On Sunday I watched the controversial 1997 movie version of Lolita, starring Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella. The film is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous book of the same name. It’s a long film, about 2 1/4 hours.
Whilst I was broadly familiar with the central theme (middle-aged man falls in love with pre-teen girl) I hadn’t read the book nor seen either of the two films (the other Lolita film is Stanley Kubrick’s, from 1962).
The book was written in English in 1953 by Nabokov, in America, but he couldn’t find a US publisher. Instead it was published in Paris in 1955. The initial print run of 5,000 soon sold out but there were no substantial reviews. Graham Greene described it as “one of the best novels of 1955” but the editor of the Sunday Express (London) called it “the filthiest book I have ever read”. The British Home Office banned entry of the book into Britain and the French government then banned it for two years. The novel was published in Britain at the end of the 50s, but even this brought down the publishing house that published it (Weidenfeld & Nicolas).
It was published in the US in 1958 and went on to become a best-seller. Today it is considered one of the finest novels in the English language and is almost always rated in the top 100 books of the 20th century.
Enough about the background to the book, which I haven’t read (yet!). The film was exquisitely executed – both the acting and the cinematography. Irons powerfully portrays Humbert Humbert – the middle aged man consumed by his obsessive, illicit, illegal love for Lolita. He narrates the entire film in the first person which works very well.
Humbert – a literary scholar – first meets Lolita when he rents a room in New England. He doesn’t like the property and prepares to make excuses to leave. But then he sees, and becomes transfixed by, a 12 year old girl lying on the grass, under a sprinkler – her scantily clad clothes stuck to her. She is the daughter of the landlady and is precocious and full of life. She is Dolores (aka Lolita, Lola, Lo and L – played by actress Dominique Swain in her début film role).
Lolita’s mother – Charlotte Haze, a widow, is a shallow, forgettable woman, herself having fallen in love with Humbert whom she views as a suave, intellectual European. When Lolita is sent away to a long summer camp, Charlotte professes her love for Humbert and, though he obviously doesn’t love her, he marries her as a way of staying close to Lolita.
Keeping a locked drawer in his desk that his wife becomes curious about – she breaks into it one day when he’s out, reading his journal in which he writes about his burning desire for Lolita. His wife is consumed with grief and anger and on confronting him, he tries to brush it off and deny it. She commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a car.
After a momentary pause for grief, Humbert then heads to the summer camp, picks Lolita up and they then travel to a smart country hotel. A strange guest is seen with a white dog who Lolita briefly interacts with, though his face is concealed.
Though Humbert had originally booked a twin room, there is a mistake with the booking and they have to share a double room, much to Lolita’s incredulity. Humbert and Lolita share a double bed and his obsessional passion for her is consummated (consensually, I should perhaps add; possibly she even made the first move, I don’t recall). She admits he isn’t her first as she’d had a relationship with a boy at summer camp. His obsession and love for her continue to intensify, though it isn’t particularly reciprocated as, throughout, one always gets the feeling she can take or leave him. She certainly doesn’t love him.
They leave the hotel and embark on a long journey across America, moving from state to state, motel to motel. Humbert continues to bribe her in exchange for sexual favours along the way. She is childlike, always eating gum, jaw breakers, etc. She frequently cries, especially when he tells her that her mother is dead.
Finally they settle in New England and he takes up another teaching job. In what can only be described as black comedy, the locals believe he is a doting father as he is very protective of ‘his daughter’, not letting her attend after-school club or mix much with other children. The school’s governess and her Catholic priest colleague even suggest that Humbert must educate his ‘daughter’ on the facts of life!
Humbert attempts to retain tight control of Lolita but he relents in exchange for sexual favours. He ups her pocket money to $2 a week and lets her join the after-school clubs and the school play she wants to take part in. As is obvious, he is completely obsessed with her and she has power over him, to an extent.
Lolita rehearses for the play and the strange man who’d been at the hotel is there again, watching, in the background. His name is Clare Quilty and he is an affluent, influential playwright (who it will transpire has a penchant for home-made pornographic films involving minors).
