Lolita (1997)recommended viewing

You see, she had nowhere else to go
★★★★★
Released: 
1997
Director: 
Adrian Lyne
Starring: 
Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella
The Setup: 
Adaptation of Vladamir Nabokov’s notorious novel about a man who has an affair with a young girl.
Discussion: 

This film version of the famed [and AMAZING] novel came out to much controversy and sanctimonious finger-wagging, due to the subject matter: an older man has an affair with a young girl. This version encountered a great deal of resistance, for the subject matter and also because it was directed by Adrian Lyne, best known for Fatal Attraction and Flashdance, so people assumed it would be steamy and exploitative. It is neither, and is a very respectable version of the novel.

The novel itself is a marvel of tone, and for me personally was one of the big revelations of literature. I was reading it with the tone of very solemn, SERIOUS literature, when halfway though, it finally occurred to me that on top of the seriousness of the story, Nabokov is having a high time tossing out verbal jokes, and that above the story level, the novel is a total gut-busting hilarious comedy. There is a famous earlier adaptation of the novel by Kubrick, with a script by Nabokov himself, and that version concentrates on the humorous aspects of the story. It is also three hours long and, despite repeated attempts to enjoy it, I just find it insufferable. This version strains out the humor and tells the serious side of the story, to devastating effect. Together the two versions make nice companions showing both sides of the novel, but by the time you’re spending five hours between them, dude, just read the novel.

The film begins with Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert driving erratically down a misty country road. His face is spattered with blood, and he holds one of Lolita’s bobby pins in his hand. We flash back to 1921, when he was 14, and in love with a girl his age. When she fell ill with Typhus, “the shock of her death froze something in me,” i.e. he became obsessed with young girls. I don’t recall this as being a large part of the novel, but I believe it is trumped up in the movie as a way to explain Humbert’s fascination and not have us simply regard him as a pervert.

So in 1947 Humbert is taking a teaching position at a New England college, and looks at the house of a Mrs. Haze [Melanie Griffith in one of the few roles in which she works], who is a pretentious housewife that takes an immediate shine to the scholarly Mr. Humbert. He is finding her justly insufferable until he sees her young daughter sunning herself on the lawn. Lolita here is played by Dominique Swain, who was 14 at the time. Humbert agrees to take the room in order to be near Lolita, and she, who has a typically strained relationship with her mother, takes to him as an alternative. She is charmed and fascinated by him, and the movie is very good about including little touches like her leaving her gum on his paper, or her feet standing on his as she whispers something in his ear, all innocent to her, but secretly driving him mad.

Meanwhile, her clueless mother is becoming more enamored of Humbert, and wanting Lolita out of the way. He marries the mother to be near the daughter, and thus becomes her legal guardian. Soon Mrs. Haze finds Humbert’s diary, which describes his lust for Lolita and talks about Mrs. Haze as “the old cow” and suchlike. She writes letters to everyone she knows exposing him for what he is and—is hit by a car on the way to the mailbox! This is one of the most darkly comic sections of the novel, Nabokov delighting in the humor of Humbert being completely sunk, the unexpected delight of having Mrs. Haze be fortuitously killed, and the incriminating letters delivered respectfully right into his hands. This adaptation wisely plays down the humorous aspect, so as not to have too many tones going on. Regardless, Humbert now has sole legal guardianship of Lolita.

He picks her up at camp, and takes her on a trip, declining to tell her that her mother is dead. She is extremely flirty, but clearly out of a sense of curiosity and an innocence; she wants to be a little naughty, but is too young to understand the implications of what she is doing. She does obnoxiously childish—and unconsciously flirty—things like take a drink of water, then wipe her lips on Humbert’s shoulder. That night they have sex for the first time—not shown. The next day she shows the first signs of becoming sullen toward Humbert. They continue traveling, and having sex at night, over a few weeks, before he finally tells her that her mother is dead. One of the most effective little moments of the film shows Lolita in bed, alone, weeping for her mother, before getting up and joining Humbert in his bed. “You see,” he tells us in voice-over, “she had nowhere else to go.”

