Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is the story of literature professor Humbert Humbert’s infatuation with a particular subset of underage girls he calls “nymphets”. The story centres on Humbert’s interest in a particular nymphet, Dolores Haze, whom Humbert calls Lolita. While subletting a room in the Haze residence, Humbert becomes interested in Lolita. He marries her mother Charlotte in order to get closer to ‘Lo’. After Charlotte dies, Humbert takes Lolita on a cross-country tour. Eventually, a physical relationship develops. After some time, Lolita grows to resent Humbert. She devises a plan with another older man, Clare Quilty, to escape from Humbert. Years later, Lolita tells Humbert that it was Quilty who took Lo away from him. Humbert then kills Quilty, thereby ending the story.
There have been two English-language feature-length motion-picture adaptations of Lolita. In 1962, director Stanley Kubrick released a version starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert and Sue Lyon as the underage object of his desire. In 1997, Adrian Lyne released a new version starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain as the titular character. At the time of its release, the later film was mired in controversy regarding its treatment of already touchy subject matter, namely pædophilia that some suggest is presented as ‘love’ between an adult male and a female child. Lyne’s film provided a subjective æsthetic centred on the protagonist. Voice-over narration and the constant presence of Humbert, either directly on screen or implicitly off screen, help to create this effect. This subjective æsthetic resulted in an empathetic treatment of Humbert. Critics felt that Humbert was made to look like a victim of Lolita’s charms. Given Humbert’s status as a sexual predator, this was seen as misogynistic on Lyne’s part. This subjective æsthetic does not, however, celebrate Humbert’s actions. Humbert’s pædophilia is, instead, presented an aspect of his madness. Even if Humbert is a misogynist, however, one must distinguish between Humbert’s misogyny and the way that Lyne presents it. Lyne’s Lolita ultimately serves as a descriptive account of madness. Instead of a love story, Lyne tells the story of a mad man’s obsession with an ideal.
Distributing Lyne’s Lolita in the United States in 1997 proved to be a difficult task. The film was released in Europe shortly after it was produced, but it was not until July 1998 that an American distributor, Samuel Goldwyn Company, chose to release the United Artists production. The film had an exclusive engagement in a Los Angeles theatre in July 1998 to qualify for awards consideration, then opened simultaneously in limited theatrical release and on the television station Showtime in August 1998. The New York Times from that era suggests that distributors did want to take on the project because “the relatively high cost of the drama, about $58 million, coupled with its lack of star power and potentially offensive sex-with-a-child subject matter, made the 2-hour, 17-minute movie very risky.” (1) The controversy surrounding the film’s subject matter was not the only reason it had a hard time finding a distributor in the United States, but it did play a significant role in the film’s lack of financial success in the late 1990s.
The controversial and potentially misogynistic subject matter of Lyne’s adaptation continues to have an effect on its reception to this day. The film is treated as a minor piece in both film studies texts and in Nabokov studies. In her contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov on the intersection between the two disciplines, Barbara Wyllie dismisses Lyne’s film in less than a paragraph. (2) This paragraph is still the longest piece on the film found in the major literature. Wyllie’s dismissal is based on three related points:
1. The sexual content of the director’s previous films that bring his ability to deal with such touchy sexual taboos into question;
2. Lyne’s chauvinistic presentation of Lolita as a predator and Humbert as a victim; and
3. A lack of Nabokovian humour present in Kubrick’s version.
The first point is an attack on Lyne more than it is an attack on his adaptation of the film. Only the strictest of auteur theorists could dismiss a film on the basis of the director’s other works alone. After all, when one calls this movie “Lyne’s adaptation”, the name “Lyne” is only shorthand for the large number of professional filmmakers who worked together on the project. The third point is undoubtedly true, but does not explicitly deal with the potentially misogynistic elements of the text. This paper will thus deal most explicitly with the second of these criticisms since it is the one most closely related to the issue of misogyny that has plagued this film from production to the present day.
Wyllie complains that, “Jeremy Irons played a wistful, emotionally vulnerable Humbert Humbert, a victim of tragedy and grief, haunted by the memory of his lost love, Annabel Leigh, ruthlessly manipulated and inevitably betrayed by Lolita.” (3) This is supposed to establish the misogynistic character of Lyne’s interpretation of Nabokov. Wyllie suggests that Lyne blames Lolita for Humbert’s madness and the death of Quilty (Frank Langella). According to Wyllie, Lolita is not presented as a victim of pædophilia, but as a sexual predator in her own right. Contrary to Wyllie’s interpretations, however, making Humbert Humbert a sympathetic character is not the same as making him a hero. Being ‘wistful’ and ‘emotionally vulnerable’ is not the same thing as being acceptable. Lyne makes Humbert sympathetic, but does not condone Humbert’s actions. Lyne’s use of a subjective æsthetic centred on Humbert does not necessarily lionize Humbert, or demonize Lolita.
