Lolita: A Screenplay [NOOK Book]

Overview

The screenplay for Kubrik's 1962 film tells the story of an older man's obsession with a young girl.
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Lolita: A Screenplay

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Overview

The screenplay for Kubrik's 1962 film tells the story of an older man's obsession with a young girl.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Vladimir Nabokov: Sex, Lies, and Premium Cable

By now, you undoubtedly know that Adrian Lyne's film version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita received its much belated American debut on August 2nd, on Showtime, and will be released in theaters next month. You very likely also know that the movie was, well, not exactly banned, but effectively so, by the refusal of American film distributors to participate in its release. And you probably have a sense of what the fuss was all about: The film is reportedly too racy for American eyes. But there's a very different angle on this story to be found through a closer look at the novel.

Nabokov's Lolita was originally published in 1955 and immediately became embroiled in its own censorship battles. The story is admittedly, purposefully, a shocking one: Humbert Humbert, an emigré academic, has a thing for young girls. Nymphets, he calls them, prepubescent girls who betray some precocious awareness of their own sensuality. Upon accepting a position at a new college, Humbert rents a room in town and falls madly, passionately, horrifyingly in love with his landlady's 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, the Lolita of the novel's title. He marries Dolores's mother in order to maintain proximity to Dolores herself, and his relationship with her very quickly exceeds the bounds of stepfatherly affection.

There are several upsetting things about this story, not the least of which is that, it appears, Lolita herself is the seducer, and Humbert the seducee. Hence the ubiquitous comparisons of any precociously sexual, slightly dangerous girl to this character (for example, the "Long Island Lolita"). These comparisons -- and the moral censorship to which the novel has been subject -- are, however, based on a most superficial reading of the book, one that overlooks a basic literary concept: the unreliable narrator.

Humbert Humbert is the one who tells us the story. From an insane asylum. He's a child molester and, ultimately, a murderer. Why on earth should we take his word for how it happened?

This, in fact, is the real story of Lolita. The novel is about the ways in which a reader can be manipulated to feel sympathy for -- even to identify with -- the most horrifying person imaginable. That early readers of the novel were so shocked by Dolores's behavior -- so shocked, in fact, that governments moved to ban the book -- is precisely Nabokov's point: Rather than acknowledge the ultimate evil that lies under the otherwise charming persona, we as a culture are more inclined to turn him into a tragic hero, a victim.

Lolita was, of course, filmed years ago by Stanley Kubrick. Nabokov wrote a screenplay for the movie that was ultimately cast aside. The Kubrick film is quirky, almost to a fault; Nabokov himself reportedly said that he liked the movie quite a lot, though it had nothing whatsoever to do with his novel. Kubrick managed to evade at least some of the moral terror surrounding his subject by casting Sue Lyons as Dolores. Lyons was 16 when the film was shot, a slightly too young woman rather than a child.

Adrian Lyne has left himself no such comfort zone. While in London earlier this summer, I happily got a chance to see the new film and form my own opinions, the first of which is this: Dominique Swain is stunning as Dolores, one moment a seductress and the very next a gawky child. And Jeremy Irons's Humbert is passionate and terrifying. The film is lushly, beautifully shot -- uncomfortably so, at moments -- and quite faithful to the novel. At least to what the novel claims to say, what Humbert says it says. But the film misses, unfortunately, exactly what the critics all along have missed: Humbert Humbert is not to be trusted. This is, I suspect, one of the fundamental differences in narrative possibility between the novel and film, one that makes any complete adaptation of Lolita all but impossible: Film really has no equivalent to the unreliable narrator. Some films do experiment with multiple perspectives -- see, for instance, Kurosawa's Rashomon -- and so manage to cast doubt on any sense of truth. More recently, The Opposite of Sex presents a thoroughly untrustworthy narrator, but one who happily tells the audience when she's lying. But the puzzle presented by a narrator as charming and horrible as Humbert Humbert is perhaps one that can only be appreciated through the novel.

Nabokov plays repeatedly throughout his novels with such narrative puzzles. Pale Fire, for instance, presents itself as the definitive annotated edition of the last poem of the late John Shade, with commentary by his faithful friend, Charles Kinbote. But the commentary has far more to do with Kinbote than it does with Shade's poem, and ultimately reveals that Kinbote may not be at all who he claims to be, and may in fact not be the identity he's hiding, either. Pnin is the third-person story of a befuddled Russian academic whose perceptions of reality seem more than a little skewed. Ada, or Ardor is the ultimate family romance, a philosophical treatise posing as a novel, annotated by Vivian Darkbloom (an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov and a character who receives brief mention in Lolita). And Despair is literally, as all of Nabokov's novels are figuratively, a mystery.

