This Distracted Globe random header image

Threats From Advocates of Child Welfare and Family Togetherness

April 4th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Lolita 1997 poster Lolita 1997 DVD

Lolita (1997)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Screenplay by Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Produced by Mario Kassar, Joel B. Michaels
137 minutes

There’s a litany of reasons why the second film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is not something to enjoy. It’s based on a brilliant novel far too internal to put on film. It’s a remake of a film by Stanley Kubrick. It’s about a distasteful subject, so the film itself must be distasteful, if not banned outright. It’s too stylish, lacking in depth. It’s too cerebral, lacking in action. The case against Lolita is as fullproof as it’s ever been for director Adrian Lyne, who in spite of all of that, adds another entertaining, sometimes silly but always absorbing film to an impressive short list of credits. Far from great, it is great work, a haunting, skillfully made picture with terrific and unlikely performances from one of the few directors who can be relied upon for intelligent dirty movies. Sort of like John Woo, Lyne isn’t trying to win an Oscar here. He seems to know exactly the type of genre flick he wants to make, rarely gets delusions of grandeur and always delivers intense audience appreciation.

In terms of casting, this version of Lolita is on at least equal footing with Kubrick’s classic. In her first acting gig, Dominique Swain conveys the geeky exuberance of a clueless teenager without acting precocious; she seems closer in spirit to what Humbert lusted after, as opposed to Sue Lyon, who had the appeal of a 24-year-old stripper. Miscast in so many other films, Melanie Griffith really finds a niche here in the brusque Shelley Winters role of Lolita’s mother. Lyne shows a tin ear for wit, resisting savage satire with every fiber of his being to instead make a picturesque, European love story from Nabokov’s novel. Jeremy Irons is the ideal leading man for that movie, which I’m not sure I prefer to the one with an absurd sense of humor about its characters and underlying situations. Still, this Lolita is without question stunning to look at and listen to, with director of photography Howard Atherton handling the lighting and legendary composer Ennio Morricone providing the mournful musical score.

Lolita 1997 Dominique Swain

In New England of 1947, a professor of French literature named Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) decides to spend his summer in the town of “Ramsdale”, writing a textbook. Looking for a room to rent, Humbert arrives at the abode of the obnoxious Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith), whose manner doesn’t quite appeal to the fussy professor. Humbert changes his mind as soon as he lays eyes on Charlotte’s 14-year-old nymphet of a daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain), who unwittingly stirs feelings Humbert hasn’t felt since being with his very first girlfriend, who died of typhus when they were age 14. Obsessed with movie magazines, food and antagonizing her mother, Lolita becomes curious about what kind of rise she can get out of Humbert. Charlotte soon sends her wayward daughter away to summer camp before she’s to be enrolled in boarding school. Crushed at the prospect of losing Lolita, Humbert agrees to the lonely Charlotte’s marriage proposal.

Miserable in marriage, Humbert’s prayers are answered when Charlotte discovers his journal, which contains less than flattering descriptions of his new wife. Charlotte throws herself into the street, where she is struck by a car and killed. Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, but rather than tell her about her mother’s death right away, takes cues from the girl’s incessant flirtations and checks them in to the Enchanted Hunters Inn. A Christian convention fails to deter them from consummating their love affair. Humbert breaks the news of Charlotte’s demise to Lolita the next day and takes her on a cross-country trek to spend more carefree time together. Reporting to his job at Beardsley Prep School, Humbert begins to suspect Lolita is socking away money to run away from him. His suspicions are validated by the appearance of the mysterious Clare Quilty (Frank Langella), a debauched playwright who seems to share his attraction to nymphets.

Lolita 1997 Jeremy Irons

Stephen Schiff was a correspondent for the CBS news program West 57th and a critic of theater, books and film for Vanity Fair magazine. Producer Lili Fini Zanuck had made an effort to steer Schiff toward screenwriting and in 1990, advised him that the estate of Vladimir Nabokov was optioning the film rights to various literary properties of the Russian born entomologist and author best known for his 1955 novel Lolita, which had been rejected by publishers in America due to the nature of it sexual content. Over the next 40 years – during which a controversial film adaptation starring James Mason was directed by Stanley Kubrick — many critics would rate Lolita as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. An admirer of the book, Schiff began an adaptation of his own. He would finish 40 pages before Zanuck told the budding screenwriter to forget it; in the current political climate, Lolita would never be made into a movie anyway.

