Lolita is a 1997 French-American drama and a cinematic adaption of the novel of the same name, originally written in English by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955 and then later translated into Russian. The cinematic adaption was written by Stephen Schiff (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, True Crime) and directed by Adrian Lyne, a British film director best known for directing films that specifically focus on stories and characters deeply involved in sexual tension. Lyne’s version of the novel is the second cinematic rendition of Lolita, where a 1962 version had been created by Stanley Kubrik, whose film was a comedic drama and varied greatly in both narrative and tone from the original version. When you subscribe to one of these TWC Plans you can watch several different versions of this movie on Youtube.
Like its source material, the cinematic adaption follows the narrative of Humbert Humbert (in this film, played by Jeremy Irons) and his sexual relationship with the underage Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Dominique Swain). Melanie Griffith plays Charlotte Haze, while Frank Langella plays Clare Quilty, both supporting roles to the overall narrative of this version of the story.
Given its controversial themes (primarily rape, adultery and sex with a minor), the film’s director had the enormous and nearly impossible task of finding an American distributor that would pick up and air the film. After some difficulty, the film was picked up by the cable network Showtime in the United States, and released theatrically by the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1997. While the performances of Irons and Swain moved and impressed audience members and critics alike and the film itself was praised for remaining true to its source material, Lolita was only met with moderately mixed reviews, bordering on average.
Heart & Soul
While the film follows much of the original novel’s plotlines and remains true to its source material, many critics felt that the film’s director had a limited understanding of Nabokov’s story, and failed to do the novel any actual justice. Furthermore, the sharper and darker aspects of the film were oftentimes completely overlooked or romanticized in a fashion that allowed the audience members to see Humbert not as a hateful, cowardly individual, but one who’s simply overtaken by love. In this regard, of course, the film greatly differs from Nabokov’s original version of Humbert Humbert who, while broken and hung up on the idea of an old love who died at so young an age, also understands that he is a terrible, vicious creature. Lyne’s film robs Humbert of that humbling and constant realization of the character.
James Taylor, a writer and critic for the Salon Media Group, when commenting on the differences between the original version and film adaption of Lolita wrote, “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.” This of course stems, once again, from Lyne’s failure to fully understand the art that is Nabokov’s masterpiece. The film’s Humbert Humbert is cold, plotting and a little on the violent side, but never out of the meticulous calculation that Nabokov presented in his novel. This new Humbert acts out of desperate helplessness, flailing and screaming instead of masterfully guiding the events of the story.
Within the setting of the novel, Humbert, narrating the events of the story as reliably as he can, begs the audience to understand that he is not particularly proud of what he’s done to Lolita. In essence, of course, he’s robbed her of her childhood, of the very thing that endeared her to him the first place to appease his own selfish needs. In the film, however, it’s Lolita who initiates their sexual relationship after Humbert ultimately fails to enact his original plan. This simple role reversal changes Humbert from a man acting out his selfish desires to a man who engages in a morally and socially frowned upon relationship, instead. Lolita is no longer the story of a man acting and forcing his will upon a young girl in order to appease his childhood desires, but instead, the story of a girl who finds herself through various sexual encounters.
On the other hand, Lyne’s adaption of Lolita does give audiences a very powerful glimpse into the mind of Humbert Humbert and his madness. Although the story is oftentimes banned and highly controversial in all forms, Lyne manages to create an entirely different aspect of controversy that hadn’t previously touched upon. Unreliable though he was in the novel, Humbert’s desires are never hidden from audiences. In the film adaption, this proves an even truer statement. Because of Lyne’s focus on a different aspect of the story, he manages to create Humbert’s Lolita for audience members to see—she is not just a child, an underage girl. She is erotica and sexual desire in motion. In this version, Humbert’s madness is made real and tangible in the form of Lolita, and there’s no denying his obsession or desire. Instead of being appalled by his lusting after this girl, we are given a very clear understanding of the source of these feelings and we are no longer outsiders looking in and judging. Instead, we have become part of the madness.
When Lolita was released to the theaters, it was met with mixed but generally positive critical reviews overall. On Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes alike, the film only scored averagely, receiving a 46/100 and 67% rating respectively. Overall, critics and audience members tended to enjoy certain aspects of the film, if not the overall movie itself. Most commonly praised were the performances by Irons and Swain, while Melanie Griffith’s performance was admonished for being lackluster and unappealing. James Berardinelli of ReelReviews was specifically critical of Griffith’s performance, claiming the film was immediately better upon her departure. He went on to say praise the film: “Lolita is not a sex film; it’s about characters, relationships, and the consequences of imprudent actions. And those who seek to brand the picture as immoral have missed the point. Both Humbert and Lolita are eventually destroyed—what could be more moral? The only real controversy I can see surrounding this film is why there was ever a controversy in the first place.”
Because of the difficulty that Lyne faced when trying to find a distributor, and its subsequently short time spent in theaters, Lolita did not actually qualify for any awards or nominations for that year. Additionally, Lolital took home just under $19,500 on its opening weekend, and only grossed a total of $1.1 million on a $62 million budget.