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Lolita (1997)

Trimark Home Video

Starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, and Melanie Griffith

Written by Written by Stephen Schiff
Adapted from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov

Directed by Adrian Lyne

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Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita is one of those literary tour-de-forces that are easily described as "unfilmable." The Russian author's brazen prose is dense and magical, and his subject is a complex, comic, heartbreaking examination of one of society's greatest taboos. That anyone would attempt to make a movie of Lolita is stunning, and yet there are two movies based on this oft-banned literary work, and — even more stunning — they are both excellent and incredibly different.

The more recent Lolita, theatrically released in 1997, stars Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged English professor of literature just arrived in the United States for a teaching post at a New England college. He takes a room in the house of Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith), despite of his dislike for the overbearing widow and the unkempt trappings of her home. In fact, Humbert takes the room simply because of Lolita (Dominique Swain), Charlotte's 14-year-old daughter.

Haunted by a tragic pubescent love affair, Humbert becomes obsessed with this awkward, flirtatious nymphette — fully aware that it will lead to his destruction. Lolita encourages his attentions, at first simply as an experiment with her newfound sense of sexual power, and later as a helpless act of both dependence and control.

Unlike Stanley Kubrick's arch comic interpretation of the story in 1962 (adapted by Nabokov himself, but drastically edited by Kubrick), director Adrian Lyne and screenwriter Stephen Schiff take a more haunting, emotional approach to the source material. Humbert and Lolita are hopelessly lost souls. Humbert, regressing into lovestruck immaturity, delves into the fantasy, pretending to recapture the innocence of his youth while cruelly robbing it of another. Lolita, despised by her catty mother, aches for paternal affection via whatever deranged package it is offered to her.

Irons adds another tormented romantic to his impressive gallery, filling Humbert with doom-laden glee, fully aware of his crime yet hoping that Lolita's reciprocation can somehow absolve him. Swain is oustanding as Lolita, a pure study of the dichotomies of adolescence. She is gracefully awkward, innocently manipulative, and powerfully helpless. Griffith, too, is good, settling into a role perfect for her genuinely oblivious vapidity.

Kubrick's version — with a brilliant, crumbling James Mason in the Humbert role — was perhaps forced into a different tone by standards of the day. Unable to broach overtly the sexual relationship, Kubrick made a startling comedy of manners, allowing free-riffing supporting actor Peter Sellers' to run away with the film (similar to how Robin Williams can overtake a movie nowadays). But Lyne is more direct, and faithful to the source, dressing the story in elegiac lyricism while retaining much of the subtle humor of Nabokov's prose. In addition, Howard Atherton's gorgeous cinematography is appropriately wistful and bittersweet.

Due to its subject matter, Lyne's Lolita had trouble finding a distributor in the U.S., ostensibly because of an unusual, seldom-enforced anti-child pornography law which criminalizes even the fictional depiction of a minor in sexual circumstances. Credit must go to cable network Showtime for being brave enough to present this very mature, tasteful, and provocative film.

Lolita is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1. The disc includes commentary by Lyne, eight deleted scenes, a screen-test for Swain (which looks more like a rehearsal), a featurette, and a disappointing interactive screenplay that is nearly impossible to read. Keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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