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Mr. Arkadin

Lolita '62 vs. Lolita '97

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There is a previous thread on Kubrick's LOLITA, but since it got off to a dubious start and never really progressed beyond it, I daresay we had better start fresh. My wife and I are both enormous fans of Nabokov's novel, and seeing as she had seen neither Kubrick's nor Lyne's adaptations of the novel, I thought it might make for an interesting sort of double-feature, a compare and contrast affair, especially since both films contain aspects of the novel not available in the other version.

Kubrick's LOLITA is a kind of all-out black comedy, cartoonish and strange. It peaks rather early; the opening scene is the film's best section, a kind of tour-de-force bit of Gothic weirdness with Peter Sellers firing on all cylinders. The film's removal of Humbert's own subjective testimony and his history (except for brief glimpses) removes much of the sympathy the Humbert of Nabokov's text manages to achieve through his devilishly sharp wordplay, and so what we get is a film about outrageous human monsters that are more or less presented as such. While Nabokov's novel oozes with passion, Kubrick's film does not. Partially, no doubt, because of the demands of censorship--LOLITA barely made it through--but also, I suspect, because Kubrick is Kubrick. Now, I understand why this film is generally well-respected; on its own merits, it's pretty decent, even if I don't think it's a Masterpiece of Masterpieces, but as a fan of the novel, I continually find myself frustrated by how much the film fails to capture the richness of the novel's experience. Nabokov's novel has plenty of irony and black comedy, but it had a much richer emotional texture, and, of course, a more notable presence for aesthetic beauty. Nabokov's LOLITA is the great "Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" tale, allowing the overwhelming beauty of language its full power, even as it is the testimony of a "hateful person" (to quote Nabokov himself).

Lyne's LOLITA, on the other hand, moves into the opposite extreme. If Kubrick emphasized comedy, Lyne emphasizes the more emotional, tragic elements of the story. The film becomes a kind of weepy tragedy shot in gauzy, lyrical images, with Humbert Humbert as the tragic lead. Where Kubrick's LOLITA had an almost mocking, don't-take-this-too-seriously score from Nelson Riddle, here, Morricone's score heaps on the heavy emotion, full of sad, tinkling piano and strings. It's the story of LOLITA if you were to take Humbert Humbert at his word.

Now, Lyne's LOLITA does have sections where it really works. I'm quite fond of his film's version of Lolita and Humbert's final reunion, which hits much harder than it does in the Kubrick version (though even there, Lyne overdoes it by having Lolita re-appear in her youthful, original appearance, and the effect of the scene is soon drowned out by the over-the-top finale). And there are other moments, when Jeremy Irons--who probably gives a career-best performance here--takes center stage, and it comes together. And there's something to be said for the lyrical approach as an attempt, even if its a failed one, to achieve the luxurious beauty of Nabokov's prose in narrative terms. But I think Charles Taylor's review for Salon does capture many of the problems with the film:

The main reason those moments play as well as they do is Irons, who is often heartbreaking. If he has sometimes seemed, as an actor, merely and unalterably stricken, the latest in a line of desiccated Englishmen whose lineage flows back to Dirk Bogarde, here he is, at least, struck to the core with love and longing. He uses his passive quality to suggest erotic enchantment, but "passive" is the last word that should be applied to this performance, since even in the shots where he is simply standing there regarding the action, Irons never stops working.

What Irons doesn't get to express is Humbert's cunning. Lyne and Schiff's Humbert is controlling, plotting, even physically violent with Lolita, but he acts out of helplessness, not calculation. The pity of this is that Irons is capable of conveying those shades of the character without losing what makes him so touching elsewhere. You can hear all those qualities on his audio book recording of Nabokov's complete novel. It's a masterful performance that, at 12 hours, never flags in eloquence or invention. Irons reveals as ardent a sense of the book's poetry as he does as salacious a sense of its farce.

Lyne has done what any filmmaker with an artistically dubious reputation would do when approaching a classic: cloaked it in respectability and production values. While it may have become a cliché to cite Lyne's background in commercials, it's impossible not to think of it while watching "Lolita." If Irons' Humbert can never forget Lolita, the look of the movie suggests that's because her Windsong stays on his mind. The lyricism is layered onto the film rather than coalescing from it. Lyne uses the late '40s setting for a series of immaculate period reproductions: suburban lawns and downtowns seen through a creamy nostalgic haze. It's entirely wrong for "Lolita," which, in keeping with Nabokov's portrait of pop America, needs to have the shiny, hard-candy colors of a new car. We need to see a world of soda fountains, movie theaters, Kumfy Kabins -- all of them as irresistible as they are disposable. (There is one inspired introduction: a roadside motel whose units are shaped like teepees.) The movie feels Europeanized, subdued, vaguely but fatally respectable.