SPOILERS > > >
Now, in here both Lolita and Humbert have separately noted the presence of Claire Quilty, noted playwright. He stays in the background until quite late in the film. The relationship with Lolita continues as they stop traveling and Humbert takes a teaching position. Lolita is growing more and more sullen and passive-aggressive, trying to be a kid, but forced to become an adult. She begins extorting Humbert for money and gifts in order to continue the relationship. She becomes extremely bitter and manipulative, and relations between them grow very toxic and strained. At one point they are seen physically fighting in bed while ostensibly having sex. The movie pulls no punches in showing how the affair is emotionally warping Lolita, and it can be a little shocking at times just how devastatingly raw this film allows itself to be. Eventually they two take to the road again, but Humbert knows something is wrong, someone is following them, and Lolita obviously has more than a few secrets up her sleeve. Eventually, she vanishes entirely.

Hey, you saw these were SPOILERS, right? Because if you want to watch the movie, you should probably skip ‘til after it says the spoilers end. Three years later, Humbert gets a note from her, asking for money. He visits her—she is now around 17, and hugely pregnant, living in a shack with a man she married. She explains that Claire Quilty was also a child molester, and she ran off with him. But he wanted her to make child pornography with groups of men, and she finally ran away. It’s hard to explain how devastating this scene is, to see the state Lolita is in, and also to realize how she wouldn’t have ended up in this position if Humbert hadn’t selfishly taken what he wanted from her and warped her development so badly. There’s a diversion as Humbert sets off to kill Quilty, who “cheated me of my redemption.” This scene, seemingly extraneous as it is, also veers wildly into black humor that just doesn’t work after such a somber film. That said, it also seemed a distraction in the novel, although it does contain an excellent example of the novel’s humor: having blown the back of Quilty’s head off, Nabokov describes a fly landing on his exposed brain “With the dawning sense of unbelievable luck.” We return to Humbert driving erratically, chased by the police. In the film’s final moment. Humbert stares down at a small village, hearing the sound of children playing. He says that the “hopelessly poignant thing” is not that he lost Lolita, but that her voice is not among the laughter of those children. He realizes at last the ruinous effect he had on her life.
< < < SPOILERS END

I saw this in the theater when it was briefly released [in a few theaters before moving to Showtime, the only company that finally agreed to buy it]. I expected people to be outraged, and as there were quite a few women in the audience, I expected some angry outbursts during or at least after it was over. I’ll never forget the silence that greeted the ending of the film, everyone emotionally devastated. Because the movie is so somber and so ready to delve deep into the horrors of this relationship, and how terribly it distorted the life and psyche of its young heroine. I also recall passing a woman on the street just after. She had obviously just seen the film, and met a male friend who hadn’t. She was trying to describe how moved and emotionally blasted out she was, but her friend just wanted to focus on the sensation, greeting her every attempt to get him to understand how deeply troubling it was with questions on the order of “So did they, like, show it?”

The script by Stephen Schiff is wonderful and very emotionally astute. It perfectly captures the emotional arc of the child Lolita, her initial innocent flirtiness and naughtiness, and how it transforms first into sullenness, then passive-aggressive hostility to outright hatred, without losing the complexity of the genuinely fond, loving feeling she does have for Humbert. And while Irons is perfect and wonderful, the real revelation is Dominique Swain, who brings Lolita’s many complex adolescent states of mind of vividly realistic life. She gets with extreme emotional precision the playful flirtiness of a young girl, and then the adolescent passive-aggression of clicking a gumball around in her teeth loudly, or drumming on the dashboard, or clicking her retainer. She is so perfect and vivid it’s almost impossible to believe that she was only 14 when this was filmed, and that she was not able to continue a more prominent career—possibly because of the taint of her participation in this film. Lyne’s direction also perfectly matches the material and rebuts one’s expectations of what the director of something like Fatal Attraction might bring to this.

You should definitely watch this film, but you need to save it for one of those special nights when you are really ready to experience something very heavy and emotionally devastating. It holds a special place, and it’s not to be taken lightly, but when it’s the right time, go for it.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, but wait ‘til you’re ready to watch carefully and be emotionally destroyed.