My Lolita Rant

Vladimir Nabokov

This week’s Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque offerings give me the opportunity to rant about Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, and, while I’m at it, movies made from books in general.

Here’s the thing. Lolita is, in my opinion, a great novel by a great writer, which is, in part, about pedophilia. In the book, Lolita is not a nymphet, she’s not a sexy fourteen-year-old, and she’s not a temptress. The popular understanding of the book, derived largely from Kubrick’s misbegotten movie, incorrectly portrays Lolita as a sexy seductress. She is, instead, a twelve-year-old child.

Lolita’s first-person narrator Humbert Humbert, a delusional pedophile, sometimes deliberately obscures the truth. That’s one of the things that makes the novel so masterful: you’re inside the head of a crazy, evil bastard. . . who’s sometimes also funny (you laugh against your will) and, by the end, even sympathetic.

But there’s no question in my mind that Lolita herself–a name imposed on her by the fawning, obsessed nutcase Humbert–is a victim. She’s kidnapped and forced to have sex with an old lecher, a la Jaycee Dugard.

Kubrick’s film, deliberately obscuring the whole idea, helped foster the wrong-headed and sickening view of a “Lolita” as a pubescent siren luring vulnerable males. Don’t be fooled by Nabokov’s credit as screenwriter. Kubrick rejected almost all of Nabokov’s contributions.

As to adapting books into movies, I agree with the conventional wisdom that books are better than the movies based on them, with some exceptions. As films, To Kill a Mockingbird is just about as good as the novel, Gone with the Wind is certainly creditable, and, to me, Sophie’s Choice improves on William Styron’s original. Similarly, a lot of classic books, such as Jane Austen’s, have turned into enjoyable and pretty respectable movies.

As a devoted reader, however, I often object to screen adaptations, wondering why arrogant screenwriters and directors tamper with great works. The recent film version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, for example, drove me nuts. Heathcliff is supposed to be uncouth, sure, but does he have to say the “f–” word all the time? Do we have to see Hindley and Frances having crude, grunting sex outside in the mud?

Throughout the movie, I was wishing I was curled up at home rereading the book. Here’s what I say to filmmakers: Write your own damn stories.

This weekend I’m planning to see Samsara–no plot, no characters, pure cinema (Friday at 9:40 or Saturday at 7:25).

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