Lili Safon examines the two film adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel.
Remakes are easily accused of lack of originality. They’re just copies of the first movie, right? Actually, remakes can tell a completely different story from the original. From the very first scene, it’s evident that Adrian Lyne’s 1997 Lolita is a very different film from Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel. While I have not read the book, both films felt like adequate interpretations of the text. Using imagery, editing, and music, these two filmmakers told very different stories, proving that a remake can be more than a replica.
Kubrick’s film takes a dark comedic view of Lolita. The film tells Humbert Humbert’s story of moving to the states and falling in love with a fourteen-year-old girl named Dolores “Lolita” Haze, played by Sue Lyon. One problem: Humbert (James Mason) is Lolita’s middle-aged stepfather. The couple must avoid not only the police, but also Humbert’s rival, Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Kubrick, instead of focusing on the severity of pedophilia, concentrates on the situational comedy of Humbert’s awkward position as a refined literary professor weakened by his infatuation with a sophisticated “nymphet.” Kubrick emphasizes this with upbeat music and long landscape shots that show Humbert in relationship to the world around him. The shots capture his discomfort and the obliviousness of his peers, many of whom are “older” women pursuing Humbert. His lack of grace is accentuated in other extraneous scenes, such as when Humbert’s trying to open a cot without waking Lolita. This clumsiness almost makes him a sympathetic character, and the fact that Lolita appears far older than fourteen makes Humbert appear less like a pedophile. In fact, he comes across as any other man stricken with unrequited love.
Lyne’s version, however, takes a much darker look at the story in examining the character of Humbert, played by Jeremy Irons. Lyne attempts to explain Humbert’s obsession with Lolita (Dominique Swain) by forcing the viewer to experience Humbert’s fixation and growing madness by using jarring jump cuts and uncomfortable close-ups, creating a dizzying effect. The dramatic and emotional music adds to the overwhelming nature of the film. The movie also makes the viewer see Lolita as Humbert sees her; the camera uses a contrast of slow shots that follow her closely, almost caressing her. These shots show the beauty of this child, giving a lot of attention to her feet (a motif Kubrick also used). In an attempt to explain Humbert’s actions, the film begins with the story of Humbert’s first love at fourteen, which ends tragically when the girl dies. Lolita, the youthful spirit Humbert lost as a child, awakens his inner carefree nature. As Lolita acts recklessly, Humbert grins like the child he so wants to be.
Lyne focuses on this childlike nature of self-indulgence, using motifs such as Lolita’s obscene amount of bright red lipstick. Lyne continues to emphasize Lolita’s youth and immaturity by using images of her constantly chewing bubble gum and playing with her retainer. Both of them, however, are trapped by Humbert’s obsessive sickness: his lack of self-control makes him weak, and Lolita’s manipulative sexual advances are almost a cry for help. With Humbert, Lolita’s sexuality is her only form of power. She is so horrified by her vulnerability that she runs to an even more despicable man: Frank Langella’s terrifying portrayal of Quilty. By exploring Humbert’s psyche, Lyne’s film centers on the darkness of giving into temptation.
In the end, both films must come to terms with the same issue: Humbert’s crime. While in both films, Lolita might appear to have initiated the forbidden romance, the responsibility lies with Humbert to be the adult and prevent the relationship. Both Lyne and Kubrick attempt to understand this unreliable narrator. At the end of Lyne’s film, Humbert claims to regret that he robbed Lolita of her childhood. While this sentiment is not stressed in Kubrick’s film, his film does share something with Lyne’s film: Humbert’s realization that he will always love Lolita, even as she becomes less desirable with age. Even though both films explore different aspects of Nabokov’s novel, both share a deep appreciation for the original source material.