Lyne’s adaptation retains the subjective æsthetic of Nabokov’s novel. A great deal of the voice-over narration is composed of direct quotations from the novel, which is itself constructed as Humbert’s prison memoir. Lyne does not make the confessional nature of Humbert’s voice-over explicit, but the use of Humbert as narrator nevertheless helps to establish a subjective æsthetic. This subjective æsthetic is established at the very beginning of the film. The film opens with Humbert driving his car erratically. Ennio Morricone’s classical music score plays in the background. Humbert’s voice-over narration soon follows. As a gun slides across the back seat, there is a sound pan. The audio also pans as the car moves from one side of the screen to the other. Notably, when the car wheel goes into the ditch on the left side of the screen, we only hear it from the left speaker. To risk sounding cliché, it is as if we are in the car with Humbert. This is not the only way that sound is used to invoke a subjective æsthetic from the very beginning of the film though. In the car, almost every noise is a piece of on screen sound. Granted, one cannot see the wind that opens the piece, but it is implied by the clouds and other weather factors. It is also quickly replaced by the music mentioned above. The birds, the car wheels, the hay that falls in front of the car and the gun, on the other hand, are all on screen when we hear them. They are not, however, the only things that could conceivably make noise in the sequence. Despite how quiet they are, we are instantly drawn to them since they are the only pieces of diegetic sound we encounter. The timbre of each of these objects is softened, helping to create the tone of a noise-proof room. This helps to establish the viewer’s identification with Humbert’s situation because the sound design makes us feel like we are in a closed car. It is Humbert’s subjective perspective that we are encountering and his senses have been dulled by his recent actions.
This scene fades to a flashback sequence. Humbert’s voice-over continues. Similar music plays, creating a musical motif. Conventionally, the musical motif is used to link different parts of a film thematically. In this instance, the beginning and end of the story are linked, musically underscoring the sense of fate suggested by Humbert’s claim that “there may never have been a Lolita at all had I not first met Annabel.” As the blood on his hands and gun sliding across the chair suggests, the latter of which is audibly highlighted by being one of the few pieces of diegetic sound used in this sequence, Humbert’s erratic driving comes after he has a killed a man. The man he kills is the man who takes the ‘light of Humbert’s life’ away from him. It is, in a way, an expression of his ‘love’ for Lolita. That love itself has its origins in his love of Annabel, Humbert’s childhood paramour who died while they were dating. The musical motif, when combined with the voice-over sound bridge that explicitly links the periods, helps to suggest this continuity. While the voice-over moves from time frame to time frame, with the images on screen eliding over details with the use of burn outs, the music remains constant.
Importantly, however, Lyne also sticks primarily to the use of limited subjective narrative in the visual components of the film. Humbert Humbert is rarely off screen in the film. For instance, a scene where Charlotte (Melanie Griffith) and Lolita argue over whether or not Lolita should go to summer camp that ends with Lolita bringing Humbert breakfast is seen over Humbert’s shoulder in Lyne’s film, rather than in the traditional over the shoulder shot-countershot format sans Humbert employed by Kubrick. Our view is often confined to what Humbert sees, just like in Nabokov’s original text. The potential for the much-discussed unreliable narrator of Lolita remains in Lyne’s film. This helps to create a more sympathetic Humbert, but the spectator is warned not to trust his or her sympathies.
The plot helps to create this sense of Humbert as an untrustworthy character. He lies to those closest to him. When Charlotte discovers his journal, Humbert tells her that it is just notes for a novel he is working on. Later, after Charlotte’s death, Humbert does not tell Lolita about it. Instead, he claims that Charlotte is in the hospital and that they will visit her soon. Importantly, however, even Humbert’s voice-over is made suspect by its lack of coherence with the mise en scène. The voice-over is based on Humbert’s journal, but, when Charlotte reads from it, she finds herself described as “the fat cow”. In Lyne’s adaptation, however, Charlotte is anything but. Viewers watching the film in 1997 would be well aware of Griffith’s star persona as a Hollywood beauty. A year prior, she had even married one of Hollywood’s major sex symbols, Antonio Banderas. Lyne does nothing to hide her beauty. This is in keeping with the exposition of Humbert’s madness Lyne is presenting throughout the film: Humbert is unable to recognize adult physical beauty.
