Director: Adrian Lyne
Screenwriter: Stephen Schiff
Director of Photography:
Running time: 137 minutes
Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel plays as a farce, with Jeremy Irons headlining as Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged gentleman infatuated with his teenage daughter-in-law, Dolores, aka Lolita. While the problem of paedophilia – or more accurately, hebephilia, the love of children in early puberty – is certainly serious and consequential, the film deliberately undermines its own seriousness. This self-subversion is sometimes funny, but often it is rather pointless fun. No review of Lyne’s film would be complete without reference to the Kubrick adaptation in 1962, and I shall come back to such a comparison later in this review.
We all know the story of Lolita. Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) arrives in New England and prepares to teach French at the university. He moves in with Charlotte Haze, a widow, and her teenage daughter Lolita (a sexually assertive Dominique Swain), with whom he proceeds to fall head over heels in lust.
But the story, as presented by Lyne, is both more complicated and less interesting. Lolita, who is supposed to be around fourteen years old, looks much older. She has a sexual confidence that is lacking in any other female character in the film, save perhaps her mother, and enjoys manipulating Humbert to the point of locking lips with him barely thirty minutes in the film. At the same time, Humbert, who is quite indecisive and weak, allows himself to be dominated by the little nymphomaniac dominatrix whom he first sees in the garden, lying under the sprinklers on the grass, flipping through a magazine, her loose-fitting dress stuck to her wet skin.
Humbert is presented as a much weaker character than in Kubrick’s film and in a scene at the hospital, late in the film, when Humbert finds that Lolita has left him, his behaviour is as erratic as it is pitiful and one can’t help but laugh at the events on-screen.
According to numerous sources, Lyne’s adaptation is closer to Nabokov’s original novel than Kubrick’s version. Of course, that shouldn’t matter to anybody, since films are judged on their own terms and do not become better because they are closer to a different medium. In terms of character development, the most significant difference from Kubrick’s film is found in the character of Clare Quilty, who, here, cuts a much sillier figure and prances around his mansion in his night robe (which doesn’t always cover him as much as one would have liked).
I would argue that Humbert is taken advantage of by Lolita, who knowingly sexually harasses him for her own entertainment. This fact is the reason why I find one of the film’s final scenes, when Humbert tracks her down, so phony, because Lolita somehow seems to think that she had been wronged by her stepfather and had had no part in her own loss of innocence. Ennio Morricone’s sweeping music also seems completely out-of-place at this point.
The film is comedy, not drama. Sex is as absent as it was in Kubrick’s film, and as far as nudity goes, we get a full frontal of Frank Langella as Clare Quilty – not a pretty sight, trust me. The story has its twists and turns that almost make the whole thing bearable, but the quiet desperation of Humbert in Kubrick’s film has disappeared (because they have sex…off-screen) and, with it, the tension that kept the viewer’s attention.