Lolita (1962)
July 13, 2015 1:30 PM - Subscribe

"How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" asked the film's notorious promotional material, as its young star peers out over the top of her cherry-red, heart-shaped glasses. An excellent question! Stanley Kubrick's 1962 take on Vladimir Nabokov's novel became an iconic film; by turns intimate, sardonic, comical, and tragic. By comparison, Adrian Lyne's 1997 version promised to be truer to the source material, but in spite of praiseworthy performances by its leads, it imploded at the box office.

It is interesting to contrast the two films, and their respective approaches to the challenging source material -- it may reveal not only differences in directorial approach, but shifting mores in Hollywood, different philosophies around censorship, and the evolution of society's complicated ongoing relationship with youth and sexuality.
posted by churl (6 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Huh. I'm surprised Lolita hasn't elicited more comments. I mean, it's Lolita! How has this not started a classic FanFare flamewar yet?

I love Kubrick and really admired the novel, but I found Kubrick's adaptation really not very good. The words that come to mind are cutesy and formless, both of which are the exact opposite of how we normally think of Kubrick! That ya-yaaaa song drove me nuts, it seemed like it never quit. The whole movie had that smirky 1960s "aren't we cheeky?" feel, and the ya-yaaas felt like something out of Benny Hill. And Peter Sellers seemed like he was going off on some Robin Williams-esque improv deal, doing this weirdo character and just mumbling and stuttering forever.

Again, I love Kubrick. He's truly one of the greats. And Peter Sellers was an astonishing talent too! James Mason's terrific, Sue Lyon was very good in her role. The original book is justly acclaimed as a classic. But somehow all of those things together sure as heck didn't work for me! Oy, this movie.

Not that Adrian Lyne is anywhere near Kubrick's league as a filmmaker, but I suspect I'd like his version a lot more. Jeremy Irons was born to play Humbert Humbert, and I get the feeling that Lyne's film is much closer to the book in spirit. Lyne is a very earnest filmmaker, and I just can't see him farting around the way Kubrick did. The whole time I was watching the Kubrick version, I kept waiting for it to just become something like Nabokov's Lolita already. Lyne's version almost has to be better, in that regard.

Looking at Lyne's Wikipedia page, I see that he had quite a run of mediocre but highly successful movies about sex stuff, but he hasn't made a film since 2002. Looking at his CV also made me realize that the "erotic thriller" genre isn't really a thing anymore. Remember when those were all over the place?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:08 AM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

No question Kubrick is the master, but I totally see his Lolita the same way you do -- more Kubrick than Nabokov. You can see why Stephen King feels the way he does about The Shining; if you're close to the source material you might feel a bit betrayed by Kubrick's treatment. The Peter Sellers stuff sometimes seems like it belongs in a different movie entirely. The parts I love about it aren't necessarily parts where the book shines through, but where Kubrick just wants to be Kubrick.

I would recommend checking out the 1997 version, since you're interested. Irons and Swain are perfectly cast, and while not everything about it works -- and Lyne is no Kubrick -- I do think it was unfairly dismissed. The two films' Humbert Humberts would hardly recognize one another.
posted by churl at 10:55 AM on July 14, 2015

I really like Jeremy Irons as an actor in general, but I actually hated the Lyne version - Jeremy Irons' Humbert Humbert is too charming and I think the film whitewashes the horror of the things he does to Lolita.

Nabokov tells the story from Humbert's point of view, daring us to sympathize with him. It's a trap - there are clues throughout the story that if the reader digs a little deeper, will help them discover that Humbert is not a reliable narrator. This is a classic Nabokov move - he sets you up in a weird moral space and prods you to read a little but more closely and to think a little bit more critically. But I think the Lyne version of the film ignores that invitation.
posted by mai at 12:02 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm a huge fan of the book and couldn't get through the Lynne version because I felt like he was treating it uncritically as a love story. As mai says, the book --- especially on first read --- often makes Humbert seem sympathetic, but there are undercurrents that reveal his cruelty and callousness, and I think they're really important, to the extent where not including them undermines the integrity of the work.
posted by Diablevert at 9:22 AM on July 15, 2015

Yeah, I'm a huge fan of the book and couldn't get through the Lynne version because I felt like he was treating it uncritically as a love story.

I think the Lynne version does try to do a sort of boiling-the-frog thing where their relationship gets gradually more upsetting by small increments, until the end where it is clear even to Humbert how wrong it all was. How successfully he pulled that off is definitely in question, but I do think that this intention is on the screen, and is the reason the camera treats their relationship with the gentle romanticism it does at first.

That is to say, what Nabokov did to disarm us against Humbert by making him a charming and witty writer, the film tries to do by making their relationship seem at first to be sweet and sincere -- and in both cases, we are being deliberately set up for an unpleasant re-assessment of the entire thing.
posted by churl at 9:22 PM on July 15, 2015

In the Cut: Lolita (1962 & 1997) [Self-link]
posted by churl at 9:59 PM on July 18, 2015

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