Looking for Lolita

On the nature of nymph mania

Adrian Lyne's Lolita will get its long-sought U.S. theatrical release following its Showtime screening next month. So while the years-long delay brings to mind Groucho Marx's famous quote ("I've put off reading Lolita for six years, till she's 18"), it's also raised the following thoughts on what Nabokov and his prized nymphet have unwittingly wrought and what it all means for this latest Lolita.

Regarding Humbert

When just about every actress between the ages of 10 and 18 has at one point or another been labeled "Lolita-esque" or a "nymphet," who needs another version of Nabokov's ecstatically insinuating and audience-implicating immorality tale? Who needs to watch the pathetic Humbert Humbert tell his queasy lies and self-justifications when guilt-free, skin-filled ironyfests like Wild Things and Scream and The Opposite of Sex are ready to be viewed? Perhaps it's less the pedophilia than the grim and grimmer turns of Nabokov's story that American distributors objected to. In any case, Dominique Swain, the young star at the center of Adrian Lyne's Lolita, is filmed more leeringly in John Woo's Face/Off (as John Travolta's rebellious daughter) than she is in the film that was widely deemed too hot for American theaters.

In his afterword to the American edition of the novel, Nabokov declared that he detested didactic fiction and protested that "Lolita has no moral in tow." But of course it is a highly moral affair--it just isn't the redemptive Hollywood kind, as Nabokov must have figured out when Stanley Kubrick and producer James Harris asked for an alternate ending. Rather than play out the book's sordid-sad fates, in which the two principals die, they asked him for a screenplay that would marry off Lolita and Humbert (with an adult relative's blessing no less). Kubrick later confessed, "Had I realized how severe the [censorship] limitations were going to be, I probably wouldn't have made the film."

Of course it's all very fitting that Lyne's Lolita--which was filmed in 1995--has had such difficulty getting seen here. It took three years from its French publication for the novel to be published in the United States--40 years ago next month. That the novel also immediately caused a sensation and became a pop-culture touchstone is of no real help to the Lyne Lolita. The movie will no doubt be censured, like Kubrick's version was, by both Nabokovian purists and people who purposefully confuse representation with endorsement.

--Abby McGanney Nolan

Lyne Readings

Originally a project at Carolco, a production company that went bankrupt, Adrian Lyne's $58 million Lolita was rescued and fully financed by Pathé, the French communications giant. After its world premiere in Spain last September, Lolita made the rounds in European theaters. No major American distributor would touch the film, however, and no independent could afford it until Goldwyn entered into a partnership with Showtime last week. It's a measure of how charged the subject of pedophilia has become that the new version of Nabokov's tale was apparently deemed impolitic, too great a risk in the light of the Christian right's current child-porn crusade and the specter of conservative opposition. This, in spite of the fact that although Lyne's film may portray Humbert as sympatheticon some level, it doesn't in any way condone his monstrous acts. Moreover, from the director of Such mainstream entertainments as Flashdance and Fatal Attraction, this risk-taking departure is one of the least explicit accounts of sexual obsession in recent cinema history.

Asked about the difficulties in landing a distributor, Lyne says, "At first I had heads of studios sending me letters that it was my best work, and then these people just gradually faded away. Fear spreads. I'm thrilled with Goldwyn's courage, but of course Hollywood is not renown for its courageousness. When there's a contentious subject like this, it's easier to sit back. I talked about it with Michael Douglas not long ago. He made the interesting observation that nowadays is a lot like the '50s--things are going well, it's boom times and people don't want to rock the boat. But it's a movie that's been rated R by the MPAA--there's nothing salacious in it. People may have expected a more sensational movie--it's not at all a balls-out commercial film.

"I had a lawyer coming in and out of the cutting room during all six weeks of the time I was editing just to make sure there were no problems with what I was doing. It's a movie I'm proud of. The whole affair doesn't make sense. There was a pervasive silence about the film in the industry, although people have come around to it in the last couple of months. Nabokov's son, Dmitri, has been terribly supportive. He thinks his dad would have liked it."

Asked whether he thinks the release will stir controversy, Lyne says, "I have no idea--I hope not. I think it's so sad that you can't make a movie about a contentious subject. Out of debate and argument something constructive might come out. I don't think there will be a big revelation, but I do think it's healthy to have it out in the open. The idea of precensorship seems very sinister to me.

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