Almost at the same time, Adrian Lyne reread Lolita. He mentioned his interest in a film adaptation that would hew closer to Nabokov’s work to the chairman of Carolco Pictures, Mario Kassar, who put up $1 million to purchase the film rights for the director of such highly stylized and hugely commercial forays into erotica as Flashdance, 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction. Several notable screenwriters attempted an adaptation before Lili Fini Zanuck and her husband Richard Zanuck — who was producing the project — turned to Schiff to fashion a script. On the film’s way to completion, Carolco Pictures would go bankrupt, the budget would climb and the U.S. Congress passed a law that threatened to land the filmmakers in prison if they moved forward. Protected from legal prosecution, Lolita was nonetheless shunned by distributors in the U.S. due to its high cost and difficult subject matter. Lolita opened in Europe and became the highest budgeted film to hold its U.S. premiere on cable television.

Lolita 1997 Jeremy Irons Dominique Swain Melanie Griffith

Journalist Stephen Schiff was living in New York in 1990 when producer Lili Fini Zanuck — who’d been compelling Schiff to try screenwriting — notified him that the Vladimir Nabokov estate was optioning the film rights to its catalog. She thought that Schiff would be ideal to adapt one of those works in particular. In Lolita: The Book of the Film, Schiff wrote, “Lolita is one of the most beautiful, poignant, funny, splendidly designed, gorgeously written, and psychologically acute works in the English language. To my mind, it is the greatest American novel of the postwar era. So the opportunity — if opportunity this was — to create a coherent artistic response to it was irresistible. I got to work, but, I hasten to add, I did so idiotically: I wrote some forty pages of screenplay, but it was all dialogue, no ‘stage direction.’” Instead of writing off-screen directions, Schiff merely scribbled “TK”, journo jargon for “to come”. He added, “Still, I was somewhat saddened when, a few weeks later, Lili called me back and said, rather presciently, ‘Forget about it. In this political environment, any version of Lolita would be too controversial. It’ll never get made.’”

Adrian Lyne had picked up a copy of Lolita as a teenager. Flipping to the lascivious parts and putting the novel down when he saw there weren’t any, Lyne was shooing Jacob’s Ladder for Carolco Pictures in the fall of 1989 when he read Lolita properly. On a making-of featurette on the film’s DVD release, Lyne stated, “I like movies that create discussion. I love it when they haven’t forgotten about your movie by dinnertime afterwards, you know, and they’re still arguing about it the next day. That’s what a movie should do. It should make you argue and disagree.” He added, “I wanted to make a movie of Nabokov’s novel because it’s — I think — one of the great novels of this century. The movie is about a middle aged man’s obsession for a 14-year-old girl and it’s about all that that entails. In the end, it’s a love story. It’s a strange and awful love story.” When proposing Lolita to Mario Kassar, the co-founder and chairman of Carolco was eager enough to work with Lyne again that he ultimately snapped up the film rights for $1 million.

Lolita 1997 Jeremy Irons Melanie Griffith

The first screenwriter Lyne approached was James Dearden, who’d written the screenplay for Fatal Attraction. Up next was the esteemed playwright Harold Pinter, whose draft was considered far too cold for Lyne’s tastes. In the fall of 1994, Stephen Schiff’s phone rang and Lolita producer Richard Zanuck — Lili Fini’s husband — inquired about the pages Schiff had written. He was summoned to Los Angeles for a chat. Schiff recalled, “The first thing he and Adrian wanted to know was whether I could see my way clear to setting the film in the present. (Unbeknownst to me, that was what Dearden’s script had done). The answer was ‘No’. A Lolita growing up in America in this day and age would have been warned about the Humberts of the world from the age of three; her teachers would have talked about pedophiles; her mother would have been on the lookout. Besides, to set Nabokov’s story in the present is to lose much of what it is about, for this was not just a novel about a grown man’s love affair with his twelve-year old stepdaughter, it was about the dawning impingement on the European mind of postwar America.”

