Cheek to Cheek: the art of adapting Lolita – Part Two



Previously, ‘Cheek to Cheek: the art of adapting Lolita Part One‘ covered Story, The Filmmakers and Sex. This week, Chris Watt continues his intimate look at cinema’s most notorious love story. Beginning with…


Context and Character

In Kubrick’s version, Mason is sublime. It’s the sort of role that was tailor made for an actor of his talents. That playful, gorgeous voice, the way he moves, precisely, confidently. The smile that hides a thousand sins. It’s almost a companion piece to his work in Nicholas Ray’s film, Bigger Than Life, in which a seemingly decent man unravels, revealing an inner turmoil of desperation and violence.

Jeremy Irons, meanwhile, plays the tragedy. His Humbert is a romantic anti-hero, of sorts, no less morally repugnant, yet given a lot more leeway with the audience. Irons is wonderful here and, to his credit, plays Humbert with the two sides of the coin, both charming and loathsome. More comfortable when playing tragedy and malevolence (no surprise given that he won an Oscar for playing Claus Von Bulow), the later scenes, in which Humbert’s paranoia and jealousy start to creep under his skin, allow the actor to reveal the potential violence that bubbles beneath his prim and proper surface. Juxtaposed with the earlier scenes, as he tries to adjust to American life, and he looks about as comfortable as a bag of gravel spilled in a shoe factory.

An important distinction between the two film versions, are in the structure of Humbert’s dilemma.

Kubrick never mentions the character of Anabelle in his film. He leaves Humbert’s motivations, his background, and his inner psychology ambiguous. It’s up to the audience to decide if he is a monster, or a madman. In doing this, he allows the story to have something of a twist, or sting, in the tail. Seeing Lolita again, for the first time in many years, the audience realises that Humbert’s intentions were far from simple lustful perversion, but that he did truly love this girl.

Lyne’s film maintains this stance, even quoting directly from the novel;

“She could have withered and faded, and I wouldn’t have cared.”

And yet, having already been privy to the tragedy from Humbert’s childhood, his confession of love comes as little surprise to us. Lyne may have maintained that context makes his dilemma more powerful, but for those in the audience who dislike being spoon fed our morality, the ambiguous nature of Kubrick’s ending is far easier to defend, and certainly more dramatically satisfying, as he dares the audience to make up its own mind about Humbert, and judge accordingly.

Kubrick’s film was also more playful, particularly with language, from the name of the Summer Camp that Lolita attends, and which Humbert liberates her from (Camp Climax?’), to delicious wordplay in the dialogue;

“You touch me and I go as limp as a noodle, it scares me.”

“Yes I know the feeling.”

In terms of performance, in Lyne’s version, Melanie Griffith gets the worst end of it. How can one possibly compete with Shelley Winters’ original portrayal of Charlotte? A woman so exuberantly funny, and yet garishly tiresome.

In Winters’ hands, Charlotte was more than a match for Humbert’s machinations. Blissfully unaware of his intentions for her daughter, she sees not a predator, but a father figure for her little girl, and a potential husband number two for herself. From her dance moves, to her put-on airs and graces, Winters gives the ’62 film an energy that, once her character throws herself in front of a car, the film feels the lack of.

Griffth plays Charlotte every bit the bored housewife, clinging to Humbert in a last ditch, desperate attempt to be bourgeois, but you get the feeling that the actor had her wings clipped. The Griffith who lit up Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild would be welcome in this environment, a woman out of place, out of time, ready to cause trouble.

Lolita herself, is perhaps the biggest bone of contention within either adaptation of the novel.

Sue Lyon plays her with a knowing sense of her own sexuality, a girl wise beyond her years, and certainly without a hint of virginity. Dominique Swain, meanwhile, gives Lolita a bratty edge and isn’t afraid to play it nasty. But there is an underlying naivete to her, and a childish arrogance, which was missing from Lyon’s portrayal, in which Lolita always seemed in control, more than aware that she had Humbert wrapped around her finger.

Lyne’s version of the character allows Swain enough room to play Lolita as a manipulator, but also a typical teenager, something Kubrick’s film never seems too interested in. It’s a sign of the times, certainly. No film made in the early 60s could have done justice to Nabokov’s book and its many complicated layers.

The only true constant in either version, is the character of Clare Quilty, the TV play write, who haunts both Humbert, but also the film. His phantom-like presence is the final piece of the story’s many puzzles, both the biggest threat to Humbert and, more importantly, Lolita, but also the secret driving force behind the plot. Played by Peter Sellers and Frank Langella respectively, Quilty is perhaps the most twisted and perverted character in the story. He preys on Lolita, long before Humbert enters the frame, and is the real puppet master behind her later manipulations. He’s an interesting character in the sense that he also reinforces the idea of Humbert being sympathetic. It’s an old storyteller trick, the antagonist and protagonist, if you will. No matter how twisted we may perceive Humbert to be, he’s nothing compared to this guy. It’s a wonderfully complicated idea, crafted to deliberately wrong foot the reader/audience.

Kubrick takes that idea and runs with it, casting a man known for comedic caricatures, and therefore blurring the lines, making him seem sinister, but buffoonish. Lyne, meanwhile, gives Quilty limited screen time, keeping him, at times literally, in the shadows. Langella plays him dangerous and hints at bi-sexuality. Sellers, meanwhile, steals the Kubrick film at every given moment, his genius for crafting multiple characters making Quilty a chameleon, easily adapting to any environment. A bogeyman awaiting the right moment to strike.


