Originally posted on my tumblr on Sept. 8th 2021
Back in High School, I was a bit of an edgy kid. If I was told not to do something it was immediately what I wanted to do. Mostly pertaining to any time my English teachers gossiped about books, and certainly during the week we covered banned books.
This is how I came to read Battle Royale (and was quite pretentious about it) when one of my teachers made a joke about The Hunger Games just being an American version of it (and I was a loud hater of the trilogy at the time). And, in relation to the title, I ended up reading the infamous Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita because my 11th grade English teacher had described it as “the most disgusting romance novel she never read”.
It obviously wasn’t in the school library. Before I could even make the trip to the downtown library, I was given a copy of it from my friend who said she’d read it during her stay at rehab and it was one of her favorites. That’s not relevant to the story truly but it was also the first, and to this day, the only time I’ve heard someone openly say that they like the book despite it being claimed a classic of the 20th century, on several “best book” lists, is immediately recognizable to anyone it’s mentioned to. In fact, I’m sure you’re imagining the tell-tale heart-shaped sunglasses and a lollipop right now.
For the purposes of wrapping this lengthy opening up, I found that Lolita is very much not a romance story. It was really more like a strangely written murder mystery. You start the book knowing someone has been killed and you’re introduced to the rambling memoirs of Humbert Humbert, a literature professor who openly has a fixation for young girls and becomes obsessed with Dolores Haze after becoming her stepfather. The book is (obviously) written from his point of view. In it, you learn about Humbert’s childhood and what he claims is the beginning of his fixation with the subsequent interruption of an experience with and death of a childhood friend. He is open about his failures with relationships with women his own age and that Dolores Haze is not even the first child he’s ever set his eyes on. The book is (also obviously) full of material most would find disturbing. Humbert is repulsive, becomes increasingly unstable, and you learn in small instances the truth of Dolores’ loneliness and how miserable she becomes.
The book title comes from a diminutive of the name Dolores, “Lolita” is something Humbert calls her occasionally. But she is also referred to as “Dolly” and “Lo” as well as “Nymphet”. I thought it important to note that Lolita is, and was before this book was published, a name. It was never meant to become the word for what people now refer to as a “sexually provocative young girl”. Someone has said it before but I wonder if the same “stain” would be attached to the name if the book had been titled something like Michelle.
But, to be fair, this post is not about the book. I and others have talked at length about the book before. You see, the point here is I’ve always encountered situations where people had what I could only describe as violent opinions about this book. In an earlier post I recalled a time I saw someone jokingly threaten to fight anyone who would dare to carry a purse that was modeled after the (original) book cover or others claim that anyone who read it was obviously in support of the content inside of it. That because Lolita depicts pedophilia and the abuse of a child, and from the point of view of someone who doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong, that the people who read it are also in agreement with him. And, like my teacher said, it’s a romance story. I’m really not here to add more weight to that debate. As I’ve said, no one has to read anything that makes them uncomfortable and the content in the book is uncomfortable.
It is enough that something is meant to be uncomfortable? Is the cruelty and dark comedy of the original story and the portrayal of the relationship not “enough” where I find myself strangely defending a classic by someone who died in the 70s? No one has to like the book. No one has to like anything. I dislike a lot of things. But I suppose I’ve always wondered about the hatred towards fiction beyond the debate of depiction vs glorification. On much smaller scales, I’ve seen books and short stories cause debates of some fire on Twitter and comment sections, authors get accused of all kinds of atrocities, but it disappears. It’s not a debate that’s rekindled every time someone sees the name. A name. It’s not the leading example of all sorts of arguments about censorship; both as a good thing and a bad thing.
However, my point in talking about Lolita is it seems to be so hated by everyone for the reasons above but read by so little, I wondered why that was. I’ve encountered more people who have strong opinions of it but have never read it. Never even looked it up. I know fewer people who know the names Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert than people who know the general or assumed plotline of the book. Lolita is a book so widely hated but seemingly so rarely read by some of its loud (albeit now mostly online) critics.
At the end of my original post on the subject, I kind of put into the air if the movies had anything to do with this. I know there are two film adaptions of the book and that I have never watched them. I have, however, seen clips of the trailers often several times in long YouTube videos that use (mostly the 1997 version) to portray why the content in the book is troubling. Visuals of course are very loud. You see Dolores framed in a way that’s supposed to be appealing, even sexual. There’s the ever famous sunglasses, some have commented on the way she’s dressed, and so I wondered if the translation to a video medium has added to the “legacy” of Lolita.
