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
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
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.
he began working on Lolita, Kubrick was still
riding high on two solid pictures, Paths of Glory
(1957) and Spartacus (1960) (Click here for
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
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
Unfortunately, he gave us something
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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: