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The Boston Phoenix Child's Play?

The travails of Adrian Lyne's "Lolita."

By Stephanie Zacharek

JUNE 8, 1998:  It's an unenviable task, bringing one of the most beautiful novels of the English language to the screen. And in the first sequence of director Adrian Lyne's Lolita -- which opened across Europe late last year and in Great Britain last month but is not scheduled for a theatrical release in the United States -- it seems he just might have pulled it off. Jeremy Irons appears as a dazed and blood-spattered Humbert Humbert, behind the wheel of a dusty car that looks almost as worn-out as he does. He swerves from one side of the road to the other with an aimlessness that's almost a reverie; he clutches a plain hairpin like a talisman. Ennio Morricone's spare, mournful piano theme, like sprigs of springtime notes, sounds lovely and conventional -- except for the surprise of two slightly discordant oddball notes that intrude like unruly scars every few phrases. The music, the confused car wobbling in the rusty light, and Irons's weary despair together capture the deep melancholy that pervades the last section of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. For a few brief moments it looks as if Lyne had figured out how to translate Nabokov's poetry into light -- a task that anyone who loves the book would think impossible.

But before long, the timid respectfulness and excessive earnestness of Lyne's vision, and screenwriter Stephen Schiff's, only make the movie seem sluggish and inert. Lyne's Lolita reduces the countless downy layers of Nabokov's story, about an older man's obsession with a "nymphet," into a few thickly matted ones. Lyne, Schiff, and Irons are in touch with Lolita's melancholy all right -- at the expense of its humor, which seems to have passed them by. Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version -- constrained by the tenor of its time as well -- was less faithful in its adaptation of the language. Yet Kubrick's movie succeeds precisely because it doesn't strive for rigid faithfulness: it's like a crackpot shorthand version of the novel. The spirit of Nabokov is alive in the wordplay, the randy jokes, the deadpan humor. And though the movie goes slightly overboard with its own outrageousness, the poignance of James Mason's performance -- the way his ice-crystal prissiness melts into stoop-shouldered sorrow -- offsets all the silliness.

That Lyne's Lolita should be a disappointment instead of a triumph is all the more frustrating given that the controversy surrounding the film has made it a symbol of sorts. It's always easier to get behind the cause of a movie one likes. But no matter what anyone thinks of this Lolita as a work of art, the film's failure to find an American theatrical distributor -- the cable channel Showtime has picked it up and plans to air it in August -- speaks volumes about the restrictive and dangerous cultural climate that's taken hold in the United States.

Part of Lyne's problem is just bad timing: the sexual abuse of children is a potent issue on both sides of the Atlantic, and even in the more liberal European climate, the movie has taken some heat. But Europe has at least had the chance to see Lolita. Lyne claims that the American studio executives to whom he showed the movie were initially enthusiastic but later cooled toward it. Although Hollywood executives, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times last September that the film had been rejected because "it was not a good movie," Lyne is certain that Hollywood is spooked by the subject matter. "It is a country where six-year-olds are sent home from school for kissing their classmates, where in Oklahoma police raided video stores, seizing copies of The Tin Drum -- so I am not altogether surprised," he said during a press conference at the San Sebastian International Film Festival last fall. "The atmosphere in America has become very moralistic in the last three years, similar to the way it was in the 1950s."

It's ironic: even as hysterics are claiming that we're a nation of television zombies, that violence in the movies is causing our children to kill one another, that there just isn't enough beauty in our world, a film version of a rich, complex work like Lolita is being kept from American movie audiences. Or maybe it isn't so ironic. The cultural watchdogs in this country -- the contingent that spearheaded the Communications Decency Act (declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act (which outlaws "any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video image or picture" that "is or appears to be of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct," thus rendering, say, Romeo and Juliet actionable) -- want to make art as safe as mother's milk. It's beyond their conception that sometimes art is supposed to rattle your very bones. In the eyes of these watchdogs (who come from both the right and the left) we've become a nation of children incapable of grasping the subtleties of art. The suppression of Lolita can't be called out-and-out censorship -- no group or individual is overtly preventing the film from being shown -- but it's a good example of how easily and insidiously our government can control what we see without ever openly violating the First Amendment.

Lolita may be a controversial book, but it's also a deeply moral one: Humbert's actions have consequences that ultimately destroy him. Yet Lolita never bows to the idea that art has to be instructional or enlightening. Its great revelation isn't simply that "child abuse is bad." What remains shocking about the book, more than 40 years after its initial publication, isn't that we extract some great lesson from it but that we can be made to feel more deeply than we ever imagined for a man whose actions we can't in any way excuse.

