This is not at all a bad movie and is surprisingly faithful to the book. At times I suspected some scenes had been inserted to appease a contemporary sensibility but, on checking, I found they were all in the book. I generally prefer this Lolita to Kubrick'e version, but both versions raise an interesting question. It is a presumption of cinema that any novel can be satisfactorily filmed. Lolita casts doubt on this. The problems can be illustrated by a small, but crucial, change that both films make to the book. When Humbert first meets Lolita she is 12. In the movies she is 14 and is played by actresses who were 15 and 16 respectively. Objectively, this change shouldn't matter: under age is under age. In practice it does. When you see a 14 or 15 year-old, you can see the woman she is about to become. When you see a 12 year-old you can only see the child. Raising Lolita's age makes Humbert seem less perverse than Nabokov intended and James Mason and Jeremy Irons both make him too sympathetic. All Nabokov needed to write Lolita was a typewriter and some paper. To film it, Kubrick and Lyne needed a young actress. Jodie Foster, Nathalie Portman and Lindsay Lohan all show that it would have been possible to find a 12 year-old actress good enough to carry the movie - but should she be asked to? If it was absolutely necessary to have a 12 year-old in order to make this movie, then most people would say: "Don't make it then". But this is only part of a wider issue. Nabokov wanted to put readers inside the head of a paedophile without them endorsing his actions: empathy doesn't necessarily imply sympathy. His first attempt was The Enchanter (which gave us the word nymphet). It was written in the third person. Nabokov was unhappy with it and it was only published after his death. Lolita was written in the first person and that changed everything. The book is Humbert's own testimony. He wants to present himself as a sensitive aesthete: a romantic lost soul surrounded by dull, uncomprehending Philistines. He charts his seedy obsession in elaborate, over-ripe 'poetic' prose, trying to draw the reader into his self-delusion, but we soon come to doubt the truth of what he is telling us. He can't help letting us see through his self-serving narrative to glimpse the murky reality that lurks beneath. Lolita is in real distress and is being profoundly corrupted by this unhealthy relationship. Humbert's nymphet fantasy soon starts to crumble before the reality of a troubled, wilful, increasingly manipulative child. Then he finds himself haunted by the ominous shadow of Clare Quilty, who we come to realise is his dark alter ego (Humbert's doubled name is a fairly obvious clue to Nabokov's intentions). Humbert is the doomed romantic he wants to be seen as: Quilty is the evil sexual predator he really is. Inevitably, it is Quilty that wins the battle for Lolita. Eventually, Humbert emerges from his pubescent fixation and has a relationship with an adult woman, so when he finally meets Lolita again he is able to see (and love) her as a real person. But it is too late. At this point, there is nothing left for him to do but finally kill off his evil doppelganger and then die himself. The point of Lolita, therefore, is not just in the the events it depicts, but in the particular way it depicts them. It is not only a story: it is a specific literary device. I think this presents an insoluble problem for a film-maker. I doubt if there is a cinematic equivalent to Nabokov's mendacious first person narrative. Cinema only really works in the third person and is a very literal medium: 'the camera doesn't lie'. When Hitchcock used a misleading flashback in Stage Fright people were outraged and even film critics, who should have known better, complained about the deception. Kubbrick and Lyne can both show us that the real Lolita is a far cry from Humbert's idealised nymphet but we are always seeing the disturbing reality itself, rather than that reality filtered through the haze of Humbert's prevarications. Kubrick tried to defuse the problem by playing up the humour. The first hour, in which Shelley Winters's Charlotte vamps the stiff, repressed Humbert to his considerable discomfort, mines the humour of embarrassment. Then Kubrick lets Peter Sellers loose to do a series of virtuoso comic turns. They are great, but overload the picture. Kubrick's Humbert is constantly being harried and badgered and in the end is less a sexual predator than a hapless victim. I don't think the movie works and Kubrick seemed to agree. He often talked about remaking it. Adrian Lyne uses the voice-over to give us more of Humbert's oily verbosity and he can be much more frank about the true nature of this deplorable relationship. But, again, we are spectators of events as they actually occur, rather than as Humbert wants us to see them, and the greater frankness only compounds the problems. Although his version is better in many respects than Kubrick's, it is even more uncomfortable to watch. Because of the nature of the medium in which they were working, Kubrick and Lyne both ended up making The Enchanter, not Lolita. I am not suggesting that it was wrong to make these movies. Film-makers should be free to tackle any subject that intrigues them - and it is not a crime to fail. It is just that the problems inherent in some books are so great it is unlikely there will be any solutions to them. Perhaps there are some challenges that film-makers should just decline. I suspect Lolita is one of them.
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A man marries his landlady so he can take advantage of her daughter.
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April 13, 2019