LOLITA — CLASSIC FILM PICK
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Although it is considered sacrilege in some circles to say this, Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1954 novel is a vast improvement over Stanley Kubrick’s beloved 1962 standard.
Lyne includes an array of narrative and character details from Nabokov’s masterpiece that contribute to the film’s success as a literary adaptation. Jeremy Irons’s meticulous portrayal of Humbert Humbert is a career-topping performance.
Kubrick’s “Lolita” was largely miscast. Shelley Winters was too shrewish to play Lolita’s hot-to-trot mother. Not only was James Mason appallingly miscast in the role of Humbert, but Peter Sellers’s comic portrayal of the pornographer Clare Quilty derails the essential dark tone and mixed rhythms of Nabokov’s romantically twisted drama.
Lost is a crucial thematic thread which exposes a rival type to Mr. Humbert, in this case a pornographer posing as a respected playwright — among the staff and students of Lolita’s private school where he watches rehearsals from the shadows. Lyne shrewdly plays off of the unity of opposites that Nabokov created between Humbert and Quilty. Birds of a feather feast on the same prey.
Kubrick’s “Lolita” flirts too much with farce (in the guise of Peter Sellers) whereas Lyne’s respects Nabokov’s source material in literal ways. Lyne instills profound emotional meaning and nuanced attention to physical objects and social atmospheres. This is a tale of tragedy rather than a smarmy black comedy with cartoon villains.
Lyne’s light application of the novel’s comic relief hides in discreet quick cuts and an appreciation for Lolita’s childish charms. A sudden edit enables Humbert to change into pajamas in a blink.
Dominique Swain’s expressive physicality delivers a stream of surprises. She wraps the intricate role of a pubescent girl around her little finger and tugs at it with the reckless abandon of an untamed force of feminine nature. Swain owns the movie just as Lolita seizes the role of protagonist.
One of the features that makes Nabokov’s groundbreaking book so disturbing is that it brings the reader fluidly inside Humbert’s troubled subjective mindset, beginning with a palpable connection to a romantic tragedy he suffered as a boy. Having lost his first love (a 14-year-old girl) to disease only months after frolicking with her on the French Rivera has distorted Humbert’s ability to love. He is a monster in a man’s body, and with a child’s heart.
Nabokov’s controversial novel proved even more problematic to make and distribute in ‘90s-era America than when Kubrick first adapted it. French producers enabled Lyne to include scenes of sexual congress between Humbert and Lolita that contribute to fulfilling the narrative’s significant demands. Adrian Lyne is keen to include the emotional fallout for Lolita, who cries inconsolably after having sex with Humbert.
In time, audiences will come to view Adrian Lyne’s masterful version of “Lolita” as the definitive one.
Literary adaptation masterpiece.