To answer your dirty question first: by no stretch of the prurient imagination is Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (Sunday, August 2; 9 to 11:15 p.m.; Showtime) in violation of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, which panicky statute forbids “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, videotape, or computer image” that is, or even appears to be, “of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” It’s certainly less explicit than Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach were permitted to be, by Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams, in Baby Doll (1956). So far as exposed flesh goes, even during nap time, what happens between Lolita (Dominique Swain) and Humbert (Jeremy Irons) is almost as decorous as what didn’t happen between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959) – there’s nary a nipple in view. Late in Lolita we do see genitalia, but they are those of an adult male, altogether unaroused, as Frank Langella’s Quilty runs away from Humbert’s gun.
Nor, as incarnated in these two-plus hours, is the passionate fixation of the bibliosophic Swiss cheesehead on the nubile American preteenybopper – “light of my life, fire of my loins” – much of a commercial for pedophilia. It is, instead, a sorry burlesque. And this is a surprise. Of the Adrian Lyne who graduated, like Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, from the floating signifiers of British television advertising to such glitterdome gaudies as Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal, we had every reason to expect something as slick as a fashion spread and as shallow as cyberspace. But Lyne is almost too loyal to Nabokov’s printed page, if not to the many books in Humbert’s head. Like Volker Schlondorff, whose reverential 1979 film version of The Tin Drum got into so much belated trouble last summer in Oklahoma City because of oral sex involving a minor, a nervous director seems to be looking over his shoulder at a famously difficult novelist, desperate for approval.
How does Lyne’s Lolita compare with Stanley Kubrick’s, back in 1962? It’s superior in balance: Kubrick let Peter Sellers run rampant. So Quilty, Humbert’s parodic nemesis and low-rent Doppelgänger, consumed the movie. Langella gets a lot less face time, and none of it is comical. Lyne’s version is likewise more expansive: As much as the novel satirized the myths of romantic love, it also extolled the boundless vistas of what Nabokov called our “lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country,” which Humbert “defiled with a sinuous trail of slime.” It was a vagabond novel in the tradition of Kerouac’s On the Road, Updike’s Rabbit, Run, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, and Don DeLillo’s Americana. There were 342 motels mentioned in its pages; Kubrick, filming in genteel England, left out all of them, as he omitted the vertigo of westward landscapes and those superhighways suturing them. Lyne hits the road, sings out the long vertebral lines of telephone poles, pulls in at gas stations and rest stops for pints of ice cream and beds that vibrate, gobbles up deserts and horizons. If not a neon, there is at least a lostness about his Lolita.
And within this lostness, the fetish thrives – the underwear ribbon from Humbert’s bygone Annabel; Lolita’s pj’s and pigtails; the toenails and the bug zappers; the typewriters, the weather vanes, the bubble gum. (Personally, I’d have resisted Lyne’s temptation to lipstick and a banana, but I’m shy.) A deracinated Humbert deserves this entrapment in pathetic sorcery. And here Jeremy Irons is very different from James Mason. For Mason’s corrupt delusions, we couldn’t help liking him, whereas Irons has always been hard to take, from Brideshead Revisted to Claus von Bülow. We’re never in danger of identifying with his Humbert, despite voice-overs with a plummy English accent, because we wouldn’t want Jeremy anywhere near our children.
Melanie Griffith as Lolita’s mother Charlotte is fine, even svelte. I say this as someone who thinks that Shelley Winters can’t be improved on. As the semi-conscious nymphet, Swain is less of a Baby Doll vamp than Sue Lyon was. She’s also less of a provocation to the predatory male mind than recess at any junior high school I’m aware of, where, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of Kubrick, our pubescent daughters look “not merely nubile: some of them look badly used.” But then all the fuss about minors and sex on the silver screen has always been a projection of our own anxieties as parents and guardians, a scapegoating of caretakers abetted by the usual satanic hypnotherapists. We know perfectly well that children are most at risk at home.
If Kubrick erred on the side of comedy, Lyne is downright morose. I wonder if Lolita can really be translated into something other than a novel. Rereading it – and it’s not as wonderful the second or third time around, no matter what the editorial board of the Modern Library told us last week when it announced its risible list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century – I’m sorry that Alan Jay Lerner’s musical version never made it from Boston to Broadway. Perhaps if the literature Nabokov made fun of had been dressed up in period costume for fantasy song-and-dance routines . . .
Well, perhaps not: You’d have to include Poe, Melville, T. S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, and Eugene O’Neill. Plus Shakespeare, Swift, Blake, Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sherlock Holmes. Plus Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Proust; and Cervantes, Goethe, Pushkin, Gogol, Kafka, Hegel, and Schlegel. Not to mention Petrarch, Horace, Propertius, Catullus, Maeterlinck, and Melmoth the Wanderer, and not even to think about Prosper Mérimée, The Blue Angel, The Rubaiyat, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, Dick Tracy, and Bluebeard. And then you’d have to wonder why Nabokov, so happily married for so many years, so equally contemptuous of Dostoyevsky and Freud, turned so often in his fiction to incest (Ada) and child sex (see the nastier precursor to Lolita, The Enchanter); why he dreamed in so many novels of insanity and suicide, of artist-criminals and artist-madmen, of strangled wives and slaughtered sons and debauched nymphets; and whether in his seething for a Zembla, or some other Antiterra, there wasn’t some insectly sickness. Just asking.