not in our stars, but in ourselves
Somehow or other, the internet and/or my google fu failed me for nearly a month, and I didn’t see this piece – “Fiction into Film: Lolita (1955 / 1962)” – until today. Basically, it’s an exploration of the difficulty adapting Nabokov’s novel in the first place, and some of the strengths and weaknesses of Stanley Kubrick’s film. While I may quibble with a few of the points raised (and even then, only academically), I think this is exactly right:
Kubrick’s Lolita, however, isn’t interested in doing that. It doesn’t play with our perceptions, or really try to. In a way this is smart, because even a genuine talent like Kubrick shouldn’t be trusted to carve in cement what Nabokov weaves with vanishing clouds.
On the other hand, however, it means that Lolita the film attempts only to reconstruct the events of Lolita the novel, and not the atmosphere, the trickery, the intellectual puzzle. And when the events are stripped of their literary trappings and satisfying opacity, we aren’t left with much.
No kidding. I like Kubrick’s version, and think it’s plenty of fun, but it leaves out an awful lot of the novel. Some of this is unavoidable, of course. Nabokov’s wordplay and erudition wouldn’t translate all that well to the screen, unless you wanted to make a hopelessly pretentious piece of trash. Unreliable narrators are a trickier proposition in cinema than in literature, simply because – at some point – the director will have to make it clear that everything you’ve seen up to that point has been incorrect. And besides, I think Humbert is almost too subtle an unreliable narrator to make sense on the screen; the way he toys with the reader is deliberate, and seldom – if ever – slips out of his control. (The one time that it might is the shortest chapter in the book, with “Lolita” repeated several times, followed by instructions to his publisher: “Repeat until the page is full, printer.”)
However, the aspect of Lolita the novel that I desperately wish would make its way into a film adaptation is his precise evocation of giddy American vulgarity. Humbert usually mocks and derides it, Continental snob that he is, but Nabokov delighted in his adopted country – far more than he ever delighted in any of the European cities he was forced into after he and his family escaped Russia. Like any great parody (and Nabokov loved parody: “satire is a lesson, parody is a game”), Lolita‘s depiction of postwar philistinism is rooted in familiarity and affection. Consider Mel Brooks’s movies, like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Each is a parody of a particular genre (Universal’s 1930s horror films and 1950s Westerns, respectively), and could have been quite meanspirited about their source material. Brooks isn’t a meanspirited guy, though, so we get two great comedies that are certainly absurd – but that clearly spring from a lot of love and real enjoyment of the films that shaped them.
A film adaptation of Lolita would probably need to tone down the more parodic elements of Humbert’s narration of America, but it could find plenty in Nabokov’s own interviews, like this one from The Paris Review:
Do you consider yourself an American?
Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona. The flora, the fauna, the air of the western states, are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics I am strongly antisegregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on the government’s side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.
When the Nabokovs arrived in America in 1940, clever Volodya was able to secure work as a professor fairly quickly. This left the family free to explore their new home each summer, during school vacation, and so they did. Humbert’s joyless ride with Lo, and even more joyless ride with her as Quilty pursues them, is informed directly by Vladimir Nabokov’s own travels through the United States, hunting for butterflies and taking note of everything. In contrast to the grey and gloomy Europe he’d left behind, he found an entire continent full of blind trust, artlessness, poshlost a-plenty, unapologetic capitalism, media saturation, idol worship, exceptionalism – all kinds of fertile ground for an author of Nabokov’s talent and temperament. It’s all there in Lolita, even if Nabokov presents it to us through nasty old H.H.’s eyes.
This is what I would hope for in whatever hypothetical future screen Lolita we may be given. Kubrick’s film doesn’t get the roadshow part of the story right (perhaps because they were filming in England, and not the U.S.); Adrian Lyne’s ridiculous film has plenty of period costumes that look very pretty, but none of the wit or verve or soul of the novel. Lolita is – not definitively, but in some way – a book about a jaded cosmopolitan’s unreasonable adoration of a naive pre-pubescent. Humbert and Lo fit in each of those respective slots; so, too, do Nabokov himself and America. Surely there’s some director and screenwriter out there who can do that much of the book justice.
(Long-time readers will remember that I’ve nattered on about this before. Lolita is a particularly sensitive point for me, because the book means so much, and the movies fall so short. Adapting literature to the screen is a tricky business, I know. It can’t be a literal translation, no more than poetry can or should be. Still, I hold out hope that someone will figure it out. Maybe if Hannibal doesn’t find a home elsewhere – heaven forfend! – Bryan Fuller will be available. Call me, Bry. I have ideas.)
P.S. I do intend to watch/write about the Kubrick version for the movie challenge – so stay tuned for that.