“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” This is one of the most recognizable opening lines in all of Western literature. It’s incendiary and scandalous. It’s also off-puttingly lovely. Light and fire, life and loins, lulled together under the name Lolita. In 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel hit Parisian book-stands and struck a chord in the literary elite, praised by Graham Greene and damned by governmental censorship bodies. It took three years for Lolita to hit the American presses, but when it finally graced our shores, it did so with more-than-fashionable aplomb, breaking the one-week sales record set previously by Gone with the Wind.
If money talks, Lolita’s sales numbers shrieked for a film adaptation, even if the subject matter wilted Hays Code censors. With Nabokov’s go-ahead and strapped with Hollywood constraints, Stanley Kubrick took on the challenge. The result in 1962 was grim and satirical, made all the sillier by Peter Sellers’s chameleonic experimental improvisations in the inescapable supporting role of Clare Quilty.
35 years later, Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks) tackled it again. His adaptation showcased the relationship between Humbert and Lolita, shaded by both Humbert’s feelings towards Lolita and the criminal circumstances. As to be expected, controversy over the subject matter swirled the film and intensified to such a point that Lolita (1997) debuted on cable, bypassing the theater entirely.
This controversy continues to pervade any discussion of the 1997 film, in spite of its arguable artistic merits. Mentioning it leads to tut-tuts, pinpointing it as a personal favorite is met with raised eyebrows. In spite of this, women do exist who cite Adrian Lyne’s Lolita as a landmark film for them. I sat down with Diana Drumm, writer and operator of Twitter’s popular Female Film Critics, to present our own oral history of discovering Lolita (1997), honoring its 20th anniversary.
Kristen Lopez: I’d always known of Lolita’s existence as a “naughty book.” The film and book’s history were in the back of my mind, and I was prepared to enter into this smutty world that had a hint of class because it starred Jeremy Irons. For all the preconceived notions I had about the movie’s content, Adrian Lyne crafts a film that’s remarkably tender and, dare I say, romantic in its convictions. It’s a far softer take on Nabokov’s dark cynicism and satire.
Diana Drumm: I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard of Lolita, but I remember the hushed and scandalized tones around it. I caught the movie adaptations on TV as a kid without really getting either of them, but swooning over both James Mason and Jeremy Irons. Being a very pretentious teenager, I stomped into a bookstore and purchased the annotated version of the novel at 16. Later, I stumbled into a senior elective on Nabokov, which blew my mind with the concept of the tricky narrator and sunk my hopelessly teenage heart with beyond-reach romantic nostalgias. I find myself returning to his writing, this novel, and those films, regularly and almost rhythmically, though this may also be in part due to using the Lolita audiobook (narrated by Irons) to read me to sleep in college.
Kristen: I, too, have fond memories of the audiobook. My mother used to work graveyard, and I’d often go with her. She spent many an early morning listening to books on tape, and wisps would inhabit my subconscious while I slept, almost like hypnosis. One morning she listened to Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons, and I woke up not quite the same way.
Diana: As someone else coined years ago, Jeremy Irons is the thinking woman’s pin-up. With his lithe form and slight lisp, there’s an air of the Romantic poet about him while neatly tailored into postmodern garb. He seems both distinct and timeless, jumping from empathetically earnest to seductively sinister with the flick of a grin and the sort of showy ease that comes from a combination of years of training and something innately sublime. It is this quality that sells his Humbert Humbert and the romantic nostalgia of Lyne’s Lolita.
Kristen: It’s hard not to swoon at his totally misplaced declarations of love for Dolores, falling into her clothes, and his eventual utter breakdown when she leaves him. It’s pathetic and creepy, but as a young girl watching it, it was insane to see a grown man reduced to nothing. Of course, seeing this when you’re 10-13 you don’t understand the criminal and mental implications of it all, but it certainly gave me a greater sense of myself.
