Nearly three years after it was completed, and some 10 months after it premiered in European movie theaters, Adrian Lyne's Lolita arrives on American screens with far less bang than whimper. A glum, dull, witless affair buoyed only by the minor scandal of its failure, until recently, to secure U.S. distribution, this newest translation of Vladimir Nabokov's still-shocking novel has the singular attraction of not only confirming Lyne's aesthetic irrelevance, but of making Stanley Kubrick's flawed if brilliant 1962 film seem like a paragon of literary adaptation. Nabokov's Lolita, written in 1954 and published one year later (in Paris, by the same press that unleashed William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet and Henry Miller on an unsuspecting world), in its simplest, most reductive configuration, tells the story of the 37-year-old Europudding Humbert Humbert, a former perfume ad man with a history of nervous breakdowns, whose obsession with prepubescent girls – nymphets, in his parlance – leads him to insinuate himself into the lives of the widow Charlotte Haze and her 12-year-old daughter, Lolita.
Lolita purports to be Humbert's autobiographical confessions, delivered to a doctor named John Ray Jr., Ph.D., prior to Humbert's death in prison in 1952. In the book's foreword, Ray notes that while the autobiography (which Humbert had also titled The Confession of a White Widowed Male) is free of obscene language, it contains scenes which some might deem “aphrodisiac.” “[T]hose very scenes that one might ineptly accuse of a sensuous existence of their own,” writes Dr. Ray, “are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis.” Of course, the doctor and his disclaimer (an old trick when it comes to porn – think of those “educational” sex films) are as phony as the memoir itself, a gorgeously spun tissue of wordplay, literary allusion (and illusion), social commentary, psychology and deceit.
The book famously begins with Humbert's alliterative requiem for “Lo-lee-ta,” an effusion that triggers his remembrance of his first love, a girl he met on holiday on the Riviera when he was 12. The girl, Annabel Leigh – a name Nabokov lifts from Edgar Allan Poe's poem of doomed mad love – whom Humbert worships then mourns when she dies of typhus soon after they meet, is the ghost that both haunts him and absolves him, at least in his own calamitous imagination. Whether Lolita's precursor actually existed is impossible to know; Humbert borrows Poe's words to describe his Annabel (“I was a child and she was a child”), so he may have borrowed the girl, a dead romantic ideal, from Poe as well. In the end, though, the girl's reality is irrelevant, and not just because Humbert himself is a work of fiction. “Imagine me,” begs Humbert. “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.”
The great point, one entirely lost upon Adrian Lyne and Lolita screenwriter Stephen Schiff, is that Humbert Humbert is a deeply, hilariously unreliable narrator, a point emphasized again and again through the language, at once voluptuous and ridiculous, with which he tells his story. The tip-off comes early. Seven pages in, rhapsodizing over the lost Annabel, Humbert describes a hasty hand job not as the fumblings of two preteens, but as a rendezvous of Arthurian, myth-making proportions: “I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion . . . . my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing.” Later, when he meets Lolita in her New England backyard, Humbert prettifies his discovery of the 12-year-old as “a fatal consequence of that 'princedom by the sea' in my tortured past.” A month later, he's exploding in his pajamas when she jumps on his lap.
Schiff and Lyne keep some of Humbert's first-person narration, but omit the irony which gives it not only its shape but, arguably, its primary reason for being. A decisive indication of just how grievously the movie strays from the novel lies in the casting of Jeremy Irons. An actor who once excelled at playing complex depressives, Irons has lately displayed a gift for essaying quiescent moral rot. (He brings to mind one of those louche European types who routinely show up in novels claiming royal extraction while picking pockets.) This new Humbert isn't Nabokov's artful strategizer, maneuvering Lolita's legs into friction with his crotch and marrying her poor mother, but a flaccid spectator to his own misadventures. As a consequence, Irons – eyes widening and narrowing – fluctuates between alarm and cowlike passivity, but never registers a flicker of cunning, much less lust.
Irons' doleful lassitude sucks the energy right out of the story, and it makes this listlessly directed adaptation droop all the more. You can understand Lyne and Schiff wanting to play it safe; the life of a child molester – even for the director of 9 * Weeks and a former Vanity Fair staff writer – shouldn't come across as a total romp. (Compared to Irons, James Mason's Humbert, a study in oily insincerity and toothy hysterics, is a Chuck Jones gargoyle.) But with every new scene, every new detail, it becomes clear that this Lolita isn't as interested in exploring the mind of a madman, or even the post-World War II landscape of American plenty, as it is in thanking heaven for little girls. As the eponymous obsession, Dominique Swain, who was 14 years old when the film was shot, gives the part her best (which generally isn't good), gamely shoving her tongue into Irons' lax mouth, smiling at the candied cherries on her sundae, devouring a banana – her red-lipsticked mouth forming a perfect oval around the fruit, teeth scraping it down to size – with all the artful esprit of the young Traci Lords.
In the movies, point of view is everything. One of the triumphs of Nabokov's novel – among other things, a fantastic transliteration of clinical psychosis – is the way it leads us inside Humbert's head without ever sealing us off from the outside world. Unfortunately, the point of view in Lyne's film – which sees Lolita as only a temptress in ankle socks – isn't Humbert's alone. It's also that of the filmmakers.
When Lolita kisses Humbert for the first time in Lyne's movie, his lips barely part; later, when she rocks herself energetically on his lap – head tossed back, mouth trembling, diffused light shimmering – his hand merely grazes her arm as she shivers with pleasure. (This Humbert may be a child molester – a soul killer – but he's a really special kind of child molester: He makes his little girl cum.) In these scenes, we're not in Humbert's demented consciousness; we're just voyeurs basking in the screen's softcore glow.
But the closer we are to the humping, the further we are from Nabokov and Kubrick both. Although Kubrick cast an actress as old as Swain to play Lolita, and while the sex between his odd couple isn't much more than a glint in Humbert's eye, he got the novel in the way Lyne never does because he knew that what counts in Lolita isn't the pervert and his prey; what counts is how the story is told – the syntax and grammar of Humbert's passion, and of his insanity.
So Kubrick fired up the cha-cha-cha and the snickering middle-class hypocrisy, and let loose Shelley Winters as “the Haze woman” (a wistful Melanie Griffith, herself a worn-out Lolita, has the role here) and a shape-shifting Peter Sellers as Humbert's enigmatic nemesis, Clare Quilty (Frank Langella in the new version). Against the odds, Kubrick even glanced on the stunning denouement of Nabokov's novel – he gave Lolita back her humanity, if only for a few brief minutes. For his part, Lyne cleaves to a kind of decorous period realism, swaps wink-wink smarminess for satire, peeps up Lolita's dress, throws a gauzy sheen over the lens and misinterprets Nabokov's novel about as badly as it's possible to imagine. Which is probably why, unlike Kubrick, Lyne seems to think that what he's actually done is make a tragedy about a nut job named Humbert Humbert rather than a tragedy about a very human girl called Lolita. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert claims, in one of the novel's slyest asides. You can say pretty much the same about a bad filmmaker.