What do I hope to find here? Well, a true scientist would have a logically sound and more thought-out hypothesis. Mine is more like how much will these movies make me think of Copenhagen (2014) a movie in which the main character William goes to Denmark to find his grandfather, and instead finds and falls for a fourteen-year-old girl. At the end of the film, I admit I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think. There are people around William who, very obviously, find his attraction or even just the fact that he chooses to spend time with the fourteen-year-old Effy weird, to say the least. But I could never land on what the movie wanted to say about their relationship. Is William a predator? Are they star-crossed? Should I, the viewer, be alarmed or sad they can’t be together? So, these are my guidelines for my viewing experience.
- How do the film adaptations differ from the novel?
- How is Humbert and Dolores’ relationship portrayed to viewers?
- Critic and public reception of the film at the time of its release
- Will I develop brain worms?
So, equipped with a bag of chips, my dogs, my reluctant partner, a notebook, and a cellphone handy in case I want order delivery, I started my journey. For the sake of chronological order, we start this tale with the 1962 version.
Watching Lolita (1962)
This adaption was directed by Stanley Kubrick (and, fun fact, is David Lynch’s favorite Kubrick film apparently). Originally I had was under the impression that the screenplay was also written by Nabokov but also came across sources that stated his original draft of the film was 400 pages long and that Kubrick and another written wore the final version but Nabokov still has the screenwriting credit. It stars James Mason as Humbert Humbert and Sue Lyon as Dolores Haze.
At the time of the shoot, Sue Lyon was fourteen and fifteen when filming wrapped. The movie was rated X upon release and no one under the age of eighteen was permitted to view it. It’s also important to note that this adaption came out when the Hayes Code was still around and Kubrick believes he could not have made the film under the new rating laws that came into play after its creation because of censorship.
This is all for context. I read a few blurbs about the shooting before I watched the movie. I don’t usually like to spoil myself but, like I said, the content of the story is uncomfortable and I admit even with my knowledge of modern Hollywood I think it made me a bit more uneased by the content now knowing a real child was going to portray it. Kubrick goes onto say he wished he would have been able to play more into the erotic relationship between Humbert and Dolores that is now only portrayed by double entendre and implication. The movie is also, to my delight, two hours and thirty-three minutes long.
This movie took some liberties. All adaptations are going to vary from the original media and after doing some reading, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this was a result of Nabokov’s original 400-page screenplay. There were also cases I read about some things changing around because of shooting constraints or, our favorite word, censorship.
Like Dolores’ age. Sue Lyons was chosen because of her “mature” look and the film never actually says how old she is. In the book itself, Humbert does meander around this point especially when time passes (for instance, some years in a row Dolores will be the same age) but here it was less of an unreliable narrator thing and more because that’s likely how Kubrick got around censorship.
Other changes are things like location changes because of shooting constraints. The first big difference that stood out to me though was the movie starts with Humbert killing Quilty (for those unaware, Quilty is the aforementioned murder victim that you don’t discover until the end of the book. He also makes CP and is also not a great man but Dolores eventually leaves with him instead before ultimately being free of both of them. Humbert kills him related to this).
Well, okay, there goes the murder mystery. But whatever, let’s go.
I don’t really shame movies for skipping a lot of backstory and such. Like we don’t get any of Humbert’s childhood or much of how he comes to stay with the Hazes other than the base (he’s an English professor, yada yada) and I don’t see that as a flaw.
What I found interesting about how I watched this is, even after reading from Humbert’s point of view and knowing he only marries Dolores’ mother to be close to her, contemplates killing her (Charlotte Haze) and generally doesn’t think much of her or anyone at all it did come off at times like he was supposed to be the most redeemable one. Other characters are pushy, inconsiderate, they’re not as well-mannered, they don’t have Dolores’ best interests in mind. And you would say, so does the guy who doesn’t tell her that her mother is dead until she’s stuck with him, but at times he was almost hilariously the most adjusted person in the scene when he’s supposed to be spiraling and paranoid.
Like on one hand, he laughs when receiving a love letter from Charlotte Haze and relentlessly mocks her but I also walked away with the idea that her character was portrayed as pretty bad. She was demanding, she wanted her daughter out of the way so she could be happy with Humbert.
After my viewing, I read up on the fact that the movie is also missing the parts of Dolores’ misery. There was a lot of talk about tone and about how those moments of true darkness wouldn’t have fit in with the narrative being crafted. Scenes in the novel that ended with Dolores sobbing despite Humbert’s “good” treatment of her were gone entirely. It still had its dark moments, obviously. I’m not Kubrick so I can’t say if this would have ruined it. If the point is to walk away from the film and say “Dolores didn’t like what happened to her” it still ends the way it did in the novel, with her as a married adult writing to Humbert because she needs money. Her escape and glimpse of her adult life are still crucial to her personhood.
