BOOK VS FILM: LOLITA

 

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta”.

 
 
Nabokov appreciates the inherent difficulty that is making a film from a novel- ‘The author’s goal of infinite fidelity may be a producers ruin’. If nothing else, both film adaptations do the novel aesthetic justice in that they are both visually impressive. It is impossible to truly capture the essence of any book through a film, and this is no exception to that rule.

Lolita is a tragicomedy; originally a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955, and it’s widely considered one of the classics of modern literature. The novel has been extensively referenced throughout pop culture for its provocative and controversial content; everyone from Woody Allen to Jim Jarmusch has had a go. Some find the novel both pretentious and repulsive, these people are obviously idiots, they have misunderstood the intention and their opinions should be immediately disregarded as bullshit.

Nabokov undeniably has an astute and brilliant comprehension of the English language, and a delicate, lyrical writing style. The novel is told in first person by our protagonist Humbert Humbert. This narration is largely compromised by his depraved fascination and crippling lust for young girls, who he refers to as ‘Nymphets’. Specifically, it is an exploration of the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, a precocious 12-year-old for whom his personal name is ‘Lolita’.

Lolita has been interpreted into two films. The first of these was made in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick, interpreted from an original screenplay by Nabokov himself, and marketed under the now-classic tagline:

 

 
 
 

The answer lies herein; they didn’t really. The erotic, romantic and tragic aspects of the novel are almost entirely omitted. This was largely to adhere to the censorship of the time. The film resultantly became a visually stunning and eccentric black comedy.

Kubrick’s film begins where the novel ends, with Humbert’s murder of Claire Quilty. The scene is cartoonish, like Wile. E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.  Humbert follows a drunken Quilty around his lavish mansion strewn with empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts, evidence of the previous evening’s party. Quilty and mocks Humbert’s austere tone, seemingly oblivious to the fact Humbert is there with murderous intent. Quilty proceeds to mock his ‘death sentence’, a poem/confession Humbert has written explaining why he is to die.

 

 
 
 
‘Because you took advantage of a sinner. Because you took advantage…Because you took…Because you took advantage of my disadvantage.’‘Gee, that’s a dad-blasted darn good poem you done there’ he replies in a faux-western accent. Quilty finally attempts to run away, eventually hiding behind an 18th century watercolor painting of a demure young woman which Humbert shoots him through.

“That hurts”, he says, as the bullets fly through the canvas.

 

The comedy is exacted though a distinct awkwardness in Humbert’s interactions with the characters he encounters; He is consistently distracted and preoccupied by Lo throughout the film, becoming decidedly oblivious and dismissive towards everything aside from the two of them. Charlotte Haze’s (Shelley Winters) obliviousness to Humbert’s lust for Lo is also worthy of a mention, particularly in a scene where the three are viewing a horror film at a drive-in cinema and both females compete to hold Humbert’s hand.

 


 
 
 

In the film, Lolita is 15 (Played by a 16 year old Sue Lyon), as opposed to 12, which eliminates the controversy of making a film with the provided back-story. This Lolita is reasoned and relatively unemotional. Her concerns are more adult, she is aware of a need for security is motivated by a need to live comfortably and be provided for, as opposed to the juxtaposing sexual and parental need that is her relationship with Humbert in the novel.  Kubrick’s attention to detail and the cinematography are both fantastic, particularly in the traveling sequences.

 

 
 
The novel was re-interpreted by Adrian Lyne and Stephen Schiff (a writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair), in 1997, this time relying more extensively on the original text for scripting. Jeremy Irons stars as Humbert and Dominique Swain (14) as Lo.  The film is proof that no context is unbecoming to Jeremy Irons.

 

 
 
 
Quilty’s murder takes place at the end of the film as per the novel, and this is more powerful, as it allows the audience to appreciate Humbert’s emotional distress. The scene seems more drawn out, with jump cuts to Irons driving away after the completion of the deed, holding Lo’s bobby-pin in his bloodied hand. Quilty is more somber, ambling around his home in nothing but an open dressing gown. He is a decidedly seedy, balding old man. He does not jest about the situation, aside perhaps from when he eats a cigarette in the absence of a lighter. Iron’s Humbert is stronger and more commanding.

 

“You cheated me of my redemption, you have to die” he announces to Quilty. Quilty is first shot at a piano, and then finally in his bed where he has curled up to die and the bed is soaked in blood. There is a pregnant moment of silence following the impact of the final bullet into the steaming corpse.
 

 
 
 

 

Again, there is comedy in the interaction between Charlotte, Lo and Humbert; a scene where the three of them are sitting on a swinging chair and Lo goes inside to dance to a record, Humbert swings the chair as far as possible so he can watch her dancing. There is very little in the rest of the film, it is decidedly darker and an exploration of the more sexual, depraved nature of Humbert and Lo’s love relationship. There are a few cringe-worthy scenes, one involving Swain naked and clutching for silver coins on a bed, and a visually gruelling sex scene between the two following one of Lo’s meet-ups with Quilty from which she returns with smeared lipstick and clothing askew.

Charlotte Haze is a difficult character to play, pretentious and delusional, however with this considered I still can’t help but feel that Melanie Griffiths’ performance was, at best, flimsy.

 

The character of Lolita is more childlike and playful- ‘You look 100% better when I can’t see you’. She jokes.

‘I was a daisy fresh girl and look what you’ve done to me!’ she says, then dissolves into a fit of giggles. In comparison, it is Swain’s apparent age that lends the childlike, visceral qualities that the character needs.It also allows the realistic, and at times shocking aspect that Kubrick’s film didn’t accept as readily.  “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock.

‘She was Lola in slacks, she was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always – Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul. Lolita.’ But after all, how could they ever make a movie of Lolita?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Words: Luzie Lonsdale

Tags: Dominique Swain, film, humbert, james mason, jeremy irons, kubrick, lolita, nabokov, peter sellers, quilty, remake, sue lyon