Lyne’s inclusion of Annabel (Emma Griffins Malin) in his film helps to establish Humbert’s psychological motivations throughout the movie. Kubrick’s film accompanies Humbert’s first view of Lolita with romantic music suggesting love. His past encounters with nymphets are not mentioned and the viewer is left to infer that Humbert is possessed by love throughout the film. Little else is known about him. By contrast, the long story of Humbert’s sexual development is introduced very early in Lyne’s film. In the aforementioned flashback sequence, the sounds of Paris, be they birds, chatter or footsteps, are very quiet, in contrast with the sounds of Annabel. Close-ups on Annabel’s face establish her as the key object of Humbert’s recollection. It is the sound of her laughter, which echoes the sound of Lo’s laugh later in the film, or her slip rustling that stand out in the sequence. Even the sound of sand falling is louder than the off-screen sound of surf and seagulls in the beach scene. Since it is falling from Annabel’s hand, it is of great import. Humbert’s recollection of this scene is of particular import since it marks a stage in his sexual development that he does not pass. Henceforth, he will attempt to recreate this scene. His memory of the sound of the slip is thus clear in his mind. In addition, at the end of the flashback sequence, when Annabel removes her slip, a piano motif is introduced. This motif will be used throughout the film whenever Humbert speaks of Lolita and other ‘nymphets’. This further links Annabel and Lolita both in the narrative and in Humbert’s sexual development.
By establishing the length of Humbert’s search for his lost love reincarnate, Lyne helps the viewer understand Humbert’s actions, however deplorable they may be. Remember, this is not a love story, but the story of a man searching for an ideal. That he found his ideal not in Humbert’s fantasy, the nymphet Lolita, but in the real Dolores Haze herself makes Humbert’s mistakes all the more poignant.
Understanding, however, need not imply acceptance and the reprehensible nature of Humbert’s actions are stated repeatedly. Even Humbert recognizes the potential psychological impact his actions could have on Lolita. After Lolita and Humbert have sex for the first time, Humbert is racked with guilt. A straight on shot of Humbert driving the car with a blank stare on his face is accompanied by narration in which Humbert states, “I felt more and more uncomfortable. It was something quite special that feeling, as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I just killed.” Granted the ‘special’ nature of his guilt suggests he finds some sort of thrill in it, and the fact that this monologue is followed by Lolita playing a joke on Humbert complicates matter, but this is in keeping with the multidimensional nature of Lyne’s Humbert. Adrian Lyne creates a complex character in his Humbert Humbert whose motivations one can follow and perhaps empathize with. Lyne does not, however, portray Humbert as a mere ‘victim of tragedy’ only. The deplorable nature of actions are made explicit. Furthermore, one cannot feel bad for Humbert when he is manipulated by Lolita, since Humbert’s tyranny has already been established and this is her sole sense of power in the later stages of their relationship. Even if one thinks that Lolita is a sexual predator in any particular scene, her character is far more complex throughout the rest of the film. Lolita’s character is just as well-developed as Humbert’s, even though we are kept as a distance from her by Lyne’s decision to create a primarily subjective æsthetic based on Humbert.
If this subjective æsthetic comes at the expense of the development of any of the female characters, the film could be characterized as least chauvinistic if not outright misogynistic, but the titular character is given her own psychological motivations and story arc within Lyne’s film text. Indeed, we know both characters fairly deeply, but the narration is heavily restricted to Humbert’s point of view – in terms of the plot, but also sometimes in terms of the stylistic choices mentioned above (POV shots, audial clues, etc.). Wyllie says that Lyne presented “the child heroine as a sexual predator, with a worldly maturity far beyond her twelve years, and more akin to a twenty-first-century teenager than an adolescent from the late 1940s” (4). Admittedly, there are times when Dominique Swain’s portrayal of Lolita in the 1997 film exudes a confidence not found in the original novel. Her confident reply to Humbert’s explanation of what might happen when two people share close quarters (a matter-of-fact, “It’s called incest”) is a perfect example of this. Furthermore, in one scene, she coaxes Humbert into raising her allowance. Here, Lyne takes Nabokov’s suggestion that Humbert increasingly had to buy Lolita’s body with gifts to new extremes by suggesting that Lolita was conscious of her new position of power and used it to her advantage. Shot on her knees in a medium close-up from a high angle, Lolita is seen as submissive in this scene. By contrast, Humbert is shot from a low angle. Conventionally, high angle shots suggest weakness and low angle shots suggest strength, but Lyne reverses this convention to demonstrate how Lolita is able to use the appearance of weakness to achieve greater power in the relationship. Appearing like a child, Lolita speaks like an adult and is able to gain power over her tormentor. Afterwards, she laughs like Annabel. Here, too, the conventional audial link between Lolita and Annabel is queered. In his attempt to find the innocent child of his youth reincarnated, Humbert has created a sexual being forced to grow up before her time and capable of using adult means to manipulate Humbert in turn.
