The New Puritanism: Who's Afraid of Lolita? (We Are)

By Leonard, John | The Nation, November 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

The New Puritanism: Who's Afraid of Lolita? (We Are)


Leonard, John, The Nation


Maybe the new $60 million Lolita is just a lousy movie, which wouldn't amaze anybody who sat through any of director Adrian Lyne's previous glitterdome gaudies, from Flashdance and 9 1/2 Weeks to Fatal Attraction an Indecent Proposal. Like Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, Lyne graduated to feature films from the floating signifiers of British television advertising, and can be counted on for cultural productions as slick as fashion spreads, as glossy as car commercials and as shallow as cyberspace. We should also be skeptical of actors as self-righteous as Jeremy Irons (who played Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune as if he were Andy Warhol at a slumber party of Scientologists) when they send up black balloons of indignation about Hollywood and "political correctness" at press conferences in sunny Spain. This particular media group-grope, at a film festival in San Sebastian in September, was to promote the premiere of Lyne's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, with Irons as Humbert, Melanie Griffith as Charlotte, Frank Langella as Quilty and 14-year-old Malibu beach-bunny Dominique Swain as the infamous 12-year-old nymphet: "light of my life, fire of my loins."

Lyne and Irons were furious because they hadn't found an American distributor for their movie, despite six weeks of post-production liposucks to rid the screen of anything that might possibly offend the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act -- which draconian statute, scribbled in haste by cowardly legislators in a burning Capitol rotunda, forbids "any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video image or picture" that is or even "appears to be of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct." Understand we aren't talking about just any distributor, but about a major studio prepared to spend another $25 million to fire up and fossil-fuel the P.R. smoke machines. Many studios have already seen at least an hour of the new Lolita, and their not-for-attribution cover story is that it's not worth the risk capital.

But Jack Kroll, Newsweek's man of measured merriment, has seen all 137 minutes and prefers them to Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version, finding Irons "more morally conflicted by his desire for girl-children than James Mason, who played Humbert as a suave hedonist"; Langella "shadowy" and "satanic" as Quilty, where Peter Sellers had been "surreal"; and Swain "closer to Nabokov's archetypal idea of the `nymphet' than Sue Lyon, who projected an older, more slutty seductiveness." Kroll neglects to say whether Griffith improves on Shelley Winters. Some of us are of the opinion that Shelley Winters can't be improved on.

"Stunned" is how Adrian Lyne described himself as feeling about Hollywood's rejection, in a call from Rome to Kroll. In Spain, however, he'd admitted to being "not altogether surprised. The atmosphere in America has become very moralistic in the last three years," as it had been when Lolita was first published in the fifties. "It is a country where 6-year-olds are sent home from school for kissing,their classmates, where in Oklahoma, police raided video stores, seizing copies of The Tin Drum." We'll get to Oklahoma in a minute. Meanwhile, Nabokov must be spinning in his buried nest of mirrors.

Beyond the seas where I have lost a sceptre, I hear the neighing of my dappled nouns.

His family called him "Poops." The St. Petersburg dreams of a young Nabokov in his sailor suit were not of umbrellas or balloons; instead he dreamed of himself as a moth, with a pin stuck through his thorax. Chased out of Russia by Lenin and out of Germany by Hitler, mourning his martyred father (a diplomat and editor) and his gun-toting mother (a Christian Science convert), deaf to music, dubious of politics, opposed to the very idea of a future ("the obsolete in reverse"), this chain-smoking lepidopterist insomniac, amateur boxer, semi-pro tennis bum and would-be Pushkin, with his jigsaw puzzles, chessboards, magic kits and symbolist booklets, passed forever into exile. …

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