Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA/France, 1997. Guild, Lolita Productions, Pathé. Screenplay by Stephen Schiff, based on the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Cinematography by Howard Atherton. Produced by Mario Kassar, Joel B. Michaels. Music by Ennio Morricone. Production Design by Jon Hutman. Costume Design by Judianna Makovsky. Film Editing by David Brenner, Julie Monroe. National Board of Review Awards 1998.
Vladimir Nabokov’s famously controversial novel received screen treatment once before when Stanley Kubrick adapted it in 1962. This time around the film version is, thanks to a more relaxed atmosphere of censorship, much more faithful to the source material, though given the incredible reaction it received upon completion of production it appears that the story has not lost its power to provoke. Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as the stylishly European Humbert Humbert, who arrives in the hamlet of Ramsdale and takes up residence with crass Mrs. Haze (Melanie Griffith, also a dead-on choice) and her sexy 14 year-old “nymphet” daughter (Dominique Swain). Humbert falls immediately in love/lust with the young girl, whose sexuality is just budding and couldn’t be more lethal, so much so that he marries her mother in order to be close with her. Circumstances eventually get him cozy with the object of his devotion, but it isn’t long before he realizes that a fantasy once fulfilled becomes a thing of banality and dread. Adrian Lyne does a terrific job of sticking to the narrative while injecting much visual style into this version, announcing ripe sensuality at every turn and getting us almost as far into Humbert’s perspective as the novel does. The source of its controversy is not just its having paedophilia as a subject matter, but in using that subject as an opportunity to sympathetically explore a protagonist’s greatest passion; you’re less uncomfortable with an older man getting it on with a teenage girl and much more put off by the fact that you find it so damn sexy. Nothing can take the place of Nabokov’s fantastic prose (which is even more dangerous, in the novel Lolita is only 12), but there’s a very good effort made here in the visual telling of the tale (the attempt to include Nabokov’s words as narration isn’t quite as successful).