At this point, Sellers was still a year away from creating the role that would be his career-long prison—Inspector Clouseau—and two years away from working with Kubrick again in Dr. Strangelove.)

Sellers is a comic genius, but Quilty is not meant to be so broadly portrayed. (After all, Quilty is himself so obsessed with Lolita that he pursues her across the country and drives Humbert over the edge of his precarious sanity.) So the public was lured into the theater expecting to see the salacious leerings of a middle-aged man over a beautiful fourteen-year-old schoolgirl and instead ended up watching a comedy with Peter Sellers donning several disguises.

To Nabokov's chagrin, most viewers (who had never heard of Nabokov, much less read his work) accepted the film as a faithful adaptation of an apparently boring novel.


This, in fact, became Lyne's main defense for remaking the film: he wanted to tell the story as Nabokov himself wrote the novel. He wanted to show how Europe looked to America—with a certain amount of lust and obsession. He wanted, he said, to show how Europe envied America's youth and vitality and how it tried to seduce us with its Old World charm. (An interesting side note: Kubrick, an American, adored Europe's Old World charm and eventually moved to England. Lyne, an Englishman, knew that his passion lay in the evolving, thriving world of America and left Kubrick behind in England.)

Lyne felt, too, that he had the passion—a quality even Kubrick's staunchest supporters felt he lacked—to understand Humbert's soul-crushing desire and to portray it in a manner that Kubrick could not. He's probably right. Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction, while hardly masterpieces, at least demonstrate that he had a grip on the situation. (Click here for Adrian Lyne's Filmography.)

Lyne also decided to work in color, something that Kubrick chose not to do with his own Lolita. Kubrick's black-and-white version is consequently colder, more detached—underscoring, some critics argue, the novel's black-and-white world of good versus evil. Lyne's color choice gives him a large palette in which to indulge himself. Soft, homey colors contrast with the brightness of the sometimes slightly overexposed outdoor light—showing us, in fact, how wonderfully suited the interiors are for hiding.

Lyne's photography, not surprisingly, is often soft-focus. It's a favorite trick of photographers who want a shorthand suggestion of recollected eroticism. Indeed, the earlier scenes set in France—where Humbert first finds love at the age of fourteen—are filmed like a David Hamilton coffee table book.

(For those readers not familiar with Hamilton's work, it consists largely of underage girls lounging around barns or seaports in various stages of undress. It's basically smut masquerading as art and relies heavily on the First Amendment to get published. Many critics would say the same thing about Lolita, of course. But there's a difference. Hamilton celebrates his young girls. He revels in them and surrounds himself with them. Nabokov used his Lolita character to demonstrate something much more abstract and profound: the complexities of obsession.)

Lyne's soft-focus work is often quite powerful. While softening Humbert's memories, for example, it brings his anguish over his first lover's death into sharp focus. Thus, when he declares, "Something froze in me at that point," we see him walking out of focus along a hazy beach. He has become, we suddenly see, exquisitely detached from something vital in the lit, healthy world.


As you might expect, there are major differences in the two films' interpretations of the key roles.

Let's start with the most obvious one: Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother. Charlotte is a braying, annoying, large-sized woman trapped by her desperation. In Kubrick's version, she is played by Shelley Winters. In Lyne's version, she is played by Melanie Griffith.

Shelly Winters was perfect in the role. Her voice could cut through concrete, and she played the trying-to-be-sophisticated suburbanite to perfection. Take, for example, the scene in which Charlotte begins talking while Humbert is desperately trying to perform his "husbandly duties." James Mason (as Humbert) allows a wonderful look of quiet disgust to pass over his face, and Ms. Winters quietly says, "Darling, you went away." Not even Viagra could help him. But the mere mention of Lolita causes an instant resurrection, and he is able to perform again.

Since Charlotte's weight is often the subject of Humbert's journal entries, Ms. Winters's size works to her advantage here. "Fat cow" is one of his kinder epithets.

