"Lolita," Adrian Lyne's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's unadaptable novel, is much better than it has any right to be.
As anyone who has read the book knows, the artistry of "Lolita" lies in the writing, in Nabokov's cunning use of the English language in the creation of character, mood and unstoppable narrative. Unless a director were literally to photograph pages turning, why on earth bother to film it?
Lyne makes a surprisingly good case in this smart, well-acted interpretation. If his version doesn't necessarily bring new insight or fresh emphasis to Nabokov's story of obsession and destruction, neither does it besmirch the original work in any way.
It's a noble effort, forming a respectable bookend to Stanley Kubrick's entirely surreal stab at "Lolita" 36 years ago. And bookend is the appropriate term, because between these two relatively minor movies stands a towering work of art that is first, last and always literary.
"Lolita" opens in the mist of New England morning, as a car swerves down a curving road. Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) is driving; he's just killed a man. "Lolita" is his apologia, a defense offered in the form of a long flashback that invites filmgoers to consider and maybe even understand a 40-year-old man's annihilating passion for a 14-year-old girl.
Lyne went on the stump last year to convince filmgoers that "Lolita" wasn't being shown in theaters because of its graphic, even occasionally erotic, portrayal of pedophilia, but that was hard to believe in a season that featured such equally controversial fare as "Happiness." More likely, a distributor didn't pick it up because Lyne spent too much money -- a reported $60 million -- making this attractive, peripatetic tale.
In any case, it was finally acquired by Showtime and shown on that network last August. The Orpheum's limited run of "Lolita" will no doubt be welcome to anyone who missed the cable broadcast and wants to see what all the fuss was about, or filmgoers who want to catch two extraordinary performances by Irons and newcomer Dominique Swain.
Looking amazingly convincing as a 40-year-old, Irons is perfect as the besotted Humbert, whose sexual longing for young girls is rooted in his tragic first love during adolescence, and, as Lyne perceptively hints at, his own desire to regress. It's difficult to imagine another actor tackling such a complicated role, one that demands the outward appearance of perfect donnish comportment but also an ever-present scent of moral corruption. If Irons can embody anything, it's the twin impulses toward decency and desiccation.
Even more revelatory is Swain, who presents Lolita not as the kittenish dullard Sue Lyon played in Kubrick's film, but as a real 14-year-old. Swain's Lolita is a brat, a colt, a narcissist, a flirt. She's un-self-conscious, but also startlingly aware -- she picks up on Humbert's anxiety right away -- and her knowingness is infuriating. She's cruel and spoiled and shallow and heartbreaking.
To his credit, Lyne calibrates the action and sexual energy in such a way that her vulnerability is never questioned. It's clear throughout "Lolita" who is the thief and who is being stolen from, and much of that clarity comes from Lyne's sense of emphasis as well as Swain's own remarkable assurance.
Sadly, Melanie Griffith is not as well-cast as Charlotte Haze, Lolita's pretentious frowze of a mother (Shelley Winters retired the number on that one), and Lyne's locations -- he shot "Lolita" in seven different cities -- start to get confusing. There are times when Humbert and Lo are back in their tiny New England town, and it looks exactly like New Orleans.
But he's made a valiant effort at folding Nabokov's fascination with American pop culture into the narrative of "Lolita," which is full of slapstick comedy and deus ex machina action common to the movies Lolita is entranced by. The archipelago of motels that Humbert navigates on his road to ruin is a masterpiece of American vernacular architecture -- kitschy, tawdry and absurd. And, in case you miss the point, he makes sure that Lo is constantly chomping on a piece of bubble gum.
More important than these witty touches, Lyne has tried to preserve the music of Nabokov's book. The credit here actually goes to the screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, whose script calls for Irons to provide a good deal of voiceover narration.
These passages of poetry, wordplay and mordant observation -- read with silky insinuation by Irons -- are far more memorable than the rest of "Lolita," which ultimately turns out to be an illustration, albeit a superior one. The good news is that Irons has made a book-on-tape edition of "Lolita," making the taped version of the book probably the best adaptation of all.
Starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Released by New Yorker Films
Rated R (aberrant sexuality, a strong scene of violence, nudity and some language)
Running time: 137 minutes
Sun score: ***.
Pub Date: 2/01/99