Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001259, Fri, 30 Aug 1996 19:00:04 -0700



Here is another installment in the already heated controversy
surrounding Adrian Lyne's new cinematic version of "Lolita". I have been
forwarding to screenwriter Stephen Schiff the articles posted to Nabokv-L
about the film: the most recent, Brian Walter's commentary and the article
from _Entertainment Weekly_, "Girl Trouble" by Benjamin Svetkey. See
Svetkey's essay near the end of the posting. STEPHEN SCHIFF's
interpolated responses are interpolated into the Walter and Svetkey piece
below. The DAILY MAIL article by William Oddie was recently summarized
on NABOKV-L by Jerry Goodenough.
------------------------------- ----------------------------

SCHIFF's response to Suellen Stringer-Hye on receipt of the Walter and
Svetkey (and Oddie) items:
I had already seen the William Oddie thing in the Daily Mail. The
next day, in The Guardian, a much more astute Nabokovian named James
(Michael?-DBJ) Wood described the Oddie piece as "remarkable for its
laborious ignorance." I rather think Nabokov would have enjoyed Oddie's name.

================================= =============================
> A couple weeks ago, subscribers to NABOKV-L 'enjoyed'the opportunity to
> read what amounted to an abbreviated version of"Girl Trouble," an article
> from the August 9 issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about Adrian Lyne's
>forthcoming movie of LOLITA. Since that
>time, Suellen Stringer-Hye and several others have provided us with more
>recent news and gossip surrounding Lyne's movie. Nevertheless, I
>thought the full text version of this article might still prove of some
>interest, as it includes several more (often troubling) statements from
>the director regarding his methods and goals in adapting the original
>work for the screen.

SCHIFF COMMENT. Mr. Walter may be
a superb scholar but he is a naif if he believes that the statements
"quoted" in the Entertainment Weekly article represent anything like the
director's actual views--or indeed his actual statements.

BW:> Having read Boyd's and others' accounts of the enormous attention LOLITA
> received in the aftermath of its publication, I cannot help wondering
> whether Lyne is not, in articles such as this one, looking to arouse
> similar (lurid) anticipation for his movie.

SS: Alas, the article was written not by Lyne but by Ben Svetkey, who, far
from being the pawn of some devilish Hollywood hype machine, was merely a
second-rate reporter goosing up an interview by pulling reasonable
quotations out of context. I will demonstrate below.
BW: > William Oddie's article, "Why
> this Loathsome Lolita must be Banished," recently posted to NABOKV-L
> (Aug 27) by Jerry Goodenough (j.goodenough@uea.ac.edu), represents the
> kind of hysterical hash that, for
> many decades now, has helped ensure _suceses de scandale_ for a variety of
> literary and cinematic works. If Goodenough had not so thoroughly detailed
> the imaginationless conservativism of the DAILY MAIL, one might almost
> suspect that Lyne or one of his cronies had planted the article under a
> pseudonym, so perfectly-contrived as it is to generate public alacrity for
> the (conveniently) already-controversial film's release.
SS: Once again, I'm afraid this sort of widely held view of Hollywood's dark
intentions is rather naive. Contrary to popular (but not very
well-researched) belief, there is almost no such thing as a succes de
scandale in the movies these days. In fact, studio-size pictures that aim
at such a market are almost invariably doomed to failure--as witness the
recent attempts along those lines of "Showgirls" and "Striptease." Sex
qua sex simply doesn't sell at the movies any more--not when there is so
much of a pornographic nature available on-line and in video stores. Why
would anyone go to a movie like "Lolita" for a sexual frisson when he can
get something much hotter--and much more likely to cater to whatever
specialized taste he or she harbors--at the local video store? Remember,
no one has to hide his proclivities under a raincoat in his own living
BW: > What I found most disturbing in all of this was my inclination, reading
> Oddie's article, to repeat one of his crucial mistakes by lumping Lyne's
> film together with Nabokov's timeless novel in my defensive reaction. It
> is perfectly possible (and, to judge both from the director's various
> statements and his previous work, perhaps quite probable) that this new
> 'realistic' film of the novel will amount to little more than a piece of
> sensationalizing trash, an extended Calvin Klein ad with some voice-over
> narration of improbably memorable lilt.

