The new version of Lolita, released at last, turns out to be a beautifully made, melancholy, and rather touching account of a doomed love affair between a full-grown man and a very young woman. But that, of course, is not what Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece is about. As Louis Menand pointed out in Slate – in a necessary statement of the obvious – Nabokov’s book is devoted to a love affair between a man and a child. The book Lolita is truly shocking and quite impossible to adapt “faithfully.” (Stanley Kubrick didn’t even try in his brilliant 1962 film version.) Nabokov’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, is an educated but moldy European living in America, a pedophile who longs for downy, slender limbs and “delicate-boned, long-toed, monkeyish feet” – the gawky, undeveloped beauty of 12-year-olds. The book is a lyrical black comedy balanced between lust and humiliation, between perversion and rhapsody. It is a dizzying, morally dangerous work – and an extraordinary entertainment. Humbert the fetishist covers his criminal intentions with stuffy cultural superiority and a show of parental concern. He’s a low, devious fellow, a worm, but a worm who, in the end, truly gives his love, and that’s the other side of the joke. Lolita is both an undermining satire of obsessive love and a genuine love story.
Director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) and screenwriter Stephen Schiff, who did the adaptation, have seized on the romantic side of this amazing fable and left out most of the satire and malevolent humor. What we see is not a sui generis erotic comedy about a very specialized kind of obsession but a recognizable descendant of European films in which a poor sap falls into all-encompassing love and is tormented by an unreachable bitch. Humbert is no longer an ironic hero – a haughty and hypocritical creep who is redeemed – but a very earnest man who loves too much. The joke has vanished.
When Humbert (Jeremy Irons) first sees Lolita (Dominique Swain), she is lying on her tummy in the sun, and water from sprinklers falls all around her. The image has the slightly banal prettiness of dozens of other romantic movies. Later on, Lolita and Humbert ride around the country (it is the late forties), and Lyne and cinematographer Howard Atherton give us deep, dark woods and the “naïve” American beauty of lonely gas stations and rooming houses and empty golden-brown fields. The beauty has no particular thematic importance, but it soothes the audience – it makes the story seem more normal somehow. Except for one overwrought fantasia in the middle, and some grotesquely bloody violence at the end, this Lolita plays evenly and smoothly, with the gratifying emotional continuity of an old-fashioned narrative. The trouble is, there’s no audacity in it, no surprise – no wicked fun.
Dominique Swain, who was 15 when the movie was made, has the long, powerful legs of an ice-skating champion, not the shy, clinging knees of, say, the child photographed on the cover of the Vintage edition of the novel. Swain, grinding jawbreakers one minute and pulling herself onto Irons the next, is the best thing in the movie – coltish and volatile, a young woman with girlish impulses. As for Irons, he gives a very decent performance, if only you can keep out of your head the sound of James Mason’s inflections in the Kubrick version. Kubrick wasn’t faithful to the book’s erotic nature, either, but he knew that an adaptation of Lolita had to be a comedy. So James Mason conveyed some pleasure in the role; he didn’t suffer so much; he made Humbert a cynical fake gentleman – whereas Jeremy Irons is a bit of a dullard who can’t keep up with his energetic, ordinary, faithless American girl. And there are comparable diminutions in the other roles: In Kubrick’s movie, Shelley Winters’s Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s overeager mom) was a brilliant parody of provincial vulgarity; Melanie Griffith, who plays Charlotte for Lyne, is just shrill. Clare Quilty – Peter Sellers’s enormous, exuberant invention, the nasty consciousness needed to put Humbert in perspective – is here, in the person of Frank Langella, only a wearily caustic villain.
Yet this new Lolita is not negligible. I have seen it twice, and I can report that audiences are sitting raptly through it. What they are responding to, I believe, is not Nabokov’s disturbing joke about romantic obsession but a more conventionally reassuring romantic drama. They are responding to pathos and heartbreak, to suffering and noble, unhappy love.