It’s impossible not to find Dolores’s power seductive while still decrying (and yearning for) Irons. That’s the thing—we wanted Jeremy Irons, not Humbert. Without an actor like Irons—or even James Mason for that matter in the previous iteration—the character would be utterly contemptible, there’d be nothing enticing. If anything, Irons crafts the most insidious and dangerous elements of Humbert’s character no one even thinks about: He’s a good-looking, cultured, sometimes bumbling guy. You’re drawn to him like a fly to a spider.
Diana: In reading the novel, we endow Humbert with certain characteristics to either stomach his actions and general direction of his motives or completely disavow his menace in utter disgust. Both films take for granted that Humbert is writing truthfully that he has good looks, but you can rationalize this choice in that it’s hard enough to sell the overall concept of Lolita, let alone with an ugly, effete, clearly lying protagonist. In Lyne’s film, Irons embodies the most optimistic version of that character: one full of lovelorn yearning rather than fueled by predatory lust.
Whereas the black-and-white Kubrick has the rat-a-tat of Wilder-speak Americana and looks like a ‘50s scandal rag—the sort from which Lolita herself might cut out a shot of a matinee idol and post on her bedroom wall—Lyne’s is amber-tinted with characters fleshed out beyond the words of the novel, but still haze-y (pardon the pun) on the sense of memory and non-memory, what is real and what is imagined. This treatment blurs the line between the hopeful pursuit of misplaced love and the dastardly route to criminal abuse.
Kristen: One of the reasons why the film has endured, and why the small cadre of fans I know who really love it recall it so fondly, is the character of Lolita herself. Keep in mind, Nabokov wrote her to be a fat, ugly little girl with the satirical intent of showing Humbert’s attraction to her youth alone. The ‘97 film hints at this with an additional prologue about Humbert’s lost love, but it’s not reiterated often enough to see it as anything more than an excuse. The ‘60s Kubrick film presented Lo and Dolores as one and the same – a svelte woman who looked older than actress Sue Lyons’s 14-years. There was something unattainable about her that young girls couldn’t understand. Lyne, oddly enough, presents a fantasy for young girls with Dolores’s mouthiness and effervescence.
Maybe because Lolita was remade in the era of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but Dominique Swain’s Dolores was beautiful, naive, shallow, and annoying. All the things I envied about other girls and refused to acknowledge were in myself. She could yell and act childish, but her discovery of her power turns this into a sexual awakening story of a different kind. The film isn’t meant to be told from Dolores’s perspective, but as a young woman in her own state of becoming it was difficult for me not to gravitate to her presence. By seeing the film through her eyes it instantly becomes tragic. Part of the growing up process is putting away childish things, and when Dolores finally casts aside her own Lolita persona (and Humbert), she becomes a woman.
Diana: Sue Lyons looked more like the construction of what the typical heterosexual male mind would find seductive, aged up into womanhood and its accouterments, tied to the taboo of her being underage. Watching her as a kid, she looked too beautiful to be real, and I resented that aspect of her, her precocious elegance. Watching as an adult, I see a teenager dolled-up into an Americanized mini-Bardot with a touch of Lee Remick pizazz rather than the actual child that character is supposed to be.
On the other hand, Dominique Swain’s Lolita felt real, arguably too real. She was a tween who chewed gum for something to do or to be irritating, not to pop seductively at the foreign professor lodging at her house and courting her mother. Her physicality spoke to a messy, spastic awkwardness of those in-between years, often interpreted as “playfulness,” which did not figure into the well-manicured Lyons version.
One moment that sticks with me is Swain’s Lolita with her hair in ties, sitting cross-legged in front of an open icebox and eating berries off of her fingertips. She has a Norman Rockwell air of adorably sloppy ease. Watching her, I catch myself on the realization that Humbert finds this adorable, too. It’s stomach-churning and aggravating, which is presumably the point, but I still keep finding myself revisiting this film and also being seduced by Irons’s Humbert, on whom I have thrust so many attractive qualities due to my own inclinations about the male ideal, which not-so-coincidentally align with the casting.