Upon release, the movie seems to have been reserved pretty well. There were some mixed reviews but nothing I saw that mirrored any of the criticizes I suspected other than one calling it “repulsively disgusting” most just kind of seemed unsatisfied with it for reasons unrelated to the central relationship. It has regained a new life in the time since with being rated 91% on rotten tomatoes (higher than it’s descendant).
Now? Going back to my form of measurement, did this movie make me feel the way I feel after watching Copenhagen (2014)?
Honestly? Without the knowledge that Humbert Humbert has, in his own words, a fixation for “nymphets” between the ages of nine and fourteen and that he did seek out another family with a young girl before ending up with the Hazes, the film can be read as a chance encounter like William’s with Effy. That there was no intent behind placing himself near Dolores who, while yes does become flirtatious (in the book because he resembles an actor she likes) is still a child and has no control over that situation.
Does this make the movie bad? If we’re looking at it from a purely moral standpoint then perhaps. Obviously, yes. Do not marry single moms with the intent to abuse their daughters, think about killing said mother, leave your confession journal out so she can run into traffic horrified that you think this way about her daughter, and then use her death as an opportunity to take your new step-daughter cross-country while abusing your power dynamic and her attraction to you. That is hopefully the lesson we all walk away with no matter what.
In the end, sorry to Kubrick but honestly I wished it was shorter and I don’t think this film would have benefited from more erotic imagery. I’m not even saying that from an ethical standpoint. It just didn’t.
Watching Lolita (1997)
While looking for a copy of this movie, I stumbled upon the following review:
There. This is it, isn’t it? The entire point for all of this. I asked, “did the translation to a visual media add to its legacy?” It is not a debate as to whether or not Dolores is a victim of child abuse. The book was not meant to be seen as anything else. Nabokov himself had said in interviews the only person who deserves our sympathy is Dolores Haze. Do I think this person is stupid? No. They were obviously repulsed by content that should be and is disturbing. Do I even think this person’s review is wrong just because their takeaway from the story and what I thought it was trying to tell me is different than mine? No.
Does it kind of prove my original hypothesis and thus render all my effort null and void? Yes. Am I already several hours deep and now I feel like I must watch this two-hour and seventeen-minute movie? Yes. Because my point here is not to dunk on anyone who will never watch or read Lolita because the topic of child abuse is disturbing to them. My point here is just to see if the movies give me a different takeaway than the book did.
So. Obviously. This adaptation stars Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain as Dolores Haze. It was directed by Adrian Lyne. This screenplay was written by Stephen Schiff is considered more faithful to the novel than the 1962 version.
I couldn’t find much about the shooting of it. I do know it originally released in Europe and had a hard time finding an American distributor and was first picked up the cable network Showtime before getting a theatrical release.
I love Jeremy Irons.
I don’t think this was a good adaptation. Which, is weird considering even with the 1962 having the better rating I guess I assumed I would like it more because of that dedicated faithfulness to the original. Is it a problem with the screenplay? Is it the shots of Dolores being seen almost as if whimsical and ethereal and the fact that it sometimes takes itself too seriously?
Okay. Yes. This is a serious topic but I’m not the first to ever point out that the book was a black comedy at times. It has moments of irony like Humbert being enraged that someone would ever want to film Dolores doing deviant acts like what kind of monster?
And a quick aside, I was reading an interview from Schiff who points out one of the things wrong with the Kubrick film is that Sue Lyon looks like a “twenty-one-year-old porn star” and Dominique Swain, who I’m now reading was possibly fifteen at the time of shooting, looks like a “real twelve-year-old, which is good.” which just hits me in the face with memories of discourse I’ve found myself unwillingly engaged in about the way people look in regards to their age and what that means about their treatment in these discussions about abuse.
I don’t like this statement. One, I did think Sue Lyon looked convincingly like a child, perhaps because she was one when they filmed the movie, but giving Schiff the benefit here and he’s trying to touch on the fact that Lyon was likely sexualized as an actress after this role I mean. It’s not like that wasn’t accomplished with Swain. Both of their attire/costumes in the films would later inspire Nymphet fashion or general photoshoots trying to portray both coquettish youthfulness and a taboo sexuality. This has nothing to do with my opinion of the film overall really, I just felt it worth mentioning. A child who “looks twenty-one” is still deserving of our sympathy. So, in my mind, Sue Lyon not being young-looking enough for Schiff doesn’t detract with my takeaway.
I also do wonder, by now I’ve seen pictures of some actresses they might have gone with before told to pick someone more “mature” looking and the reception of both films would likely be vastly different if they went with those options. Swain herself is still older than Dolores was at the time.
This film felt longer somehow. It could be because I watched these back to back and didn’t prepare myself to essentially watch the same story for over four hours, but I just don’t know something about the tone just made it feel long-winded.