This sober approach to what Nabokov called the exhilaration of "philistine vulgarity" means that this "Lolita" isn't a comedy. Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film was, and that's often been held against it. Still, it's remarkable how much of the book Kubrick manages to get: the slyness, the whole atmosphere of erotic dementia and the book's satiric celebration of roadside America. Kubrick translated that into a black-comic version of fast, slangy, disrespectful American movie comedies.

The selling point of the new "Lolita" has been its faithfulness to the novel -- but where is it? For all that Kubrick had to soft-pedal, nearly every scene in his film had a correlative in the novel. Stephen Schiff's screenplay jiggles the time frame, eliminates some scenes, invents others, puts odd bits and pieces together. And with all that expensive tastefulness on view, the attempts at humor -- Charlotte telling Humbert, "I myself just cherish the French tongue," or asking, "Is she keeping you up?"; the phallic jokes of a pencil going into a sharpener or a soda fountain spigot oozing chocolate syrup and then, the crowning touch, a cherry being added to the top of an ice cream soda; a shot of Lolita removing her retainer before fellating Humbert -- just seem vulgar instead of vulgar and funny.

Standing in-between these two films, I think, is Nabokov's own screenplay (he is credited for the screenplay of Kubrick's film, but in reality, his work was heavily rewritten). More than either version, it effectively captures the tensions present in the original work (though, admittedly, it does swing closer to Kubrick's film than Lyne's, with its overt sense of comedy). Nabokov's screenplay sets up a structure whereby the audience is invited to question the text of the film; psychiatrist John Ray introduces and concludes the picture in a very comic voice, and the script occasionally interrupts the narrative in almost Brechtian fashion to unrelated side moments (like police offers analyzing the death of Charlotte Hayes), shaking the audience out of their emotional entanglement with the story at hand. But Nabokov's characterization of Humbert in the screenplay has more complexity, more intimacy, than what Kubrick's film ever offers us. His screenplay is almost certainly too long for a feature film, but somewhere in there, in its deftly-written scenes, is a remarkably Great Film, albeit one that was unfortunately never brought to life.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I saw the Kubrick Lolita a couple of times shortly after reading the book, and recall being disappointed that it was nowhere near as transgressive as the book. I know, issues of censorship played into it, but it is (as you point out) cold even beyond what one would expect. Kubrick manages to avoid playing the whole thing as a genuine romance, however, which it looks like the later adaptation did not.

One thing that struck me was that Sue Lyon looked far younger at the end of the movie than she did at the beginning; the "grown up" Lolita looks like a little girl in her mother's clothes. I wondered at the time if Kubrick wasn't trying to make some sort of a point with this, but I've not seen it mentioned in anything I read.

EDIT: I should probably clarify what I mean by "transgressive." I mean the interplay between Humbert Humbert's beautiful prose and the horror it describes. As I see it, the book is seductive because it tempts the reader to sympathize, and then jerks the rug out from under us. Kubrick's film doesn't even try, and feels less engaging for that. Which is, I suppose, a longwinded way of saying I agree with your points concerning the complexity of the book vs. the film.

Edited by NBooth

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Kubrick manages to avoid playing the whole thing as a genuine romance, however, which it looks like the later adaptation did not.

Well, to be fair, there is more shading to Lyne's LOLITA than that. Humbert does come off as a very dark character, very obsessed, and is portrayed as having destroyed Lolita's life. There is a moment in Lyne's version, which has no precedent, I believe, in the novel or in Nabokov's screenplay or the previous film, where, after seeing the pregnant Lolita, he turns to her and asks, "Can you ever forget what I've done to you?" and seemingly earnestly repents of his actions throughout the story. But even that brings a kind of moral shading to these events, it's quite different than the thrust of the novel. And everything about the film is handled with a kind of weepy-eyed emotionalism, which isn't very Nabokovian, either.

A key difference occurs in the presentation of Humbert's backstory. In Lyne film, it's presented in earnest. In the book--and even more overtly in Nabokov's screenplay--there are undercurrents that lead us to question Humbert's presentation of events.

