Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" is too timid and tasteful to be very good, but it's still the target of censors and hysterics.

Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Americans wanting to see Adrian Lyne's new film version of "Lolita" this spring are in roughly the same position as the Americans who wanted to read Nabokov's novel when it was first published more than 40 years ago -- you have to go to Europe to do it. So I left for London two weeks ago, with decidedly mixed feelings.

When I first heard that Adrian Lyne was filming "Lolita," I swore that I wouldn't cross the street to see it, much less the Atlantic. "Lolita" is my favorite novel, and I had no desire to see what the director of "Nine 1/2 Weeks," "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal" would do when he got his sleazy mitts on it. But, as every major American movie studio refused to release Lyne's "Lolita," it angered me that I wasn't even going to have the choice. A week before I went to London, Showtime announced that it would premiere the film in America in August. That's a gutsy move and one that Showtime should be praised for, but the political and cultural controversy around the film remains galling.

It's virtually unheard of for every major American movie studio to refuse to distribute a major movie made by a name director with name stars. The studios would like to paint the movie's fate as the result of a business decision pure and simple: "Lolita" couldn't earn enough profits to make up for the pressure they'd have to face from the government or watchdog groups. But when the studios' refusal to release a film prevents the public from seeing it at all, the effect is no different from censorship -- and more insidious because there's no avenue of legal recourse. The studios can't be blamed for creating today's cultural climate; we have to take the rap for that.

"You cannot divorce a work of art from the cultural climate in which it locates itself," wrote Paul Vallely in a craven piece in London's Independent newspaper, arguing that "Lolita" could act as a dangerous incitement to pedophilia. Vallely goes on to list the usual horrors: the children killed in Belgium's pedophile ring, child porn on the Internet, the Ramsey murder. He was almost as hysterical as London's tabloid Daily Mail, which screamed, "Perverts will flock to this travesty." On one point, though, Vallely is right. Lyne's "Lolita" cannot be divorced from the society that produced it. However, that moment seems defined less by violence directed at children (which, sadly, is nothing new) than by a terror of acknowledging that sexuality plays any part in childhood at all.

Our particular cultural climate has produced urban myths -- like the unsupported belief that a chain of Satanic cults engages in ritual child abuse -- and legislation like the Child Pornography Protection Act. Currently under review in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the CPPA defines child pornography as "any visual depiction ... that is or appears to be of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct." Pay attention to that language -- "that is or appears to be." Under that definition, child pornography isn't just the stuff that is already illegal -- actual child pornography -- but any movie or TV show with a sex scene that includes an underage actor, or even an adult actor merely playing an underage character. In other words, "child pornography" would be extended to include the bedroom scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in "Romeo + Juliet," the scene of Tom Hanks fondling Elizabeth Perkins' breast in "Big," the episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in which Buffy sleeps with Angel and "The Tin Drum," which Oklahoma police, citing the CPPA, seized from the homes of several people who had rented it last year.

Ironically, Lyne and his screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, have made a film that, in an odd but crucial way, feels right at home in this climate. For all of their vaunted (and, it turns out, false) fidelity to Nabokov, Lyne and Schiff have made a pretty, gauzy "Lolita" that replaces the book's cruelty and comedy with manufactured lyricism and mopey romanticism. Lionel Trilling observed that "Lolita is about love ... Almost every page sets forth some explicit erotic emotion or some overt erotic action and still ... it is about love." The twist is that Humbert's pedophilia makes it easier to see love's constant potential for possessiveness and monomania. Nabokov achieves rapture without denying Humbert's ruthlessness. But he never slights Humbert's bliss, either, and he never, from the first incantatory utterance of her name, tries to keep us from sharing a taste of that bliss. Just as Humbert drugs Lolita with sleeping pills, Nabokov drugs his reader with narcotic descriptions of his nymphet's brown skin and musky, tomboy odor. The moralist denies that intoxicant; the artist, the sensualist, can't. Humbert's rapture is both a parody of the artist creating in solitude and a celebration of the glories that solitude brings forth. Nabokov might be asking if life is too high a price to pay for art.