One review of the film I happened upon talked about the destruction of Humbert and Dolores as characters. And that is undeniably true. Humbert is destroyed by his obsession with her and as is she. They both die, him of disease while awaiting trial for murder and her due to birth complications. Here they seem like equal partners in each other’s destruction.
Can that claim be made for the book? A very good question. Dolores obviously exists as a character in the book and I would say as a fully realized person, but because it is written as Humbert’s journal/memoir she is a victim of his thoughts and depiction save for the few moments of bleakness that slip through.
The composer of the film even said “With my music, I only had to follow on a high level the director’s intentions to make Lolita a story of sincere and reciprocal love, even within the limits of the purity and malicious naiveté of its young subject.” This Lolita is a love story, which I suppose does make my initial reaction to the review wrong.
For this adaption, it is very much up for debate. Another review claims that Schiff didn’t get the novel, and for his interview in which he makes some slights at the Kubrick version, I found myself walking away from this one understanding why the ratings were lower.
I suppose that review was right there and so was my joke that it rendered this post useless by satisfying my original hypothesis. This must be the movie that makes people think it is an inherently romantic story where Dolores’ status as a victim is up for debate.
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Where does this bring me? This long, rambling post about me watching two movies knowing full well I could, no matter how many times I try to explain myself, somehow be in support of the things depicted in the original novel because I’m not walking away with shock, horror, or the number of the local ethics community. Or, equally worse, get seen as someone who denies that fiction can cause indirect harm to those who consume it.
That I am someone who wrote an entire post about my right to talk about controversial topics in fiction whether or not I’m venting about it but I also care about how people relate to media. If they’re being critical for the sake of it, if they’re disregarding troubling things because they can’t be critical at all, if their entire personality is either fighting or defending vague tropes and signifies of good or bad media.
I did not expect to be here, writing this past midnight, defending Vladimir Nabokov. I don’t really think I’m doing that but you get my point, yes? Here’s the thing about this debate of censorship and depiction. At least right now, Lolita is not being censored. I am not being censored. I have put out my frustrations about being told things about certain tropes, types of characters, how much I punish a villain, but no one has ripped those things from my hands. Maybe they want to. Maybe they will.
I’m also not disregarding the very real concerns people have with online censorship but I think that’s it. It’s all complicated. Media is complicated. Why we like and dislike is also complicated. My friend who went to rehab found some sort of comfort in Lolita that many people probably wouldn’t get just like I feel my most at peace playing true crime podcasts in the background as a vacuum, listening to the most heinous things other humans can do while my door is unlocked.
My measurement of this post was how much these adaptions made me think of Copenhagen (2014), so I’ll say this, I’ve watched that movie. I think the soundtrack is great and I replay one of the songs every now and then. The comments are all pretty positive. I’ve never seen many big reviews of it but it was an indie film. It has no online fandom that I could see in my minor research for the purposes of this post and whether or not the relationship between the two characters is romantic or even the “fault” of Dolores Haze, I’ve never seen anyone talk about it. So in the end, I think if Lolita wasn’t Lolita, if it wasn’t praised as a masterpiece, we obviously wouldn’t be talking about it either. Its legacy is still unique. I’ve seen many books spark violent debates, many books depict actual romance between a minor and an adult, many movies touch on it, and they don’t get brought up as often or with the same vigor. I’ve never seen people pour over every instance of an author’s life to try and prove this was in some part a confession of his own wrongdoings, even in the case of actual authors who have contributed to real life atrocities or even just have said shitty things people are quick to wave it off for the art of literature.
And then, do I want every conversation I have about what I write, what I read, and what I watch to always be related to what I believe is morally right and wrong? To me puffing my chest and reminding everyone of my interpretation of Lolita being that Humbert is gross and Dolores Haze is a victim. But what if I didn’t? I’ve met people who’ve used the book (granted, without reading it and only knowing some quotes from googling or who just like the idea of the taboo) who used it as a blueprint for their romance novel. In the case of the review I posted, I don’t think my view of the story even makes me a better person or a more upstanding person. Interpretation of a piece, even when backed by the author and contextual evidence, is still subjective. People will always walk away from this book calling it a romance. Maybe it was caused by the movies or maybe just the general infamy. It doesn’t matter.
My original post was inspired by that bag advertisement I mentioned but also a joke about the only “valid” way to read troubling books like this. By despising them. By being disgusted. By doing what I’ve done, repeatedly reminding people that what I think Humbert Humbert has done is reprehensible but that’s not why my friend or anyone who probably calls this book their favorite reads it. They read it because they like it. That’s enough. That is its own defense.
This is not something I can fix with this post, nor do I really want to. I think I will let Dolores Haze rest and spend my time doing literally anything else.