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Lolita (1997)



Reviews and Comments

Adrian Lyne's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name was almost never distributed in the United States -- no major studio wanted to touch this story about a middle aged pedophile. This is understandable but regrettable: we live in times when we are offended by subject matter irrespective of its context. This bleak tragedy could scarcely be a more vivid exploration of how pedophilia destroys lives. Perhaps the characters are too real to be comfortable to watch. None of the characters are villainized in the traditional sense. The film is too perceptive for that. It gets inside the heads of these characters we'd rather not empathize with. That they have feelings and obsessions we can identify with is horrifying, but it illustrates a harsh point: take one piece out of a healthy, well-adjusted individual and replace it with something warped and twisted, and the whole picture turns ugly.

Stanley Kubrick filmed an adaptation of the novel in 1962, using a screenplay Nabokov himself wrote. I haven't read the novel, but I'm told this 1997 film is more faithful to it than Nabokov's own 1962 screenplay. It can't be more faithful by much: the two films are close to identical in story and structure, the only big difference being Peter Sellers' bizarrely entertaining but distracting left-field portrayal of a minor character. The important differences are in the details: James Mason does a better job playing the pedophile Humbert Humbert in the original, but this film gives Jeremy Irons more room to make the collapse of the character more tangible; for that matter, the Lolita's character arc is served better here as well. The changing times that allow the 1997 more room to address the graphic elements of the theme both help and hurt it. Lyne shows admirable restraint, but somehow the hints and insinuations in the 1962 film make it that much more haunting. Ultimately, Kubrick's film wins: it's a cuttingly ironic morality play with overtones of black comedy that somehow amount to a powerful crystal clear vision of astonishing singularity. This one hurts itself by grounding itself too much in reality: it does what it sets out to do, but it doesn't accomplish more than that.

But it's unfair to discount one film with an unfavorable comparison to another, especially when it's such a close race. The fact is that this is an unsettling but powerful story about characters that do, sadly, exist in the world. It's uncanny how real these characters feel, especially Lolita herself, an unnatural but horrifyingly plausible amalgam of woman and child.

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