One thing that struck me was that Sue Lyon looked far younger at the end of the movie than she did at the beginning; the "grown up" Lolita looks like a little girl in her mother's clothes. I wondered at the time if Kubrick wasn't trying to make some sort of a point with this, but I've not seen it mentioned in anything I read.

I've heard it mentioned as unconvincing. I've never heard it mentioned as a purposeful artistic statement. In this regard, Dominique Swain (who plays Lolita in Lyne's film) is much more effective at this segment of the film than Lyon. She looks the part of the "faded Lolita," and as Humbert's narration comes in describing her as the faded leaf of what she once was and Iron's face reacts, it's pretty moving. (I can't praise Irons' work in Lyne's film enough. It's a really, really great performance.)

If Lyne had ended the film with that scene, I might be inclined to think higher of his version. But then he goes and gives us a grotesque, unnecessarily violent take on the Humbert/Quilty confrontation, complete with a close up of a blood bubble Quilty blows just as he dies. As is so often the case with scenes like that, the gruesomeness of it is so overwhelming that we almost lose sight of the story. And, truth be told, it should be the afterword of the story, not the grand final statement, as it is played here (which is why it was wise of Kubrick to move it to the beginning, as Nabokov also does in his screenplay, though he didn't make as big a deal out of it; for a film adaptation, that scene plays very well as an opener).

Edited by Ryan H.

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FWIW, I agree that the earlier thread was misbegotten and is probably best ignored. However, this thread should probably be renamed, perhaps to something a la our usual format e.g. "Lolita (1962, 1997)", otherwise that earlier thread will be the only one that shows up in searches for threads with the word "Lolita" in the title. (A search for "Lolita" does NOT turn up "Lolitas".)

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Occasionally I go on YouTube binges, and this evening it's Nabokov-related. So here's Sue Lyons talking about her role in Kubrick's Lolita:

 

 

[And here's our thread on Nabokov]

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It's just that Jeremy Irons did such a stellar job reading the book on CD that watching the later version, I already feel like he is Humbert. That said, Swain isn't really up to the task (imo), and the film feels skittish in ways that are understandable but aren't really conducive to the materil...if I recall correctly. It's been years.

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The New Yorker: Nabokov and the Movies

 

Some stuff about Lolita--and other adaptations of other novels:

 

By now, filmmakers have mined all of Nabokov’s movie-friendly novels—with the possible exception of “Glory”, which offers semi-autobiographical glimpses into Nabokov’s years at Cambridge in the early nineteen-twenties (catnip, perhaps, for period-loving “Downton Abbey” watchers). But the adaptation I’m still waiting for is “Pale Fire,” which pretty much everyone agrees is unfilmable. The idea of a movie version was first suggested to me back in 1985, when I was interviewing David Cronenberg, who discussed his fantasy of adapting the book.
Edited by NBooth

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Lara Delage-Toriel:

 

While I agree with you that Kubrick has greatly contributed to fashioning today’s perception of Lolita, I’d hardly say that sexuality is absent in Nabokov’s text, or that the paradigmatic objects we’ve come to associate with the nymphet were wholly invented by the filmmaker. I can think of a few basic facts about film as a medium that explain why Kubrick’s Lolita might give the impression of having created something entirely of its own: films are visual artifacts and most often last about an hour and a half to two hours. Since they’re visual, the objects they present (such as lollipops or heart-shaped sunglasses ­— the latter being in fact only used for the poster, not the film itself) can be immediately recognizable and reproducible. Surprisingly, although the Nabokovs pestered against the commercial distortions of the original nymphet, they did seem to endorse the heart-shaped prop, since a 1966 photograph shows Nabokov’s wife Véra smilingly wearing a similar pair of glasses (only they were white instead of red-framed) as she reclines in a bathing suit by the Montreux Palace Hotel’s pool. Thanks to its mimetic effect, film representation may thus strike a more immediate correlation with reality. And because a film is relatively short, it needs to concentrate and make a drastic selection of the information it’s going to show; this concentration acts as a kind of magnifying glass, making those objects that have been selected protrude.

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The AV Club asks: "How did they ever make two movies out of Lolita?"

The impact of the book’s final lines say it all, really, illustrating the tightrope of sympathy Nabokov walked throughout his most famous work. Inevitably, neither film can live up to it. Lyne’s version may help some lazy literature student pass a test without doing the reading, but it isn’t comparable. Kubrick’s is mostly of interest to completists: Lolita is probably his worst, and while that means it’s one of his few non-masterpieces, it’s a poor introduction to him (or Nabokov).

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