not in our stars, but in ourselves
As you might expect of someone who’s been in school for most of her life, I have a fair few crackpot ideas. You’ll see further evidence of this as I write more, no doubt, but I’ll give you a taste now: in my very humble opinion, Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov should have been best friends and frequent collaborators.
The thought first occurred to me when I reflected on the deficiencies of both film adaptations of Lolita. I don’t dislike either version, but it seems to me that the 1962 Stanley Kubrick version got the humor while missing the tragedy, and the 1997 Adrian Lyne version got the tragedy while missing the humor. Neither version especially seems to have understood or attempted Nabokov’s fascination with American vulgarity, wildness, and pretensions to greatness. Both versions seem to take Humbert at his word that he is telling a love story, and romanticize his relationship with Lo so that it almost seems like his love for her is good and true. I don’t doubt the “moral apotheosis” of H.H. at the end of the novel, but he is a rapist. In 1962, of course, it would have been difficult (though not impossible – stay tuned) to emphasize that particular plot point; Sue Lyon was 16 at the time, nearly Lo’s age when she dies in childbirth. In 1997, it should have been entirely possible to make a film that was true to the beautiful as well as the beastly character of Humbert Humbert, but alas. Not even attempted.
But who could have attempted such a thing? Who was adept at juggling dark, sly humor and bizarre, dangerous sexual proclivities? Who was an émigré himself (albeit in far less dramatic circumstances than Nabokov) who saw his adopted country’s quirks with an outsider’s clarity, but loved them anyway? Who made film after film about sexual compulsion and perversion, with topics ranging from voyeurism to necrophilia? Who could have made a film with all this, as well as the Poe-like “ratiocination” angle that Nabokov laced so carefully throughout the narrative?
I rest my case.
After I realized how perfect Hitchcock would have been for Lolita, I started thinking about other Nabokov works that should have had the Hitchcock treatment onscreen: The Defense, with its grand master Luzhin seeing a conspiracy close in on him in the formation of a chess problem; Despair, with its deadly and delusional Hermann in the kind of doppelganger murder plot that would have made Hitchcock or Poe grin in fiendish glee; Pale Fire, with its obsessive and likely homicidal émigré narrator attempting to re-write his own shabby life by butchering his neighbor and/or his neighbor’s poetry. In fact, the only Nabokov work that strikes me as unsuitable for Hitchcock is Pnin, because little Timofey Pnin deserves to be spared any further sadism in his life.
I’ve tried to find out if they knew each other, and if they liked each other, and it seems to have been one of history’s many great, missed opportunities. Not that they didn’t try – on 19 November 1964, Hitchcock wrote to Nabokov (slightly edited for length here; follow the link to read the full letter):
Dear Mr. Nabokov:
Further to our conversation on the telephone regarding future projects I have in mind and for which I require stories, I would like to give you a rough outline of two of them with the hope perhaps that one or the other might interest you to develop into a story.
If perhaps you would become interested, I would like to point out that I do not require any rights except motion picture and television. Any literary rights would belong to you.
Now the first idea I have been thinking about for some time is based upon a question that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion pictures or, as far as I know, in literature. It is the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector.
I think in the case of the married woman, there is very little question that she sides with her husband. We have, for example, the case of Burgess MacLean eventually followed her husband behind the Iron Curtain, and obviously Mrs. MacLean had no other loyalties. The question I’m really interested in is what would be the attitude of a young woman, perhaps in love with, or engaged to, a scientist who could be a defector.
…The motion picture line for this story would develop into the journey behind the Iron Curtain and expressed in terms of action and movement, but within it all, would be the basic problem faced by the girl. Who knows? Maybe she goes over to the side of her fiance. It would depend upon how her character is drawn. It is also possible if she did this, she might be making a terrible mistake—especially if her fiance, after all, turned out to be a double agent.
The feasibility of a man posing as a defector, but in reality is an agent for the government, could arise entirely out of the close security methods within the government. We have seen examples of how the FBI is ignorant of what the CIA is doing, and sometimes the CIA is not always aware of what some higher-ups are doing in these intelligence jobs.
Anyway, Mr. Nabokov, the type of story I’m looking for is an emotional, psychological one, expressed in terms of action and movement and, naturally, one that would give me the opportunity to indulge in the customary Hitchcock suspense.
Now this next idea I’m not sure will really appeal to you but, on the other hand, it might.
Many years ago I started to work on an idea for the English company to which I was under contract. The idea was never completed because I left to come to America. I wondered what would happen if a young girl, having spent her life in a convent in Switzerland due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a widowed father, was suddenly released from college at the end of her term. She would be returned to her father, who would be the general manager of a large international hotel (at the time I imagined it would be the Savoy in London). This general manager, the father of our young heroine, has a brother who is the concierge, another brother who is the cashier, another brother one of the chefs in the kitchen, a sister who is the housekeeper, and a bedridden mother living in a penthouse in the hotel. The mother is about 80 years of age, a matriarch.
The whole of this family are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of operations. Now into this setting comes our young 19-year-old girl. As you will see, the hotel setting—especially the “backstage” part—would be extremely colorful, especially when the bulk of the story would take place, not only backstage, but in the public rooms and even to the night club section. In other words, I was looking for a film that would give us the details of a big hotel and not merely a film played in hotel rooms.
…Well there it is, Mr. Nabokov. I sincerely hope you could be interested in one or the other. Naturally I have just indicated the crudest conception of these ideas. I haven’t bothered to go into such details as characterizations or the psychological aspects of these stories. For example, in the hotel story I have in the original material, the development of the situation whereby the father of the young girl, having achieved the position of general manager, has no more interest in the unlawful pursuits of the rest of his family; and it is the advent of his daughter that makes his problem so much greater. As I indicated to you on the telephone, screenplay writers are not the type of people to take such ideas as these and develop them into responsible story material. They are usually people who adapt other people’s work. That is why I am by-passing them and coming direct to you—a story-teller.
Alfred J. Hitchcock
Nabokov, in turn, wrote back on 28 November:
Dear Mr. Hitchcock,
Many thanks for your letter. I find both your ideas very interesting. The first would present many difficulties for me because I do not know enough about American security matters and methods, or how the several intelligence bureaus work, separately and together.
Your second idea is quite acceptable to me. Given a complete freedom (as I assume you intend to give me) I think I could turn it into a screenplay. But there would be the matter of time. What delays did you have in mind? I am at the present very busy winding up several things at once. I could devote some thought to the screenplay this summer but could hardly settle down to work on it yet. Please let me know what are your ideas about this.
In the meantime I, too, would like to give you a short resume of two ideas of my own. You will find them, very baldly jotted down, on the separate sheet attached to this letter. Please let me know what you think of them. If you like them, we might discuss their development.
It was good talking to you on the telephone.
With best wishes,
A girl, a rising star of not quite the first magnitude, is courted by a budding astronaut. She is slightly condescending to him; has an affair with him but may have other lovers, or lover, at the same time. One day he is sent on the first expedition to a distant star; goes there and makes a successful return. Their positions have now changed. He is the most famous man in the country while her starrise has come to a stop at a moderate level. She is only too glad to have him now, but soon she realizes that he is not the same as he was before his flight. She cannot make out what the change is. Time goes, and she becomes concerned, then frightened, then panicky. I have more than one interesting denouement for this plot.
While ignorant of the workings of the American intelligence, I have gathered considerable information regarding those of the Soviets.
For some time now I have been thinking of writing the story of a defector from behind the Iron Curtain to the United States. The constant danger he is in, the constant necessity to hide and be on the lookout for agents from his native land bent on kidnapping or killing him.
So promising an exchange – but it came to nothing. Hitchcock found Nabokov’s ideas interesting, but they weren’t quite what he was looking for.
I am far from the first person to note the similarities of temperament between the two, and probably very far from the most scholarly or creative. But my assertion is that, more than mere collaborators, they should have been friends, pals, bosom buddies! Two such cranky old romantics, perfectionists and technicians as well as artists of the first order, were made for each other. Their missing each other is the kind of heart-rending plot twist you might expect in one of their works – not in something as banal as reality. Alas, sometimes reality surprises with its cruelly poetic reversals of fortune.
P.S. Let’s take just a moment to appreciate how beautiful Vladimir Nabokov was as a young man.
Some people were just made to be aristocrats. Look at that imperial sneer. Hubba, hubba.