Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003231, Mon, 27 Jul 1998 14:34:43 -0700

Lolita film review
From: "Thomas E. Braun" <cawriter@sprynet.com>
July 26, 1998

Having just seen Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" in Beverly Hills on July 25, I
suppose I had better add my two cents to the fray before everyone sees it
on Showtime in August.

This latest "Lolita" is a very-well crafted film, all things considered.
Its imagery, costumes, moods and sets evoke Nabokov's 1940s America (one
of the stars of the novel) in exquisite detail. Important story fragments
from the book find their way onto the screen, and are portrayed admirably:
Humbert fumbling with the ice cube tray while making a drink for the
Charlotte who has just discovered his deception; Lo and Hum playing
sun-splashed tennis; the light bedeviling Humbert as he tries to see
Quilty at their initial meeting; being "Kawtagain" in one motel ledger
during HH's futile chase after his lost love. Then there is Quilty's
murder, even more horrifyingly brutal to see than to read it as VN wrote
it, removing any doubts we may have had as to whether Humbert is merely a
victim of capricious Fate, robbed of redemption. And let us not forget,
at film's end, Humbert's poignant hilltop confession upon hearing
children's voices from the village below – voices that, due to his
despicable actions, do not include Lolita's among them. These and other
familiar fragments elevate this effort, overall, above Stanley Kubrick's
in 1962. It is well worth seeing, no question.

And yet...

And yet see how much that matters so much is missing! True, no novel can
ever be *completely* transferred to the screen, word for word. Yet it is
just these very words that make the novel so special. That is why, at the
very least, any director who attempts "Lolita" should leave in all the
special story elements that Nabokov put into the novel, along with the

But Adrian Lyne does not. And there is little reason for it. Some
omissions are merely curious, such as the French that - like well-used
spice in food - flavors the book and helps to give the tale's "hero" an
exotic quality. Other omissions are more serious. For instance, in the
novel Humbert ask a doctor for sleeping pills that will turn elephants
into zombies, so as to “operate” on an anesthetized Lo with impunity. Yet
in the film, he wants the pills *only* to avoid his "husbandly duties"
with Lo's mother. This might not matter so much, except that the film
later includes the scene at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where Lo is
falling asleep while beginning her confession of what a wicked girl she
had been at camp. In the book, she is so sleepy because HH has slipped
her one of his knockout philters - or so we are led to believe. That's
why the ensuing scene in the novel is so funny: Dolores becomes wide awake
despite HH's love potion - meaning he has again been deceived by doctors
(as he himself had deceived other doctors earlier in the book). This
"victimization" is both funny and designed to elicit our sympathy for
Humbert the pervert. Yet the film, strangely, offers no such sympathy.

All this is bad enough. But absolutely inexcusable is Lyne's treatment of
Our Glass Lake. Devotees of the novel recall that this wet, secluded
locale is where Humbert – in one of the book’s critical chapters -
contemplates drowning Charlotte. And why? Merely because she has
outlined her plans to remove Lolita from her and Hum’s lives, off to
strict boarding schools. The film first takes us to the lake, even
showing this celluloid Charlotte duplicating the printed page's dialogue -
and then incredibly fades to the next scene! Gone is the essential view
of Humbert seriously contemplating cold-blooded murder of a naive woman
who loves him, just to have his way. It could have been well-filmed, with
our seeing the crime enacted in HH's fevered brain. Then, of course, his
backing away from murder would once again show us that he is not so bad a
guy - as the book tries to show. All of which makes the novel's Humbert
seem less vicious, and makes his later bloody execution of Quilty all the
more shocking. Kubrick, at least, left this story element in, albeit in
disguised form (with James Mason thinking of shooting Shelly Winters).
Why director Lyne chose to leave it out altogether is a complete mystery.

And so we are left, once again, with a good film effort that is ultimately
dissatisfying. But perhaps the problem lies with neither Kubrick nor
Lyne, two fine filmmakers. Perhaps the "problem" is Nabokov's. Certain
authors simply do not write works that translate well into film. Consider
what we love about VN's books: the shimmering language; the word games;
the clue on page 73 that, with a thrill of recognition, leads us back to
its foreglimpse on page 57. You can't put this on film. Nabokov wrote
books that he intended us to READ. They are unique treasures, meant to be
enjoyed just as they are. Filming such novels is like writing long
detailed analyses of Rachmaninov's music instead of letting the haunting
melodies wash over us. Better to shut up and, in rapture, just listen.

Thomas E. Braun