After months of controversy, director Adrian Lyne’s new $58 million theatrical-film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita receives its first American wide-audience airing on cable’s Showtime network. And as it turns out, this venue could not be more fitting: Literal-minded, humorless, and with much rubbing-with-clothes-on sex, this Lolita plays like the most expensive episode of the cable net’s Red Shoe Diaries ever made.

Yes, it’s a nasty, sad little Lolita that Lyne has cooked up, a Lolita that cowers before the morally self-righteous, sexually spooked America of the late ’90s. The story of professor Humbert Humbert’s obsession with the bratty, tarty 14-year-old Dolores Haze—the dolorous Lolita—retains, in the script by Stephen Schiff, many of Nabokov’s scenes, a bit of his prose in the voice-over narration, but little of the sensual satire and tricky tragicomedy that makes the 1955 novel enduringly entrancing. “Lolita has no moral in tow,” Nabokov wrote in his essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” but Lyne’s film has a very heavy one dragging it down: Just Say No to Nymphets.

Humbert is played by Jeremy Irons, who possesses the perfect voice for a Nabokov protagonist—ooh, that aristocratic hauteur, that velvet-cobra murmur! But unfortunately, Irons’ Oscar-winning portrayal of creepy Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune will forever instantly typecast him as a perv in any movie role short of Indiana Jones, and he radiates dour decadence too quickly to dramatize what the book does so well: one man’s slow descent into a hell of shame—”umber and black Humberland.”

Irons’ costar, the Nabokovianly named Dominique Swain, 15 at the time of filming, is more effective as Lolita, although Swain often seems smarter—shrewder—than the smutty-minded dim dish Nabokov created as the ironic object of the cultivated Humbert’s lust. Lyne’s film is good at sketching in the plot: Humbert marries Lo’s mother, Charlotte (a bland Melanie Griffith), to be nearer the child. Charlotte conveniently dies, freeing our stiff stepdaddy to take his young charge on a cross-country jaunt, tailed by another Lolita admirer, the mysterious Clare Quilty (Frank Langella, invariably shot in melodramatic darkness, with thunder rumbling).

Make no mistake: Nabokov knew that what he was writing would provoke people. As much as Tom Clancy or Jackie Susann, he wanted a stormy best-seller, a profitmaker that would free him from teaching. ”That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true,” he wrote. But he also assumed a readership that could separate lucid, lubricious fiction from hoary, how-to nonfiction — something poor Lyne cannot. And so the director of energetic eroto-romps like 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction goes all gauzy and pious on us.

Comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita—with James Mason as Humbert and Peter Sellers as a Quilty far more prominent than Langella’s—are inevitable. But Kubrick wasn’t any gutsier than Lyne: Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd reports that Kubrick wanted “to end the film with Lolita and Humbert married, and with an adult relative’s blessing!”

Having also seen the mercifully short-lived 1981 Broadway version of Lolita, I conclude that this story works only on the page, where the potential kiddie porn is limited to (or unleashed by) one’s imagination, and where the redeeming quality of the author’s writing—since, for hundreds of pages, the novel is about many things other than low lust—is allowed full rein. Nabokov wanted us to experience a demon Humbert in each of us; his Lolita is insinuating. Adrian Lyne, by contrast, has given us a turgid story the slang-loving, alliteration-admiring Nabokov might have called Lolita Lite. C

Lolita (TV Movie - 1997)
  • Movie
  • 137 minutes