These mysteries are the heart of Nabokov's writing, and though LOLITA appears a straightforward story, the reader should always be wary. My recommendations about Lolita: See the film. It's beautiful, it's compelling, and it's important. But more to the point: Read the novel. If you've never read it, I envy you the joys of your first encounter with it. If you've read it before, read it again; it offers up something new each time. As do all of Nabokov's intricate puzzles: Each text begs you to take it apart, look at it from the other side, figure out where the truth might actually lie.

—Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Elizabeth Janeway
[Lolita's] illicit nature will both shock the reader into paying attention and prevent sentimentally false sympathy from distorting his judgment. Contrariwise, I believe, Mr. Nabokov is slyly exploiting the American emphasis on the attraction of youth and the importance devoted to the “teen-ager” in order to promote an unconscious identification with Humbert’s agonies. Both techniques are entirely valid. But neither, I hope, will obscure the purpose of the device: namely, to underline the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed—of all urges, whatever they may be, that insist on being satisfied without regard to the effect their satisfaction has upon the outside world. Humbert is all of us.
NY Times Book Review Sunday, August 17, 1958
Time
Intensely lyrical and wildly funny.
Vanity Fair
The only convincing love story of our century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307787606
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/16/2011
  • Series: Vintage International
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 50,780
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Vladimir Nabokov
Readers of Vladimir Nabokov's books might be slightly uncomfortable with them, were they not so awe-inspiring. Nabokov had a penchant for writing about the tragic and the taboo; but his erudite, inventive approach to narration -- buttressed by his formidable academic and cultural intellect -- made him a literary legend.

Biography

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokovs were known for their high culture and commitment to public service, and the elder Nabokov was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Kadets. In 1919, following the Bolshevik revolution, he took his family into exile. Four years later he was shot and killed at a political rally in Berlin while trying to shield the speaker from right-wing assassins.

The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a child Nabokov was already reading Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, alongside the popular entertainments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. As a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri.

Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing fiction in English. In his afterword to Lolita he claimed: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses -- the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions -- which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way." [p. 317] Yet Nabokov's American period saw the creation of what are arguably his greatest works, Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962), as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also undertook English translations of works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Vladimir Sirin
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 23, 1899
    2. Place of Birth:
      St. Petersburg, Russia
    1. Date of Death:
      July 2, 1977
    2. Place of Death:
      Montreux, Switzerland

Foreword

This is a story that many people imagine they will find distasteful, especially in these days where the subject of pedophilia is so much in the public consciousness. I believe, however, that it has a place both as a piece of literature and as a film script. In today's society if we cannot understand human behavior, then how can we change it? How can we judge it? How can we educate our children about it?

The scope of Nabokov's story is as much about his relationship as a European, with this new, young, exciting country of America. Humbert Humbert, a rather weak and misguided man, steps outside our society's morality and for that he is punished. There are many levels on which to view the film. This script is merely the map of the film's landscape. It is a film which I believe should rest among the best of American cinema. It should be judged for what it is by a mature audience. Art, and I include cinema in that, should make us question and test our values and make us understand why we have the laws we do.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and bibliography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. We hope they will provide you with ways of looking at-and talking about-a novel that has become a permanent part of the American literary canon, and indeed of the American language, without losing its capacity to dazzle, baffle, and at times shock the unwary reader.

1. Lolita begins with an earnest foreword, purportedly written by one John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., author of Do the Senses Make Sense? (whose initials-- "J.R., Jr."-- echo as suspiciously as "Humbert Humbert"). Why might Nabokov have chosen to frame his novel in this fashion? What is the effect of knowing that the narrative's three main characters are already dead--and, in a sense, nonexistent, since their names have been changed?

2. Why might Nabokov have chosen to name his protagonist "Humbert Humbert"? Does the name's parodic double rumble end up distancing us from its owner's depravity? Is it harder to take evil seriously when it goes under an outlandish name? What uses, comic and poetic, does Nabokov make of this name in the course of Lolita?

3. Humbert's confession is written in an extraordinary language. It is by turns colloquial and archaic, erudite and stilted, florid and sardonic. It is studded with French expressions, puns in several other languages, and allusions to authors from Petrarch to Joyce. Is this language merely an extension of Nabokov's own--which the critic Michael Wood describes as "a fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of English" (Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 5.) --or is Humbert's language appropriate to his circumstances and motives? In what way does it obfuscate as much as it reveals? And if Humbert's prose is indeed a veil, at what points is this veil lifted and what do we glimpse behind it?