Before the opening night of the production, Humbert and Lolita have a huge row and decide to leave town. Again, they wander aimlessly from state to state, but this time Humbert feels that they’re being followed. As they travel west, Lolita gets ill and has to be taken to hospital. Humbert checks her into the hospital with minor ailments and she is looked after by the hospital staff. He wants to stay with her but the doctors say it’s unnecessary. He retires to a hotel close by. When he goes to pick her up the next day, he is told by the staff that she was checked out ‘by her uncle’. Humbert is absolutely beside himself and goes completely off the rails – a man possessed. He looks high and low but is unable to find her. His world has collapsed.
He eventually returns to New England, to a teaching job, and time passes. In 1952 he gets a letter out of the blue from Lolita, now 17. She is married to a local man, is pregnant and living in poverty. She asks for money. Humbert travels to her with the intention of killing the man he believes abducted her.
But it turns out that Lolita’s husband isn’t the abductor – it was Clare Quilty. He’d taken her to New York and tried to use her in his pornographic films. She’d resisted and he’d then thrown her out.
Humbert begs her to return with him. She has no interest in doing so and tells him as such – though she takes the proffered money. She would rather live in poverty, with her husband and their unborn child – than ever go back to him; she has no feelings for him. Humbert is devastated and broken and now leaves her for good.
Finally, Humbert heads to Quilty’s mansion to confront him and to make him pay for snatching Lolita from him. Quilty (played by Frank Langella), living what appears to be a decadent and excessive lifestyle in sumptuous surroundings, says that he cannot remember her. He’s in his nightgown. Humbert draws the gun but still Quilty refuses to take him seriously, until Humbert starts to shoot. There is then a dramatic scene as Humbert shoots him once through the chest but Quilty rises and runs through the corridors of his mansion. Humbert follows and shoots him again. Quilty makes it to a room with a grand piano where he falls to the piano stool and starts playing. Again he is shot and this time he crawls over to his bed, now covered in blood. He shouts at Humbert to get out. Humbert shoots him at close range, through the heart, finally killing him.
The next scene is of Humbert swerving along a country road, tailed by police cars. He has a lot of blood on him and appears to have been drinking. The police finally catch up with him.
Just before the credits roll an epilogue appears. It states that Humbert died of coronary thrombosis upon finishing his manuscript in prison, in November. Lolita died giving birth to a stillborn girl on Christmas Day, 1952.
The film is a powerful portrayal of possession and obsession, more so than love. The subject matter is, of course, taboo. But Humbert hasn’t fallen for Lolita just because she is under-age, but because of who she is in her entirety. Of course, that doesn’t make it right, as nothing can ever make that situation right. She has been robbed of her innocence. Yes, she was insouciant and flirty from the beginning – but she is a child. Most adults have weaknesses – especially where lust is concerned – but the vast majority are moral and responsible enough to keep these in check. Humbert’s execrable actions are therefore largely down to both his personal weakness and his shocking arrogance that he believes he can be so brazenly unaccountable and self-indulgent in his actions – above morality.
I don’t honestly believe the central tenet of this novel and film is about child abuse. That is the canvas on which deeper, more primitive themes are explored.
Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, proposes that Lolita is an elaborate metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov’s childhood (though Nabokov states in his Afterword that he “[detests] symbols and allegories”). Amis interprets it as a story of tyranny told from the point of view of the tyrant. “Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies”, he says. “Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny”. Source: Wikipedia.
This made a lot of sense to me.
Most of all it is the obsessional element that resonates. At least once in your life you will come across someone with whom you may become obsessed. If you’re lucky you might move on, but often you simply can’t move on. Try as you might you can’t ever fully make the break. You want, jealously, to possess another. You know full well that the person isn’t worthy of your devotion, but even this knowledge doesn’t fully quench the fire. Ashes to ashes? Dust to dust? No. Somewhere far beneath – the coals keep smouldering. It is irrational. It is the human condition with its myriad flaws.
I’m now looking forward to reading the book. Having said that, I’m not sure how I’d feel about reading it on the tube. To lots of people, especially people who don’t read or know much about literary fiction (I’m talking ‘man on street’) – the term ‘Lolita’ is synonymous with that which is illicit and taboo in a sexual context. I will read it, though. And I’m also looking forward to seeing the 1962 Stanley Kubrick version and actually, I want to re-watch the 1997 Adrian Lyne version as I think it’s the kind of film that rewards several viewings to get to grips with all the references and subtleties. It was a very good film indeed.
Note: I drew quite heavily on Wikipedia for this post.
All of my blog entries on Lolita: