not in our stars, but in ourselves
At present, I am what the kids would call “funemployed,” with plenty of time and little to fill it. One thing I’ve been doing to try to while away the hours has been to imagine – perhaps even to write – an adequate screen version of Lolita, one of the greatest novels ever, by one of the greatest novelists ever (in my very humble opinion, at least).
“But hey,” I hear you say, “what’s wrong with the two movies out there now? Nabokov liked Kubrick’s version, and Lyne’s version is so faithful to the book! What’s the big idea? Where do you get off?” Well, gentle reader, I confess that I am – like Nabokov – something of a grump. For my favorite book to receive such inaccurate translations to the screen is almost too great an insult to be borne. Let’s go into some more detail, shall we?
It’s well known that Nabokov wrote his own screenplay for the 1962 Kubrick version, but precious little ended up in the finished film. That’s not all Kubrick’s fault, as censors were foaming at the mouth simply at the thought of a film version of a book they were too dumb not to dismiss as smut. Kubrick had to tread carefully. He wasn’t quite famous enough to be able to do whatever he wanted, as Otto Preminger had done in twice flouting the Production Code and releasing films without its certificate. I get it. And as a film in its own right, the Kubrick version is fine. It certainly gets the black humor, and that’s crucial. The particulars of the novel are lost, and we get more of a story of a dark knight (pardon the expression) who loves a fair maiden. But it’s an okay flick, with some excellent performances, and Nabokov’s own (somewhat bemused) stamp of approval.
As for the 1997 version, directed by Adrian Lyne, it is a much more literal film version. And yet, it completely misses the point. It takes Humbert at his word that his love for Lo was always true. It romanticizes the whole relationship. It makes him into a tortured, Byronic hero. The worst sin of all, from a Nabokovian standpoint, is that it turns the story into a Freudian’s wet dream: melancholia and incest and other nonsense abounds, unexamined and un-poked-fun-at. It is impossible to overstate Nabokov’s hatred of Freud, and of psychoanalysis in general. Throughout the novel, Humbert mocks Freudians in his narration – and Nabokov mocks them even more from above, pointing his authorial finger and inviting us to laugh. It’s not that he was saying there was nothing wrong with Humbert. Obviously, there was and is. But H.H. seems to be less cruel and sick if the approach is to lump him in with a whole bunch of other garden-variety nutcases. Nabokov championed the individual above all else. A person’s pain is unique. It loses its edge and interest if it has a hodgepodge of labels slapped onto it. Lyne’s version of Lolita gives us a Humbert who isn’t far removed from, say, Scottie in Vertigo (1958). They’re both preoccupied with loss, but in vastly different ways.
So with those criticisms in mind, what would I like to see, other than the correction of the above mistakes (as I see them)? For one thing, it is inconceivable to me that any director could sink his teeth into Lolita without having a blast portraying the poshlost that fascinated and delighted Nabokov so very much. Poshlost is an untranslatable Russian word for something that is crude, vulgar, and nasty at its root – but presented as the height of class and sophistication. Lo’s poor mother, Charlotte Haze, is a sort of embodiment of poshlost: she reads quasi-scientific, pseudo-intellectual books without ever forming her own ideas. She drops French into conversation because she thinks it makes her chic and interesting – not because she enjoys playing with language. She calls her backyard garden a “piazza.” In short, she’s not just the shrewish mother of both the film adaptations. She’s rather a tragic figure, but entertainingly so for much of her time in the story.
And the mad roadtrip across America, too, is brimming with poshlost in the novel. I can’t recall a single instance of it in either film. Is it because neither Kubrick nor Lyne had the right insight into America? The insight, that is, of a foreigner with a keen eye for detail – a scientist’s eye, in fact, since Nabokov was a lepidopterist on top of everything else. Kubrick was American, and Lyne is English. It is entirely possible to live in a place without seeing everything beautiful and ridiculous about it – which Nabokov could, and neither of the other two did, perhaps. I’ve said before that Hitchcock had the right kind of eye for that sort of detail, but alas – he’s not quite up for the job anymore. Who would be up to the challenge? I don’t know. No one comes to mind, I’m sorry to say, and so perhaps it will never happen.
Finally, I like James Mason and Jeremy Irons. Fine actors, and quite good as their respective Hums. But it is quite clear in the novel that Humbert is (a) a Swiss national, (b) “a salad of racial genes,” and (c) multilingual, with English being only one of the languages he speaks (and not the first). He is Continental. He is not British. If anyone ever tries to make another film of Lolita, may I humbly suggest my number one crush for the role.
He could act the hell out of it and he’s not fucking British. (No offense, Brits – I love you, really and truly – but you’re no more Humbert than I’m Anna Karenina.) If nothing else, I humbly urge him to record an audiobook version.