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A Tale of Two Lolitas at the Cinema

James Mason and Sue Lyon in "Lolita" (1962)
James Mason and Sue Lyon in "Lolita" (1962) | © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Sixty years after Nabokov’s novel was published in the US, the two movie versions warrant reexamination.

Is Nabokov’s Lolita pornography masquerading as great literature? Was Nabokov a misogynist with a pedophilic bent or a brilliant allegorist of the differences between the Old World and the New, or both? Given the novel’s enduring popularity and literary status, these issues are never out of date. They resurfaced last year on the back of the #MeToo movement. While we need not pore over the offending book again, it’s worth looking at Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaptation and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake to see if they shed any light on the questions that haunt the narrative.

Emblematic of the American pop culture that Nabokov derided in Lolita, each film was an artefact of the era in which it was produced. Neither exonerates Humbert from being a pedophile, but each takes a much more sympathetic attitude to him than would be permissible nowadays. Surprisingly, it is the later movie that takes the softer stance on his pedophilia and which is also the more prurient.

Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain in "Lolita" (1997) © The Samuel Goldwyn Company

In both films, as in the novel, the emigré European literature professor Humbert Humbert settles in a New Hampshire town in 1949 prior to taking up a teaching position at an Ohio college. Though repelled by the husband-hunting widow Charlotte Haze, he agrees to rent a room in her house on spotting her 12-year-old daughter Dolores sunbathing in the garden. Humbert and “Lo” enjoy a chaste flirtation.

Married and widowed by Charlotte weeks after he moved in, Humbert takes Lo on a cross-country road trip, during which they become sexual partners. They are followed by another predator, Clare Quilty – a TV personality and stage director in Kubrick’s film, a playwright in Lyne’s. After Lo is hospitalized with a virus, Quilty checks her out from the hospital and she goes away with him. Three years later, Humbert finds Lo married to a younger man and pregnant. He tracks down Quilty and kills him. The essence of both films is the disintegrating relationship between the besotted Humbert and Lo.

Sue Lyon, James Mason, and Shelley Winters in "Lolita" (1962) © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The main differences between the films are tonal and stylistic, but there are important structural differences, too. Whereas Lyne’s film is linear and saves the shooting of Quilty (Frank Langella) by Humbert (Jeremy Irons) until the end, Kubrick starts with Humbert (James Mason) shooting Quilty (Peter Sellers), subsequently telling the story as an extended flashback. This instils a sense of tragedy – Humbert’s, not Quilty’s – that afterward builds from the comedy of Humbert falling into the clutches of vulgar Charlotte (Shelley Winters).

Kubrick (who used little of Nabokov’s screen adaptation of his novel) offers no back story to Humbert’s perversion. Lyne includes an early flashback, shot in soft focus, from 1921 Cannes that shows 14-year-old Humbert having a romance and a formative sexual experience with an adolescent beauty, Annabel, who died from typhus four months later. The trauma froze him emotionally so that poor Humbert would thereafter fall only for “nymphets”: as if that were a moral excuse for his corrupting of Lo (Dominique Swain).

Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons in "Lolita" (1997) © The Samuel Goldwyn Company

The Kubrick film instead emphasizes the Oedipal nature of Humbert’s love for Lo (Sue Lyon). Humbert doesn’t, of course, kill his father and sleep with his mother. But in falling in love with Lo and losing her to Quilty – whom Lo loved before she met Humbert – he sets up an Oedipal triangle. In the myth, Oedipus’s mother Jocasta obviously knew her husband Laius before she inadvertently married her son. By the same token, Humbert’s killing of Quilty is an Oedipal murder.

In Kubrick’s film, Mason’s grief as the deserted Humbert echoes the Freudian theory testifying to the anguish of all heterosexual sons who cannot resolve the Oedipal conflicts that cause them to be sexually paranoid in their relationships with women. Lyne’s Lolita doesn’t neglect this theme: Swain’s lipstick-smudged Lo taunts Irons’s Humbert sadistically after she has had a tryst with Quilty. Lyons’s Lo delivers her harshest blows to Humbert with a stony expression when they meet after three years; she is not being sadistic, merely realistic about her abiding love for Quilty. Each Lo admits Quilty was the only man she felt crazy about.

James Mason (third from left), Sue Lyon, Marianne Stone, and Peter Sellers in "Lolita" (1962) © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Kubrick directed his Lolita after the classic film noir era had ended in 1958, but the film, shot in black and white, partakes of noir’s fatalism and anti-sentimentalism. It has noirish stylistic touches, too: notably Quilty’s demise behind a Regency-era painting punctured by bullets.

Lyne’s Lolita was shot in a less sophisticated Hollywood era, both narratively and stylistically. Being a movie directed by the maker of 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal, it is inevitably flashier than its predecessor, which Kubrick filmed with his habitual iciness and sly humor. He took a risk by sanctioning Sellers to use different voices and looks as the chameleonesque Quilty, but they play well against the melancholy of Mason’s Humbert. They also allow Quilty to suggest that Humbert needs to see a psychiatrist, the film’s recognition that his erotic fixation on a child is a sickness.

In the over-determined world of 1990s Hollywood cinema, it was incumbent on Lyne and screenwriter Stephen Schiff to make Humbert a nobler, purer character than Quilty. Humbert’s lust for Lo gives way to a fatherly tenderness, and by the end he has persuaded himself he is her father (even if that doesn’t mitigate his crimes). His decision to kill Quilty is less motivated by revenge, as was the case with Mason’s Humbert, than by the fact that Quilty is a pornographer who had tried to force Lo to perform for his camera with other girls and boys or with “three or four men.” Unlike the teenage girl sought by her desperate father in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), Swain’s Lo had the wherewithal to extricate herself from such hell.

In the films’ visual objectification of Lo, they are very different. Kubrick had Lo photographed with a degree of awe, but doesn’t overplay her childishness or her seductiveness. Lyne had Lo emphasize both qualities. Where Kubrick left much to the imagination, Lyne’s camera feasts on Lo, frequently peering between her legs or up her skirt. The verbal innuendo of Kubrick’s film meanwhile has visual counterparts in Lyne’s, as when Lo whispers to Humbert about something she did with the boy who deflowered her at camp, then smilingly removes her retainer.

Kubrick’s Lolita was made on the cusp of the swinging ‘60s (and includes the awful Farlows, who are literally swingers). Lyne’s Lolita was made at a time when ‘60s liberation was old hat and pedophilia had entered the public consciousness as a barbaric crime, though Nabokov’s novel was still largely exempt from shaming as a pedophilic text. If Kubrick’s film is the richer experience, Lyne’s is worth watching, too, no matter that the climactic confrontation between Humbert and Quilty is overwrought. Together the two films show how audience needs change over time, not necessarily for the better – and how perversion is timeless.