Nabokov's best novel save for Pale Fire will probably never get an "ideal" filming, unless someone decides to actually commit Nabokov's own script to celluloid (he wrote it for the 1962 version, and his name appears in the credits, but the finished product was almost wholly the product of Kubrick's pen and Peter Sellers' ad-libbing). But I like both the Kubrick and the Lyne versions, with reservations.
With Kubrick's, the only real problem is that it's not Nabokov. James Mason's performance contains the core of an accurate portrayal of Humbert, and he's often moving. But Sue Lyon was too old for her part and Sellers' Quilty is an altogether different conception from the author's (not that he isn't lots of fun). The film also suffers from having been filmed in the UK. Nabokov had a complex vision of America - vast, tacky, seductive, and grindingly mundane all at the same time - and this just can't be conveyed in a studio and with a few well-chosen locations.
That's where Lyne's version excels. His compositions (or his cinematographer's) are indeed beautiful to look at, and (I think) capture suburban and roadside America very much the way Humbert would have experienced them. Irons is fine as Humbert, although the typecasting was initially painful to contemplate, and Swain is a vast improvement over Lyon as young Dolores: still a bit too old for the part (an inevitable problem, perhaps, for anyone who wants to film this book), but her intelligent performance makes up for this. Despite his cheesy reputation, Lyne wisely refrains from making his Lolita a teenage bombshell, something the more artistic Kubrick couldn't resist.
Again, however, the problem is Quilty. Both directors obviously felt compelled to render in three dimensions a character who is one of Nabokov's phantoms: Does he really exist? Who is he and what do we know about him, outside of Humbert's increasingly paranoid imaginings? Can we trust anything at all that's said about him in this book? I expect that Nabokov himself regretted having to bring Quilty out of the shadows at all for the denouement.
Sellers carried off the role with style, making you forget for a moment that his routines seem to have wandered in from another film. Lyne turns the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty (there is no flashback framing device, as in Kubrick) into pure Grand Guignol, and so we have to endure watching poor, paunchy Frank Langella running down a hallway of his ridiculously overstuffed house, his bathrobe falling open to reveal his endowments to our embarrassed gaze before being blown away Dirty Harry-style by the avenging Humbert. A major wrong note to say the least.
So Quilty, in the end, defeats both of Nabokov's filmic approximators. But if you love the book, see both movies: Kubrick and Lyne each capture different aspects of the master's great story in valuable ways, and the new Lolita is clearly Lyne's best work yet, proving that a great novel can inspire excellent filmmaking, if not guarantee an "ideal" adaptation.
What we really need now, however, is not a third version of Lolita, but finally, a filming of Lolita: A Screenplay. Nabokov had fun writing this, and any fan of his should read his script as well. Wouldn't you like to see a move of Lolita in which Humbert, searching through the woods for his Lo, encounters a butterfly collector named Vladimir Nabokov? Of course you would!
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