SCHIFF. If that were the case, does the good professor really believe that
Nabokov's son, Dmitri, would have been so complimentary about my
screenplay, or that he would have stated, having visited the set and seen
rushes from the film, that he has enormously high hopes for the movie?
I'm afraid Mr. Walter is allowing himself to be swayed by the press
rather more than he knows.
BW: > Screenwriter Schiff was quoted in
> Stringer-Hye's recent follow-up piece praising the haunting beauty of the
> segments he has been able to see, affording us some cause to suspend
> judgement. But it is not (in my opinion, at least) a terribly good sign
> that the director so blithely declares it "Humbert's film." The novel is
> (emphatically) Nabokov's, as all good readers know, and the temptation to
> read it simply as Humbert's (that 'vain, cruel wretch,' as the author
> carefully described him in an interview) is little more than a
>misreading. >
SS: This is an oddly literalistic reading of Lyne's statement. He and I both
understood at every moment that the novel was Nabokov's, that Humbert was
not only a "vain, cruel wretch" but an unreliable narrator, and we strove
mightily to consider those points as we made the movie. But Mr. Walter
will also admit that, at least as a narrative device, the movie is told
from Humbert's point of view. So is the movie, and from Humbert's
point of view, Lolita was sexually attractive. Can that really be a
controversial point to one who knows and loves Nabokov's novel?

> A needless note of caution, no doubt, to the faithful who subscribe to
> this bulletin board. But I suspect that I am not the only teacher of the
> novel who feels something at stake in the ongoing history of its
> misreading and misuse.
> BW
> Brian Walter

> "Girl Trouble" B. Svetkey ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
> This movie was doomed to fail from the start," director Adrian Lyne
> announces before unspooling some freshly cut footage of his latest work in
> progress. "Everything I'm about to show you is prefaced by that fact."
SS: Here is an example of a very common sort of journalistic malfeasance.
The reader will doubtless take Lyne to be referring to the box-office and
critical success of the movie, and in that context it would indeed by
shocking if he were to tell us that "this movie was doomed to fail from
the start." But that's not what he was saying. Actually, he was
expressing his reverence for the novel. He was telling the reporter that
in trying to adapt for the screen a novel so explicitly literary, so
complex, so dependent upon the experience of reading--in that sense, the
movie was doomed from the start.
> What Lyne is about to show on the big-screen TV in his Santa Monica,
> Calif., editing room are scenes from his no-holds-barred adaptation of
> Lolita, a film that may not be doomed but is definitely destined to
> disturb. Based on Vladimir Nabokov's notorious 1955 novel about an erudite
> college prof (Jeremy Irons) who falls madly in lust with a way underage
> teenybopper (14-year-old newcomer Dominique Swain), Lyne's new movie
> contains moments so borderline pervy they'd make Calvin Klein queasy. When
> the film finally hits theaters--at an unknown date, since it still has no
> U.S. distributor--it could open an entire second front in the conservative
> anti-Hollywood culture war.
> "It's an incredibly disturbing story," concedes the director of such
> varyingly disturbing movies as Jacob's Ladder, Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2
> Weeks, and Indecent Proposal. "But it's also hilariously funny, tragic,
> and heartbreaking. The novel is a mag-nificent work of art--which is why
> I'm so terrified by it. Like I say, you're doomed," he offers impishly.
> "But then, why wouldn't I want to try to film it? Just because it involves
> pedophilia?"
> Well, it might stop most directors--though no less an eminence than
> Stanley Kubrick braved a Lolita production in 1962. But that version, with
> a script by Nabokov himself, played it safer by casting a more mature
> 15-year-old in the title role (Sue Lyon looking about as innocent as Jayne
> Mansfield, with James Mason as the professor, Humbert Humbert, and Peter
> Sellers as his nemesis, Quilty). Reviewers blasted the film anyway; it
> wasn't until years later, when critics anointed Kubrick a cinema god, that
> the movie became a "classic."
> Lyne, it turns out, agrees with the critics' first take: "Nabokov's
> screenplay is as bad as his novel is magnificent," he says. "He murdered
> his book." To rectify the crime, Lyne treated the novel as a holy text,
> searching high and low for a writer who could capture the fragile elegance
> of Nabokov's original prose. (Harold Pinter and David Mamet each gave it a
> whirl, but the job ultimately went to New Yorker scribe Stephen Schiff.)
> He looked far and wide for the perfect actor to play Humbert, talking with
> everyone from Anthony Hopkins ("Too old," he says) to Warren Beatty ("He
> was intrigued for about five minutes") to Hugh Grant, who wasn't intrigued
> even that long: "The trouble is, that's my favorite book of all time--I
> didn't want anyone to make a film of it," Grant explains.
> In the end, Lyne chose an actor with vast experience playing dirty old men
> (see Irons in 1992's Damage or this summer's Stealing Beauty). That left
> the ultimate challenge: finding a real-life nymphet to fill Lolita's
> saddle shoes. Nearly 2,000 girls auditioned, though Lyne says many were
> "30-year-olds trying to be Lolita." For her audition, Swain, a freshman at
> Malibu High, sent a video of herself reading from the novel. "One moment
> she looked 9 years old," rhapsodizes Lyne. "The next you could sense her
> sexuality."
> Exactly how much of that sexuality will end up on screen is the question.
> Lyne, natch, wants to push the envelope to the max. Some of the scenes
> flashing in his editing room--gorgeously shot footage of Lolita lolling
> nude on a bed, for instance--make 9 1/2Weeks look positively frigid. "I
> thought about this for days," he says. "I asked myself, Should her
> sexuality be attractive? In the end I decided it should, because it's
> Humbert's movie and Humbert found her attractive."
> Of course, not everyone will be so open-minded. It's a safe bet some will
> be offended by a 47-year-old man having sex with a ninth grader (a body
> double did all the provocative scenes--but still), which may explain why
> Lyne has no U.S. distributor, despite wrapping the film six months ago.
> "No one will touch it," says one skeptic at a major studio. "It's a
> politically bad time for it. Talk about making Hollywood a target for the
> far right...."
SS: This is silliness. The movie is not finished. About an hour of it has
been roughly cut together. It has taken six months
because it simply takes that long to cut a film
when you've got that much film to cut (Martin Scorsese's last movie took
a year to edit). No one who knows anything about Hollywood will have
trouble understanding that a big studio might want to see a more-or-less
finished cut of the film before committing tens of millions of dollars to
its distribution. As I write, Lyne is about to leave for the south of
France to film the first few pages of my screenplay, which cover the
early parts of the novel in which Humbert recalls his childhood
relationship with Lolita's precursor, Annabel. Doesn't it make sense that
we would want to at least finish shooting the film before we showed it to