Perhaps because they were trying too hard to underscore this morality, Lyne and Schiff have come up with a scrupulous, tiptoeing interpretation that chokes off much of the book's freedom and joy. Lyne is so obsessed with creating lush images (the movie has been shot with soft-focus artiness by Howard Atherton) that he ends up fetishizing them: a squirt of chocolate shooting into a glass at the soda fountain; Humbert's pen dipping into its inkwell. These eroticized totems are too pat and predictable to have any potency -- they're the trappings of maddeningly deliberate, self-conscious filmmaking. Lyne and Schiff have worked feverishly to remain true to the spirit of the book, but though their intentions are honorable (and their images are often pretty), they've managed to smother much of its delicacy.

And for the most part, Lyne hasn't brought out the best in his actors. As Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother, Melanie Griffith comes off as merely brittle and silly; she has none of the heartbreaking vulnerability that Shelley Winters brought to the Kubrick version. The Lolita of Dominique Swain (who was seen in John Woo's Face-Off) has a monkeylike charm at the beginning: when she dances to the radio, doing a loose-limbed kid's version of the hootchy-kootchy, she's so awkwardly childlike that you can't help laughing with delight, just as Humbert does. Before long, though, her adolescent, manipulative poutiness becomes wearying, through no fault of Swain's. Lolita is not a complex character, and her motivations aren't all that hard to grasp -- they don't have to be painted in such broad strokes.

Most frustrating of all is how Jeremy Irons seems to understand certain aspects of Humbert Humbert's character completely while other aspects are played down or ignored altogether. It isn't necessarily that Irons doesn't know those qualities are there in Humbert -- there's just no allowance made for them in the script. Irons is a far more tender Humbert than James Mason, and the lovesickness that creeps across his face when he first sees Lolita is wrenching. Irons isn't a childlike man -- in fact, he looks prematurely craggy -- but when his Lolita cracks a goofy joke or makes a face, his crooked smile turns him into an awkward, lovestruck 10-year-old. And he adds a dimension to Humbert's character that Nabokov didn't really spell out: the way Lolita could make the ordinarily stiff and snobbish Humbert feel as playful and free as a child. When Humbert and Lolita set off on their cross-country adventure, she turns to him and says, "I feel like we're grown-ups." He answers, "Me too," and the simple line suggests that the hold she has on him is something he's mistaken for freedom. His desperation in the lovemaking scenes (which were carefully and tastefully shot and edited, with the assistance of a lawyer, so Lyne wouldn't violate the Child Pornography Protection Act) only makes his final realization -- that he's snatched away Lolita's childhood -- that much more devastating.

Yet beyond that, the Humbert of Lyne's Lolita has been flattened and smoothed and largely defanged. Although Lolita and Humbert consummate their relationship at her behest, he's not, of course, an innocent party: Nabokov shows us Humbert bringing himself to climax while she squirms on his lap, scheming to sedate her with tranquilizers so he can fondle her in her sleep, rejoicing when her mother is hit by a car. Lyne's Humbert is pitiable and confused, but his treachery and his outright cruelty have been submerged. He's simply too nice to poor Charlotte Haze -- just sort of opaque and distant around her, instead of disdainful. And he barely shows relief, much less exhilaration, when she dies. It's as if Lyne and Schiff were afraid of making their Humbert too unlikable, not realizing that his character needs to be a tangle of contradictions. Humbert's nastiness and his snobbery sometimes make him very funny -- but we also need to find him despicable, horrible, inexcusable if the sympathy we ultimately feel for him is to carry any weight.

By the time Lyne's Lolita winds down, with a grisly, drawn-out showdown between Humbert and his rival, Clare Quilty (played with squishy unctuousness by Frank Langella), I felt worn down by it instead of won over. Lyne's movie isn't the daring work it could have been, and that's disappointing. But regardless of its merits or its flaws, no American should have to fly to England to see it.

And at the very least, Lyne's Lolita does recognize that the beauty of the book's prose is a challenge in itself: do you dare turn away from this, Nabokov seems to ask, no matter how distasteful you find the subject matter? "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art," Humbert says at the end of the book, explaining how, by writing her story, he hopes to keep his beloved Lolita alive forever. No wonder Lyne hoped to keep her alive through shadows and light as well.

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