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.