Lolita’s character is also developed through Lyne’s usage of popular culture. According to Alfred Appel, the most striking problem with Kubrick’s adaptation is his decision to cut the popular culture allusions crucial to his source material. As Appel puts it, “the nymphet’s movie culture is virtually absent from the film, as is its aural equivalent” (5). Kubrick does not allude to other films in his adaptation (except for his self-referential allusion to 1960’s Spartacus by way of Quilty in the opening scene), nor does he use popular music as either diegetic or non-diegetic sound. This eliminates an essential aspect of Lolita’s character. According to Appel, in Nabokov’s text, “the women in Lolita, the large as well as the little ones, are a product of the movies they view” (6). Lolita lives in a fantasy world of film where she is a starlet. Her actions follow those of the movie stars of her era. Appel goes to great lengths to examine the extent to which American pop culture informed the creation of the characters in Lolita. Lolita is consumed by it. Humbert, an immigrant, is unfamiliar with it. “The two dimensions of reel life [...] are most pervasive reality in Lolita’s America. Humbert’s unfailingly dim view of Hollywood is consistent with his characterization as a displaced European intellectual.” (7) Appel suggests that there is both a cultural and an æsthetic-based divide between Humbert’s European professor and Lolita’s Hollywood-obsessed wannabe starlet. Popular culture is thus important not only for an understanding of Lolita’s character, but also of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita. When Humbert visits Lolita’s room after she has been sent to summer camp in Lyne’s adaptation, we find it covered with photographs of Hollywood stars. In this scene, there are two separate medium long-shots of a photograph of two Hollywood stars together. Lolita has drawn a heart with “H. H.” on it and an arrow pointing from the heart to the male character. For Lolita, Humbert is a living male star with whom she can be a starlet. This is a direct visual recreation of Nabokov’s original text. Later in Lyne’s film, even Lolita’s speech takes on the form of Hollywood cliché as she asks Humbert, “Buy me a drink?”, but then reminds us of her childlike state by ordering an ice cream soda. Popular culture both inspires Lolita to enter the relationship and leads to conflict between them. Kubrick nevertheless cuts all allusions to popular culture from his film.
Lyne, on the other hand, “orchestrates a 40s period both audial (Lolita singing to novelty hits) and visual (closeups on archaic iceboxes, radios, automobile ashtrays)” (8). His Lolita exists in a particular time and place. His Lolita is defined by the popular culture of her era. Her room is covered in movie posters and she reads movie magazines on the road. Indeed, the first image the viewer is presented with after Humbert and Lolita’s first love scene is of Lolita reading Movie Story in their car. If it is the influence of popular culture that caused Lolita to enter into her relationship with Humbert, then the use of popular music in the scene where Lolita sneaks out to see Quilty while Humbert gets a professional shave is particularly moving. In this scene, Lyne makes explicit how living in a world of pop fantasies can have devastating results. Lolita’s pop hit on repeat is followed by a violent confrontation between the confused young girl and her tormentor. When the music stops and all one can hear is the record scratching, Humbert begins to argue with Lolita about whether she left the hotel room to meet with another man. He demands to know the name of the man, but she refuses to answer. Humbert grabs Lolita and strikes her. Constantly repeating the actions of film starlets, a femme fatale seductress in both action and speech, Lolita becomes a character in a tragedy. When the popular music stops, so too does the fantasy of a Hollywood romance. Lolita’s attempt to define herself through popular culture leads to violence.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Lolita’s character is in many ways defined by her consumption of popular culture in Lyne’s film. After all, the subjective æsthetic is centred on Humbert and he would often see Lo listening to music. In the novel, he is often forced to take her to movies. It is unclear, however, whether Humbert shares the reader/viewer’s acknowledgment of how Lolita patterns her life after the characters in the films she sees. If Humbert does not recognize these touchstones, then the viewer is subtly given an objective stance contrary to the subjective æsthetic elsewhere in the film. Humbert’s untrustworthy nature is further underlined by the fact that he fails to understand the motivations of the woman he is supposed to love. In either case, it is clear that Lolita is searching for an identity of her own through, ironically, mass culture. Lolita’s character is largely based on her consumption of popular culture. Music and films, in particular, help to create her psyche. Since popular culture can denote the expressive of subjectivity through widely recognized codes, this may suggest that Lolita’s character may be nothing more than a series of such codes. As the above treatment of the scene in which Lolita asks to raise her allowance demonstrates, however, Lolita is able to use the techniques potentially gleaned from her film idols to subvert Humbert’s misogynistic tyranny. While Lyne’s use of popular culture does make his adaptation more faithful to Nabokov’s original text than Kubrick’s film, Lyne’s use of popular culture would be valuable even if Nabokov did not use it since it helps to explain Lolita’s motivations in any case.
