Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake of Lolita is a surprisingly well-made film. I say surprisingly because Lolita is the sort of novel that is almost impossible to render in film – long, highly detailed, and dependent on the manipulations of one exclusive perspective (Humbert), whose psychological status remains wonderfully uncertain in Nabokov’s prose. Jeremy Irons is adequately ambiguous and externally uninteresting as Humbert Humbert, Dominique Swain (what happened to her? she’s amazing!) is an almost impossibly perfect incarnation (monkey-limbed and cherub-faced) of Dolores Haze, and Melanie Griffiths is perfect (if a little too trim!) as the prosaic dull-and-dawdling Charlotte Haze. There are still a few things I don’t love about the film, so let’s get them out of the way straight off so I can move on to “fondling the details,” as Nabokov would say, of the object itself.
First, as monkey-like and crass as Lo is, there are a few moments that seem too 1990s and not 1950s enough in their tenor. The flip side of that is that Lo’s crassness really comes out in the fighting scenes, which rescue her subjectivity for us, and Lyne does them expertly. Secondly, the scene at the end where he experiences what Ellen Pifer calls his “moral apotheosis” actually occurs in Elphinstone, three years earlier, and does not change his attempts to recapture her – an important proof that he does not morally change in the way he wants us to believe he does. Finally, I think Lyne slightly overdoes the role Lo plays in “the seduction” – there are a few too many crop-tops and sultry glances at the start, and the controversial comic-strip orgasm scene later in the film is beautifully made, but potentially too lucid in its portrayal of her pleasure (vs. the novel’s ambiguity).
Still, it’s true to the novel that Lo is young enough to wear more freeing children’s clothing, and that she is deeply curious about sex. In a sort of characterological parallel to what Linda Williams would term the “long adolescence” of film, Lo herself is in an extended period of desire without knowledge, passion without understanding. This is where Lyne’s film is so great. In emphasizing that Lo herself is a product of the cinema she consumes, Lyne captures the way in which Lo knows what the movies know about sex – which is also what we know about it. In this way, the treatment of history in the Lolita film is much more exciting than, say, The Help, because Lyne inserts the shocking, violent, and material reality of Humbert having sex with this girl into a visual landscape of 1950s America in a way that ruptures our sense of sex and the movies. Lyne, in other words, succeeds in making Lolita cinematic in and through the medium of film, which is something I believe the novel achieves in language, but it’s remarkable to see it play out visually.
It’s too bad Lyne cut the “davenport scene,” the famous bit in the novel where Humbert gets off by bouncing Lo on his lap and singing “My Little Carmen” to her. You can find the excised clip on YouTube, and while the script for its beginning isn’t great (it gets to the novel’s focus on Dali and “My Little Carmen” by way of Humbert calling Americans dull and stupid, which I don’t think he would say to Lo in the novel…), it’s actually one of my favorite of Lyne’s negotiations of the difficult bits of the text. As he bounces her on his lap, shots of Lo in a sort of ecstatic, glowing, movie-montage three-point lighting scheme are interspersed with actual shots of her and with reaction shots from Humbert. The effect is to let us know that Lo is enjoying herself, but that Humbert is also making her into an object of cinema in order to complete his aim. When the phone rings, she jumps right up, flushed and seemingly aware that something is different, though it’s unclear what.
The attention Lyne pays to the material body is great. The split between Parts I and II of the novel shift from a cinematic, dreamy, synecdochized treatment of Lo’s body to an obsession with its innards, its whole, its growth, and its betrayal, especially as Humbert becomes paranoid and pursued, eventually loses her, and is left only with memories and rage. In the novel, this shift takes place largely through the final list of items he buys her, including sanitary napkins, a sign of Lo’s new fertility and a bodily marker of “the wound” Humbert continually probes.
The scene towards the end of the film that parallels this is brilliantly done. Humbert goes to the market to buy Lo bananas (she’s constantly eating them in a suggestive way in the film), and comes back to find her sitting on the bed with dirty feet and sticky lipstick on. As in the novel, he tears the clothes from her body, sniffing her for signs of betrayal, and ends up violently kissing and raping her. The close-up shot of Lo’s face during this sequence reveals the smudge of red on her cheek in the violent beginning, and as our shock and fear that it is blood yield to the more erotic realization that it is smeared lipstick, we undergo a sort of sexually charged shift, which I think wonderfully captures the texture of Nabokov’s prose: our torture as reader and viewer is to find ourselves constantly torn between horror and arousal as we consume the text before us.
In general, Humbert invites us to critique Lo for her superficiality, but ironically, his problem is that he reads her as a product for consumption among so many others. His crimes are rape and murder, but also objectification, animation, and solipsism. She is “Lo, plain Lo, standing four feet ten in one sock… Dolly at school… Dolores on the dotted line… but in my arms she was always Lolita.” Humbert believes he is individualizing her here, but he is actually emptying her out of herself and renaming her, as well as duping himself about “consumer’s choice,” as it were.