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It's hard to tell whether Lyne is uncomfortable with that unresolvable tension or if it simply doesn't occur to him. Whatever the reason, he and Schiff have turned Humbert's passion into a willowy new version of the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Their "Lolita" is a film of soft light, flocks of birds taking flight, lush, melancholy music (composed by Ennio Morricone, and part of what's wrong with the film, it's beautiful on its own terms). This love, we're meant to understand, is poetic and delicate, aimed at the heart, rather than the loins or the funny bone. A flashback at the beginning portrays the 14-year-old Humbert's doomed summer dalliance with Annabel -- shot in the yellowy, dust-moted sunshine of David Hamilton photographs -- and sets him up as a brokenhearted romantic. From the moment the adult Humbert (Jeremy Irons) lays eyes on Lolita (Dominique Swain), the reincarnation of his Annabel, he is a man helpless in the grip of a renewed passion.

It's a wrongheaded reading of the book, but not a stupid one. Lyne and Schiff are pursuing a strain of the novel that many have ignored: its tenderness. The opening sequence -- a dazed, blood-speckled Humbert, fresh from the murder of Quilty, calmly swerving his station wagon from one side of the road to the other while he caresses a bobby pin of Lolita's -- makes you think that they might pull it off. We get to see Humbert in his rare moments of ease with Lolita, regaling her with stories while lolling lazily in a porch swing; the rapt, nearly shy smile he gives her while she sits in his lap showing him how she can wiggle her chin. And later, the movie gives us Humbert's regret, the anguish that comes over him when he looks at the pregnant Lolita, "the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo" of the girl child he had adored, and realizes he still loves her; and his climactic moment of epiphany as he listens to the sound of children playing and knows "that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord."

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.

There are some good touches: Humbert seeing Charlotte's still smoldering cigarette after hearing she's been killed; the travel brochures stuck in the roof slats of Humbert's old "Woody" station wagon; Lolita's exit after kissing Humbert for the first time, leaning backwards into the frame of an open doorway then jerking herself forward in the manner of a vaudeville comic being given the hook. But, other than Irons, the cast members don't come alive as characters. Melanie Griffith's Charlotte Haze is shrill without approaching the touching, desperate neediness Shelley Winters brought to the Kubrick version. Frank Langella is stuck with the task of playing Quilty as he is written in the novel -- but you can't play what was essentially a literary joke. And though Dominique Swain tries, and though she's lovely to look at, she hasn't been allowed Lolita's gum-cracking energy, her petulant, peevish sullenness. She's best in throwaway moments, wiggling her long, monkey toes, singing in a (literal) vibrato while lying on a motel bed and feeding quarters into the Magic Fingers and the heart-cracking way she calls Humbert "honey" in their final encounter.

Coming out of the movie theater in London, I overheard a woman asking a friend, "Why won't they show it in America?" Having just seen the same demure, cosmetically attractive film, I understood her puzzlement. How to explain that in America, the very notion of "Lolita" seems more daring than it did 40 years ago? Reading about this film and the renewed comment it has provoked on the novel, I haven't been able to escape the conclusion that even people who profess to admire Nabokov's book would be a lot more comfortable if it wasn't about pedophilia, or at least if Humbert's obsession were entirely devoid of beauty. Of course Nabokov wrote a moral novel, but to speak of it that way feels like a falsification, an admission of unease. It's only a few short steps from protestations of the novel's morality to Catherine MacKinnon's remark (reported by Katie Roiphe) that "Lolita" is a book about the tragedy of child abuse.

I've no doubt that the American critics who've praised the film are sincere, just as I don't doubt it's easier to decry censorship when you can say a masterpiece is being suppressed. But that whole aura of respectability is part of what makes this "Lolita" such a benumbed affair in the first place. That Adrian Lyne's film is an honest failure doesn't make the way he and the film have been treated any less repulsive, or make it any less insulting that, in the name of protecting children, American moviegoers are being treated like children (as was Lyne, who had to have a lawyer present in the editing room to vet the final cut). All Lyne has done is made a bad film. Last time I checked, that wasn't a crime.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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