4. Humbert attributes his pedophilia (or "nympholepsy") to his tragically aborted childhood romance with Annabel Leigh. How far can we trust this explanation? How do we reconcile Humbert's reliance on the Freudian theory of psychic trauma with his corrosive disdain for psychiatrists?

5. In the early stages of his obsession Humbert sees Lolita merely as a new incarnation of Annabel, even making love to her on different beaches as he tries to symbolically consummate his earlier passion. In what other ways does Humbert remain a prisoner of the past? Does he ever succeed in escaping it? Why is Lolita singularly impervious to the past, to the extent that she can even shrug off the abuse inflicted on her by both Humbert and Quilty?

6. How does Humbert's marriage to Valeria foreshadow his relationships with both Charlotte and Lolita? How does the revelation of Valeria's infidelity prepare us for Lolita's elopement with Quilty? Why does Humbert respond so differently to these betrayals?

7. On page 31 we encounter the first of the "dazzling coincidences" that illuminate Lolita like flashes of lightning (or perhaps stage lightning), when Humbert flips through a copy of Who's Who in the Limelight in the prison library. What is the significance of each of the entries for "Roland Pym," "Clare Quilty," and "Dolores Quine." In what ways do their names, biographies, and credits prefigure the novel's subsequent developments? Who is the mysterious "Vivian Darkbloom," whose name is an anagram for "Vladimir Nabokov"? Where else in Lolita does Nabokov provide us with imaginary texts that seem to lend verisimilitude to Humbert's narrative and at the same time make us question the factuality of the world in which it is set?

8. Humbert Humbert is an émigré. Not only has he left Europe for America, but in the course of Lolita he becomes an erotic refugee, fleeing the stability of Ramsdale and Beardsley for a life in motel rooms and highway rest stops. How does this fact shape his responses to the book's other characters and their responses to him? To what extent is the America of Lolita an exile's America? In what ways is Humbert's foreignness a corollary of his perversion? Is it possible to see Lolita as Nabokov's veiled meditation on his own exile?

9. We also learn that Humbert is mad--mad enough, at least, to have been committed to several mental institutions, where he took great pleasure in misleading his psychiatrists. Is Humbert's madness an aspect of his sexual deviance or is it something more fundamental? Can we trust a story told by an insane narrator? What is Humbert's kinship with the "mad" narrators of such works as Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Gogol's Diary of a Madman?

10. What makes Charlotte Haze so repugnant to Humbert? Does the author appear to share Humbert's antagonism? Does he ever seem to criticize it? In what ways does Charlotte embody the Russian word poshlust which Nabokov translated as "not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive?" (Cited by Alfred Appel, Jr., in The Annotated Lolita. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970, pp. xlix-1.)

11. To describe Lolita and other alluring young girls, Humbert coins the word "nymphet." The word has two derivations: the first from the Greek and Roman nature spirits, who were usually pictured as beautiful maidens dwelling in mountains, waters, and forests; the second from the entomologist's term for the young of an insect undergoing incomplete metamorphosis. Note the book's numerous allusions to fairy tales and spells; the proliferation of names like "Elphinstone," "Pisky," and "The Enchanted Hunters," as well as Humbert's repeated sightings of moths and butterflies. Also note that Nabokov was a passionate lepidopterist, who identified and named at least one new species of butterfly. How does the character of Lolita combine mythology and entomology? In what ways does Lolita resemble both an elf and an insect? What are some of this novel's themes of enchantment and metamorphosis as they apply both to Lolita and Humbert, and perhaps to the reader as well?

12. Before Humbert actually beds his nymphet, there is an extraordinary scene, at once rhapsodic, repulsive, and hilarious, in which Humbert excites himself to sexual climax while a (presumably) unaware Lolita wriggles in his lap. How is this scene representative of their ensuing relationship? What is the meaning of the sentence "Lolita had been safely solipsized" [p. 60], "solipsism" being the epistemological theory that the self is the sole arbiter of "reality"? Is all of Lolita the monologue of a pathological solipsist who is incapable of imagining any reality but his own or of granting other people any existence outside his own desires?

13. Can Humbert ever be said to "love" Lolita? Does he ever perceive her as a separate being? Is the reader ever permitted to see her in ways that Humbert cannot?