Kristen: Of course no one is justifying pedophilia, but I’ve spoken to many fans of the ‘97 movie—predominately female—who believe they have to keep their appreciation of the film secret. Much of this has to do with the film’s subject matter, but also the taboo of female sexuality involved within our watching of it. We are stirred by Irons and embraced by the rosy romantic tones in this film and in his Humbert.
It’s also worth noting that we have been conditioned by Hollywood to accept May-December romances onscreen. It’s still common practice to pair actresses with actors 15-20 years older than them. It’s acceptable because the actresses are all over 18, but it continues to perpetuate the idea that men want to flirt with girls who are still flirting with youth and vitality.
With Swain being 14 while filming Lolita, concessions were made regarding her age (her and Irons had pillows in between them during scenes where they were close), but in a bizarre way, this dynamic is not that far of an extension from the typical Hollywood age gap. Whichever way you look, the discussion reeks of hypocrisy towards women: we want women to be sexual, but still socially acceptable.
Diana: The Ivanka conundrum.
Kristen: A recent revisit of Lolita had me thinking of a scene in Little Miss Sunshine where Abigail Breslin’s Olive does a provocative dance during a talent show. The parents and judges are aghast because Olive is being blunt about what everyone is hiding: that little beauty queens are meant to have the pose, looks, and bubbling sexuality of grown women, but it is implied that they’re still little girls. It’s the “look, don’t touch” principle we see women marketed as today.
I find Lyne is influenced more by Emily Bronte than Vladimir Nabokov. This iteration of Lolita, more than the novel and the Kubrick film, is heavily influenced by the ‘30s filmmaking that gave us Wuthering Heights. There’s no doubt that we’re meant to see the film from Humbert’s point of view, but the gauzy and misty atmosphere lean more towards Cathy in view of Heathcliff than anything else.
Diana: I totally see those elements. With Irons languishing behind the wheel in and out of consciousness, Humbert’s endless drive across America has the feel of Heathcliff chasing after Cathy’s ghost in the mist on the Moors. They both strike a certain thud in the heart: romantic desperation driven by love and hope and need, no matter the clear detriment to all involved. (Re-read the novel, folks, Heathcliff and Cathy are horrifically cruel and abusive to each other.) Humbert is desperate to elude the cops, his devil-doppelganger, the looming doom of being in love at—not with—a teenage girl. Irons and his swoon-worthy charisma make this character dangerously compelling, which puts the audience in the greater danger of possibly sympathizing, or even empathizing, with him. But Irons can make anyone and anything seem attractive (Scar, Pope Alexander VI, Claus von Bulow), so… I don’t know where that leaves us.
Kristen: It’s screened as part of art and film retrospectives, so it’s definitely seeing a second life. If anything, I see it calling out more about our own film-making than anything else. In a world where we continue to “debate” the actions of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, Lolita lays it bare. It’s ironic we’re discussing its romantic intents as well as condemning the relationship within it, but that’s the cruel irony Nabokov presents—that something can be disgusting and romantic. I’m aware of the threat regarding sexual violence against women. At the same time, the movie—coming along at a pivotal moment in my development—laid the groundwork for what I wanted in a man; not a pervert, mind you, but someone refined and well-mannered who worshiped me. I’ve pared down on those traits in a male since, but it opened me up to asking what I wanted in a relationship and what I didn’t.
I can certainly see how it still makes people uncomfortable; it’s the only interpretation of the film that actually explores the Dolores and Humbert relationship without any overt censoring. But, with that being said, the movie plays more tragically to me. I’m no longer Lolita’s age, and watching Lolita is both an experience in returning to that young teenage girl who feared watching, what I assumed was, a dirty movie. It’s why I believe Lyne includes the prologue rationalizing Humbert’s actions. As we progress in our own lives, the world of being a child becomes timeless and unattainable. Rewatching Lolita now takes me back to a time and a state of mind I can only ephemerally catch wisps of.