Melanie Griffith has the annoying voice down perfectly. It too can grate on your nerves with its incessant shrillness, but no one has ever been able to accuse this attractive woman of being a fat cow. Indeed, she appears to be more than capable of finding a partner, and her status as a pining, ignored widow strains our credulity.

The role would have been strengthened by using a different actress—say, for example, Kathy Bates, who could have better shown the desperate longing Charlotte Haze feels.

So let's turn to the man behind the girl: Humbert Humbert.

Given the explosive subject matter, it's a difficult role to play. And interestingly, Irons seems to have faced more controversy than Mason did (so much for cultural progress, eh?). In fact, he got a little defensive about it. "I'm not used to having to justify the work I do," he announced, in the midst of the brouhaha.


I'm an actor. I'm employed to play roles. When I'm asked to play Richard III, I don't expect to have to justify playing somebody who seduces the wife of a man he has murdered—difficult behavior. But I don't expect to have to justify that behavior, and I'm sorry that I have to justify so much and have been, in some quarters, criticized for taking on a role such as Humbert Humbert.


Indeed, Irons played more than his share of dark characters before taking on Humbert Humbert, notably in Reversal of Fortune, where he played Claus van Bülow, the socialite who stood accused of attempting to murder his wife. He also walked on the dark side in Dead Ringers, playing twin gynecologists who get into a jealous rage over a female patient and kill each other.

Mason's pre-Lolita film work (which dated back to 1935) wasn't as filled with dark characters as Irons's—unless you count his Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea among cinema's more tormented souls (in which case, we need to talk). That a well-established actor would take on the role of Humbert, knowing the flack it would draw, shows a great deal of courage.

Both men turn in admirable performances as Humbert Humbert, though their interpretations differ. Mason's Humbert is a man drawn to a flame that he knows will burn him—but he thinks he's smart enough to rise above it all. His performance is more forceful than Iron's: he wants to control every aspect of Lolita's life.

But both men showed an admirable restraint in their interpretations. It would have been easy to turn Humbert into a leering, pawing monster. But by showing us the turmoil boiling just under the surface, the character is much more interesting and leaves a more indelible impression. (Nabokov's Humbert is also closer to the nature of real child molesters, who, more often than not, turn out to be someone within the child's immediate circle of trust.)

On the other hand, there's a sizeable gap between Sellers's and Frank Langella's turns at Quilty. Sellers plays him for easy laughs, while Langella lends the role a sense of mystery, revealing himself only in little bits, always in the shadows. Indeed, he's never truly seen until he has driven Humbert over the edge of sanity.


Finally, we have Lolita herself.

Sue Lyons, Kubrick's Lolita, played her cool: a sophisticated child-woman who is mature beyond her years. It's a perfect contrast to Shelly Winters's hyper-freneticism. (Ms. Lyon's ensuing career never matched its amazing beginning; she last graced the screen in 1980's Alligator, a far cry from where she started.

The other Lolita, Dominique Swain, plays her character more as a budding young woman, full of life and energy. She reminds one of a young colt, full of spirit, and all elbows and legs. Her idea of seduction is teasing and embarrassing Humbert at every opportunity. And you have to admit it: she does it well, often improvising moments on camera in order to surprise Irons and to make him respond more honestly to the moment.


So which adaptation is better?

There will be those who will defend the film of their choice to the death, of course. How dare Lyne take on and sully the memory of Kubrick's work? How dare Kubrick change so much of the original novel and turn it more into a comedy? How dare Nabokov write a novel that deals so frankly with such a disturbing subject?

But it's too easy to cling to one idealized interpretation of the story. Frankly, there are great strengths to both versions of the film—and some drawbacks. But they both have the power to crawl under our skin and stay there. Let's face it: since the novel appeared forty-one years ago, people have been looking at their neighbors and wondering if anything like that was going on down the block, next door...

Or in their very home.

Lolita, it would seem, still has that dangerous power to attract us. She is still the seductress and destroyer. She is victim and willing accomplice. She is still our love, our sin: Lo-leee-ta.

—Review by John Porter

Posted July 1, 1999





Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.