Style plays its part as well, of course.

As with all of Kubrick’s films, the visual style was very much focused on the ‘iconic’. The image of Sue Lyon, sucking on her lollipop, from behind heart shaped sunglasses, carries with it not just the memory of a cinematic classic, but has now become a part of the pop culture, the implied playful sexuality now far removed from the story of a child who is molested, and turned into as much a fashion statement as a selling tactic.

Not that this is the film maker’s fault. Kubrick allowed his instincts to craft his visual style, whereas, ironically, Lyne tends to pay homage or reference to the ’62 film, therefore only reinforcing Kubrick’s work as influential within the culture.

A vicious circle.

Take both director’s treatment of the scene in which Humbert and Lolita share their first kiss.

In Kubrick’s film, Humbert stands at the hallway bannister, as Lolita runs up the stairs, about to be sent off to summer camp. She ascends into his arms, yet the embrace feels more paternal, at least in her body language. Within Lyne’s version, however, there is an odd push pull to the same moment. The camera seems to rapidly move away from Humbert as he prepares himself for her arrival. Where Sue Lyon’s movements are graceful, Dominique Swain’s are clumsy, fast and childlike, before she launches into Humbert’s arms, in slow motion and plants a long sensual kiss on his lips. The Ennio Morricone music swells, caught up in a seemingly misjudged romantic moment. And yet, within Humbert’s own mind, this would seem appropriate. Irons plays Humbert as a romantic, revelling in the tragedy of his situation, at once child like and cunning, while Mason plays him with a wry sense of the ridiculousness of his predicament, a smile of understatement never far from his lips.

Of course, homage or not, there are some wonderful visuals flourishes in Lyne’s film. The eroticised image of Lolita, in particular, drenched by the sprinklers in her garden, is countered beautifully when she opens her mouth to reveal a smile of gnarled metal and plastic from her retainer.

Pure cinematic storytelling.

Lyne’s visual style is nostalgic, a hint of Norman Rockwell, a truly European aesthetic, while Kubrick’s is a nightmarish play on the rock music, bubblegum culture of the post war US, with a dash of his own film noir roots in how he plays with light and shadow. It’s interesting to note that Kubrick shot his film in black and white, at a time when large, colourful spectacle (of which you could count his own Spartacus as one) was dominating the big screen. It’s a stylistic flourish of great significance. After all, the human condition is a constant war between yin and yang.

It is important to note that neither film version is anything remotely like the book. The book is certainly more detailed in its treatment of Humbert’s past, and in his fixation on young girls. It is more explicit, more detailed, and certainly more acerbically witty than either film.

This is perhaps the dichotomy of the problem. One film maker plays the comedy, the other the tragedy, and both film makers try to have their cake and eat it.

The Old and the New

What neither film maker manages to nail, however, is the sense of Lolita as a victim. In either version, she is both a dervish and a brat, the seducer and the seduced. Although, to Lyne’s credit, he never lets us forget that Lolita is a child, prone to outburst, tears and tantrums.

Lyne’s picture is at its worst in its cloying sense of emotion. The director is so desperate to make you feel something, to the extent that he allows Humbert’s fate to have a certain dignity, playing him off as a softer alternative to Quilty’s abhorrent monster of a pervert.

His film stays faithful to the book’s end, in which we learn that Humbert died in prison, while Lolita died a few months later during childbirth. It provides an almost hard to swallow element, in which Humbert and Lolita’s fates were almost destined to intertwine.

In fact, it almost feels as if it lets Humbert off the hook.

Kubrick’s picture ends similarly, but significantly jettisons any mention of Lolita’s fate. This, of course, keeps Humbert’s destiny singular, but more importantly, it adds a bitter irony. Humbert’s undoing by a man just like him, whether he would admit to it, or not.

Kubrick is not pulling at our emotions as Lyne does. He knows there is no need.

One could argue that this is Humbert’s story and therefore such a perspective is not necessary, but it gets one to ponder another idea: Could this story be told in a contemporary setting?

Recently, we had a modern retelling of the Stephen King story of Carrie. Here was a golden opportunity to update and enhance a story already firmly locked in the 70s in most peoples memories. What, after all, could be more ripe for dissection than the concept of bullying in the digital age? And yet, the update, much like Lyne’s picture, leaned too much on the memory of the earlier version, which had been so memorably rendered by Brian DePalma, and didn’t have enough ambition to be its own incarnation.

Given the numerous new elements of the modern world (social media in particular), not to mention the frightening sense one gets that the sexualization of children continues at an alarming rate, in pop culture, fashion and beyond, it would seem that a modern adaptation of Lolita is just waiting to happen.

But you also get the sense that no one would touch it.

Love it or loathe it, Nabokov’s book remains a difficult icon of 20th century literature, whose aftershock still reverberates in our society. To this day, it’s near impossible to read a copy of the book in public without at least one raised eyebrow.

As Humbert would have it;

“The poison was in the wound, you see. And the wound wouldn’t heal.”

In the end, it’s up to us, the audience, to make up our own minds, in much the same way as we must with the character of Humbert, as to which is the truest adaptation of Lolita. One gets the sense that in the case of Nabokov’s greatest work, you’re safer sticking with the source.

Not that Nabokov ever played it safe.

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