14. Humbert meets Lolita while she resides at 342 Lawn Street, seduces her in room 342 of The Enchanted Hunters, and in one year on the road the two of them check into 342 motels. Before Lolita begins her affair with Clare Quilty, her mother mentions his uncle Ivor, the town dentist, and sends Lolita to summer at Camp Q (near the propitiously named Lake Climax). These are just a few of the coincidences that make Lolita so profoundly unsettling. Why might Nabokov deploy coincidence so liberally in this book? Does he use it as a convenient way of advancing plot or in order to call the entire notion of a "realistic" narrative into question? How do Nabokov's games of coincidence tie in with his use of literary allusion (see Questions 4, 15, and 16) and self-reference (see Question 7)?

15. Having plotted Charlotte's murder and failed to carry it out, Humbert is rid of her by means of a bizarre, and bizarrely fortuitous, accident. Is this the only time that fate makes a spectacular intrusion on Humbert's behalf? Are there occasions when fate conspires to thwart him? Is the fate that operates in this novel--a fate so preposterously hyperactive that Humbert gives it a name-- actually an extension of Humbert's will, perhaps of his unconscious will? Is Humbert in a sense guilty of Charlotte's death? Discuss the broader question of culpability as it resonates throughout this book.

16. Quilty makes his first onstage appearance at The Enchanted Hunters, just before Humbert beds Lolita for the first time. Yet rumors and allusions precede him. Does the revelation of Quilty's identity come as a surprise? Is it the true climax of Lolita? How does Nabokov prepare us for this revelation? Since the mystery of Quilty's identity turns this novel into a kind of detective story (in which the protagonist is both detective and criminal), it may be useful to compare Lolita to other examples of the genre, such as Poe's The Purloined Letter, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, or Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced, all of which are alluded to in the text.

17. Among our early clues about Quilty is his resemblance to Humbert (or Humbert's resemblance to him). This resemblance is one of the reasons that Lolita finds her mother's boarder attractive, and we are reminded of it later on when Humbert believes for a brief time that Quilty may be his uncle Trapp. How does Quilty conform to the archetype of the double or Doppelgänger? In its literary incarnations, a double may represent the protagonist's evil underself or his higher nature. What sort of double is Quilty? Are we ever given the impression that Humbert may be Quilty's double?

18. If we accept Humbert at his word, Lolita initiates their first sexual encounter, seducing him after he has balked at violating her in her sleep. Yet later Humbert admits that Lolita sobbed in the night--"every night, every night--the moment I feigned sleep" [p. 176]. Should we read this reversal psychologically: that what began as a game for Lolita has now become a terrible and inescapable reality? Or has Humbert been lying to us from the first? What is the true nature of the crimes committed against Lolita? Does Humbert ever genuinely repent them, or is even his remorse a sham? Does Lolita forgive Humbert or only forget him?

19. Humbert is not only Lolita's debaucher but her stepfather and, after Charlotte's death, the closest thing she has to a parent. What kind of parent is he? How does his behavior toward the girl increasingly come to resemble Charlotte's? Why, during their last meeting, does Lolita dismiss the erotic aspect of their relationship and "grant" only that Humbert was a good father?

20. As previously mentioned, Lolita abounds with games: the games Humbert plays with his psychiatrists, his games of chess with Gaston Godin, the transcontinental games of tag and hide-and-go-seek that Quilty plays with Humbert, and the slapstick game of Quilty's murder. There is Humbert's poignant outburst, "I have only words to play with!" [p. 32]. In what way does this novel itself resemble a vast and intricate game, a game played with words? Is Nabokov playing with his readers or against them? How does such an interpretation alter your experience of Lolita? Do its game-like qualities detract from its emotional seriousness or actually heighten it?

21. The last lines of Lolita are: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita" [p. 309]. What is the meaning of this passage? What does art offer Humbert and his beloved that sexual passion cannot? Is this aesthetic appeal merely the mask with which Humbert conceals or justifies his perversion, or is the immortality of art the thing that Humbert and his creator have been seeking all along? In what ways is Lolita at once a meditation on, and a re-creation of, the artistic process?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2012

    I like young girls

    That would be me in the book. Got a problem with that?

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2012

    My favorite book!

    Lolita is absolutely my favorite book. It's a great story--the prose is sublime, whether you think it's a love story/"agree" with it or not. Nabokov is an incredibly skilled writer, and has a dark sense of humor that is seen frequently throughout the story. However, if you're bored by the prose, then you shouldn't even bother reading the book, because it's the style, not just the story, that makes this novel impeccable. I have read this book several times, and do not grow tired of it. It's dark, funny, and sad at once, and consistently beautiful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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