One other thing worth noting about the blind quote above.
Entertainment Weekly takes its quote from what it calls "one skeptic at a
major studio." Hmm. If that "skeptic" were a studio head, would the
magazine not have quoted him (or her) as, say, "one skeptical studio
head"? If he or she were even a senior production executive, would the
magazine not have said so? Could it be that this authoritative account of
the studios' plans came from a receptionist the journalist
happened to buttonhole?

> Lyne, though, says not having a U.S. distributor was part of the plan.
> "When we finish it, we'll show it," he says. "I did the same thing with 9
> 1/2 Weeks." Actually, he may be right--other sources say distribution
> won't be much of a problem. After all, it's tough to imagine that there's
> not one studio that wouldn't pick up a property as well-known as Lolita,
> especially with an Oscar-winning star and a director of Lyne's commercial
> credibility.
> No, the real hurdle will come when the ratings board gets its hands on the
> film, probably early next year, after Lyne finally finishes splicing it
> together. Its French financier, Chargeurs, which put up the $50 million
> budget, has mandated an R rating. Given Lolita's extra-touchy subject
> matter, that'll be about as easy as turning Showgirls into a Disney
> musical.
> Nevertheless, the director's braced for battle. "If I were doing a movie
> about a 13-year-old getting chopped up by a cannibal, there'd be no
> problem," he sniffs. "If people don't have a problem with the book, why
> would they have a problem with the movie? This is a classic around the
> world. It's not like it's banned."
> Not yet, anyway--but let's not give the MPAA any ideas.

Suellen Stringer-Hye
Jean and Alexander Heard Library
Vanderbilt University