Lolita is the story of a British professor, Humbert, and his infatuation with his teenage step-daughter. We watch their love affair begin and quickly unravel around them as Humbert desperately tries to keep them together. Stanley Kubrick had major issues with censorship when he adapted Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, to the screen. On reflection, the director stated that if he had known just how problematic the censorship issues were going to be he would not have made the film. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he regretted making the film; how could he? The film is one of his greatest. It was only a matter of time before it was remade. Time needed to pass and censorship needed to grow more lenient before the novel could be fully told, visually, through the medium of cinema. In 1997 Adrian Lyne released his version of Lolita. What strikes me most about this version is that it is a remake of the novel and not a remake of Kubrick’s film. Other than the literary framework, Lyne’s Lolita has little in common with Kubrick’s. Many did not take to Kubrick’s adaptation as warmly as I have. Lyne remains more truthful to the book in his version of Nabokov’s story of love, obsession and perversion. Kubrick’s film was surprisingly comical and upbeat despite the sombre scenarios being dealt with. There is no humour in the 1997 film. The characters are all pretty putrid and nasty. There is more of an emphasis on manipulation that Kubrick’s film never fully explores, maybe due to the limitations of cinema in 1967. Lyne’s Lolita is dark and depressing and deals with the turmoil of the characters in a more blatant way. It is this darkness of character, along with the sexual explicitness, that makes Lyne’s Lolita a more loyal adaptation but not necessarily a better one.
There is nothing enjoyable about Lyne’s film and I’m sure there is not supposed to be. You are constantly aware, from start to finish, of how disturbing this relationship is. Jeremy Iron’s comes across as both pathetic and powerful in the role of Humbert. His obsession with Lolita is highlighted as sexual from the very beginning, something that Lolita herself exploits. Iron’s gives a very intense and admirable performance as Humbert. His deterioration as the film progresses, and he becomes more and more of a victim to Lolita, is frightening and obvious in comparison to Kubrick’s. Dominique Swain is our Lolita here. She is the most terrifying thing about the film. Bratty and vicious, she controls Humbert whilst being simultaneously exploited by him and his desire. The film presents her as being fully aware of her power and the criminal acts that Humbert is committing with her. The film is at its most unnerving when she switches from childish niceties to savage threats. Lolita dangles these threats over him, enjoying torturing Humbert’s soul. Swain is electrifying, putting her own stamp on a role that was already so iconic. Swain doesn’t appear to be intimidated by the challenge she faces here as an actress and she succeeds in giving an original and memorable performance as literature’s most manipulative teenager.
Lyne’s Lolita remains loyal to Nabokov’s novel and creates an eerie experience for the audience as Nabokov did for his readers. I still prefer Kubrick’s version due to its inventiveness and wit but Lyne’s Lolita presents the sexual desire and activity of the story in ways that were impossible for Kubrick to do in 1962. Lyne gives us a darker version of the tale which stands miles apart from Kubrick’s. Their vast differences mean that they would make for an excellent double bill. Lolita (1997) is evidence that it is possible to make a good remake as long as you revisit the original source material and, first and foremost, respect your cinematic elders.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.