“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,” wrote Charles Taylor for salon.com
in 1998. “You have to go to Europe to do it.
As of this writing (spring 2001), seeing Lyne’s Lolita is less of an undertaking — one simply has to go to Blockbuster, which purchased the U.S. video rights from Showtime in early 1999. Nonetheless the version available at Blockbuster in the United States -- which does not rent ‘NC-17’-rated films, and which has refused to stock certain ‘R’ films (such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) -- is not the version Americans saw on Showtime or during the film’s limited theatrical release, a version which was itself pared down from the version seen during the film’s international release.
The major cut made to the Blockbuster version was the careful editing of a scene which renders actor Frank Langella with mostly-frontal nudity rather than fully-frontal nudity. More cuts were made to the theatrical release of the film, made by Lyne himself with the help an obscenity lawyer, who sat in the cutting-room with him and advised him as to how the film would fit in with the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act. The law, which mostly deals with Internet porn, includes in its definition of pornography any simulated sexual activity involving minors -- even, at least as the lawyer interpreted it, simulated minors. (The Child Pornography Protection Act is, as far as I can tell, currently under constitutional review.) Lyne had been careful throughout filming, placing a pillow on Jeremy Irons’ lap so as to separate him somewhat from 15-year-old actress Dominque Swain, who played his incestuous stepdaughter. He had also used a 19-year-old body double for nude scenes involving the Lolita character -- but because the character was supposed to be 14, those scenes too were taken out of the film.
One nude scene, besides the aforementioned cropped Langella scene, remains in the film. This features Humbert Humbert and Lolita fighting it out in a dark room; there’s nothing erotic about it, and the faces and features are vague in the darkness. The sexual tension between Humbert and Lolita, then, is largely conveyed through vague sensual scenes or symbolic references -- a close-up on Lolita’s chocolate soda as a plump, red marascino cherry is dropped into it, a scene where Swain takes her time eating a banana, another closeup on the gearshift of Humbert’s car. It’s interesting that, 30 years after the studios abandoned the Production Code, filmmakers like Lyne are using “the code behind the code” to full effect.
When Lyne first announced that he wanted to do a second adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious masterpiece, he was met with outrage from pundits of all stripes. The subject matter alone (i.e., pedophilia, which Lyne called “the last taboo”) was enough to raise hairs among fundamentalists who felt Nabokov’s book should never have been written, even if it was one of the greatest novels of the 20th century (according to an arbitrary but widely-circulated list published by the editorial board of the Modern Library, released in close conjunction -- and complete coincidence -- with Lyne’s film; the list ranked Nabokov’s book at #4, just a couple spots behind ‘Ulysses’). Nabokov devotees worried that Lyne would make of the classic a sensational sex thriller, along the lines of his previous works (which included 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction). There was, finally, a third camp of film cultists who felt Stanley Kubrick’s dark, farcical Lolita (released in 1962) could not be outdone.
After reviewing four screenplays for the new ‘Lolita’ -- by James Deardon, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and Stephen Schiff -- Lyne decided to go with Schiff’s script. Schiff had never written a film before, having written about film for a number of years as a critic for The New Yorker and other publications. Upon choosing a script and following the rigors of casting, Lyne took the production on the road -- to New Orleans and Texas -- in order, he said, to film Nabokov’s envisioned roadside America. Nonetheless, this escalated production costs and contributed the film’s already questionable reputation.
Worse was that, when the film was finally released overseas, America found itself in a renewed furor over child abuse (in the wake of the JonBenet Ramsey murder) and taboo sexual relations in general (this was the year Clinton was impeached). The film was largely panned by the international press (and by American reporters who went abroad to see it). The story of Lyne’s attempt to find a U.S. distributor forms a curious parallel to the story of Nabokov’s attempt to find a U.S. publisher for the book, which had been banned in England and had caused a furor in the rest of Europe. Nabokov waited four years before the book was finally published here -- and then by an obscure publishing house known mostly for dime porn titles. Lyne was slightly luckier; Samuel Goldwyn coughed up some money for a brief, limited theatrical release, and shortly thereafter Showtime bought the video rights and showed the film for several months, before the rights were snatched by Blockbuster.
It’s still unclear why the studios were so wary to distribute Lolita. Some reps (or spokespeople twice removed from the studios) told the press that the movie “just wasn’t very good,” and many critics assented. Some were harsher than others: “The problem with the new Lolita is not that it depicts horrible actions, but that it sanitizes and exalts them,” wrote Kevin Steel for Alberta’s Newsmagazine, pointing out that in the book, Humbert is much creepier and less sympathetic, and that Lolita in Nabokov’s vision is not the slut Lyne makes her out to be. It is indeed curious that a 12-year-old survivor of sexual abuse should be transformed to such a vamp in the popular imagination (not just Lyne’s), to the point that “Lolita” is a common tagline for schoolgirl-porn sites on the web, and attempted murder Amy Fisher was dubbed “the Long Island Lolita.” This, along with the controversy surrounding the film, may belie a societal confusion about childhood sexuality and molestation, which Lyne to his credit brings to fore. Swain walks the line between manipulator and manipulated, between consensuality and confusion.
While some critics gushed that ‘Lolita’ was unfairly slighted by the Academy, others were a little less enthusiastic. “Who would’ve thought the most scandalous film of the summer would be this dull?” one web pundit quipped. A reviewer for Christian Spotlight on the Movies (http://www.christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/pre2000/rvu-lolita.html), one of a number of movie-review sites apparently aimed at fundamentalist parents (or at secularists looking for a laugh), “Even after all the controversy it is still hard to believe that this movie was released,” perhaps not realizing that the fundamentalist movement, having organized many well-publicized boycotts of objectionable films and companies, is one of the main forces that keeps films like Lolita from being released. The power of fundamentalist (and, in this case, child-protection) groups is undeniable here, since (having seen Dude, Where’s My Car? in a cineplex full of stoned 13-year-olds) I seriously question that any major studio turns anything down because “it’s just not any good.”