Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001304, Sun, 15 Sep 1996 11:50:43 -0700

1) Walter-Schiff Exchange on LOLITA Film (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: A week or so back Brian Walter expressed his reservations
about director Adrian Lyne's new LOLITA film which was scripted by New
Yorker film critic Stephen Schiff. Walter's wariness about the film was
based in part on some comments Lyne reported by Ben Svetkey, the author of
the article "Girl Trouble" in _Entertainment Weekly_. The posting below
contains that article and Brian Walter's original plaint. A following
message (2) contains LOLITA film scenarist Schiff's response. The next two
(3 & 4) are Brian Walter's answer and further thoughts. Our thanks to
Suellen Stringer-Hye for serving as NABOKV-L's intermediary with Stephen


Some 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.

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. William Oddie's article, "Why
this Loathsome Lolita must be Banished," recently posted to NABOKV-L 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.

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. 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.

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.

Brian Walter
University of the Ozarks
Clarksville, AR 72830
(501) 979-1339 or 754-3499

"Girl Trouble"

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."

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

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

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...."

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

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

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.