This development of Lolita’s character helps to maintain balance between the characters without undermining the subjective æsthetic of Lyne’s film. In addition to showing why Lo entered the relationship, Lyne also does a better job of establishing the repercussions of staying in it. In Kubrick’s original, Lolita and Humbert’s fight resembles a typical fight between a father and daughter. Sue Lyon plays Lolita like a spoiled princess. In Lyne’s version, the fight is an all-out war with Swain playing Lolita on the verge of hysteria. She paces around frantically, and both the volume and pitch of her voice are raised considerably. The sexual aspects of their relationship are brought into the open. When Humbert later asks Lolita if she can ever forgive what he is done to her, the question has meaning because we have seen the psychological effects of his seduction. Having established why Lolita agrees to start seeing Humbert and what happens to her afterwards, it is important to examine why she stays in the relationship. Lolita is not a sexual predator out to get Humbert in either Kubrick or Lyne’s adaptation, but is instead a young girl thrust into a relationship because she has “nowhere else to go.” In Kubrick’s version, this is verbalized. In Lyne’s, it is part of Humbert’s narration, an after-the-fact admission of guilt. This difference is a key to understanding the different portrayals of Humbert in the adaptations. In Lyne’s film, Humbert recognizes, if only in retrospect, that he has manipulated Lolita. This is a common trope in Lyne’s film. In the moment, Humbert loses himself and commits actions he later finds deplorable. Near the end of the film, as he leaves a grown-up Lolita’s home and goes to kill Quilty, the voice-over narration returns and Humbert says that he regrets everything he did prior to killing Quilty, but not the act of murder itself. Humbert is presented as a man inflicted with an illness that overcomes him. That he can feel guilt for his manipulation of Lolita, if only in retrospect, but does not feel guilty for his act of murder suggests that he has a bizarre sense of justice to accompany his bizarre sexual urges that even he finds deplorable. This is in keeping with the complex treatment of Humbert’s psyche found elsewhere in Lyne’s film, but absent in Kubrick’s original adaptation. The audience is asked to sympathize with a madman, but even the madman urges us not to lionize him. He is a guilty man, not only legally, but also morally.
Ultimately, Lyne’s Lolita does invite the viewer to empathize with a sexual predator. Its cinematography, soundtrack and narrative structure work together to create a subjective æsthetic with Humbert at its centre. Humbert’s psychological state and motivations are established by way of this subjective æsthetic. Empathy, however, does not necessitate celebration. It is made clear throughout the film that Humbert’s actions are deplorable. The consequences of his actions for Lolita are made explicit as her own psychology is examined. Lyne’s Lolita is not a celebration of misogyny, but is instead a psychological study of two developmentally stunted characters that we are invited to understand, but not to emulate.
- Bernard Weinraub, “After a Year of Rejection, ‘Lolita’ Is to Open in U.S.”, The New York Times, 9 July 1998, p. 1.
- Barbara Wyllie, “Nabokov and Cinema”, in Julian Connolly (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 219.
- Alfred Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (New York : Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 244.
- Ibid, p. 109.
- Ibid, p. 87.
- Devin McKinney, “Review: Lolita”, Film Quarterly, 52.3 (1999), p. 49.
Alfred Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (New York : Oxford University Press, 1974).
Lolita. Dir: Adrian Lyne. Cast: Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, Dominique Swain. 1997. DVD. Castaway Pictures, 2003.
Lolita. Dir: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers. 1962. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2007.
Devin McKinney, “Review: Lolita”, Film Quarterly, 52.3 (1999), pp. 48-52.
Bernard Weinraub, “After a Year of Rejection, ‘Lolita’ Is to Open in U.S.”, The New York Times, 9 July 1998.
Barbara Wyllie, “Nabokov and Cinema”, in Julian Connolly (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).