David Mamet was commissioned, but unconvinced that the playwright’s knack for American machismo would produce a usable draft of Lolita, Schiff started writing on spec. He elaborated, “Humbert is thoroughly equipped for greatness, and yet he winds up in an ignominy of his own making. Part of his tragedy — and a large part of his comedy — is that his enormous intelligence is always defeated by his obsession. He can’t get outside that obsession to see who Lolita is, to see that she is actually a fairly ordinary little girl, more charming than some and probably more sexually precocious than most, but still a child.” With very little dialogue available in the novel, Schiff invented most of it. “Another thing. Because Nabokov’s Humbert lives in a kind of exalted subjectivity, Lolita herself is so much a figment of his imagination that she barely exists on the page. In effect, I had to reinvent her, piecing her together from my own adolescence and from adolescents I knew.” One of Schiff’s ideas was to have Lolita constantly eating bananas or candy or ice cream.

Lolita 1997 Dominique Swain Jeremy Irons

Schiff’s intuitions and efforts won him the job. Concerned that audiences would be unwilling to sympathize with Humbert Humbert, Lyne was adamant about restoring the character’s childhood love affair — which Stanley Kubrick excised in his film version — that attempted to explain the man’s obsession with Lolita. Of the actors considered for the part, Anthony Hopkins was deemed too old. Hugh Grant cited Lolita as his favorite book and didn’t want to see any film version made. Lyne claimed that Warren Beatty flirted with the role “for about five minutes” before Jeremy Irons was approached. Lyne had met Irons while visiting the set of Reversal of Fortune in 1989 and soothed the actor’s fears that Lolita was too politically incorrect to get involved with. Dominique Swain hadn’t gone on an audition in two years, but learning of the part from her manager, read Lolita and sent Lyne a videotape of herself performing scenes from the book. She responded, “It’s all through Humbert’s eyes. Lolita doesn’t have a point of view. I think I can give her one.” The 14-year-old won the role of Lolita.

With Carolco Pictures heading into the sunset of bankruptcy and selling off its assets in 1995, the production of Lolita was picked up by the French corporation Chargeurs, which agreed to finance the film through a media group it owned called Pathé. With plans for shooting to begin in June, the film’s budget had climbed from $41 million to roughly $50 million. This was in part due to Adrian Lyne’s preference to shoot on location. The flashback to Humbert’s youth would be filmed in Les Cedres in the south of France. “Ramsdale” would be filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina. The location for the Enchanted Hunters Inn was found in New Orleans, as was Humbert’s apartment. The production would also travel to Amarillo, Texas and Sonoma County, California to grab footage of Humbert and Lolita’s road trip. Perhaps balking at the price of what Richard Zanuck considered a $25 million or so production, the producer dropped out. Mario Kassar tapped Joel B. Michaels — producer of Universal Soldier and Stargate — to replace the Academy Award winning producer of Driving Miss Daisy.

Lolita 1997 Jeremy Irons Dominique Swain

Once shooting was underway in North Carolina in September 1995, weather delays, an illness to Melanie Griffith and the firing of director of photography Jeffrey Kimball (who was replaced by Howard Atherton) ballooned Lolita up to a budget of $58 million. In the background was the nature of the material. Invited to the set, Stephen Schiff noted, “At times I seemed to be the only one connected with the film who didn’t harbor visions of some small town sheriff descending on the set and carting us off to jail on obscenity charges, child pornography charges, or just general principle. During the shoot, we played by the strictest rules the film’s lawyers could devise. Any nudity required an adult body double for Dominique. If Dominique sat on Jeremy’s lap, a board was inserted between them. Dominique’s mother and tutor were on the set whenever she was. I often found myself in the position of reassuring everyone: We’re not going to be arrested, for Chrissake. This isn’t the ‘50s. We’re not making a pornographic film. We’re adapting one of the acknowledged great works of 20th century literature. So I said. And so I thought.”

Coincidentally, while Lolita was in post-production, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) attached a rider known as the Child Pornography Act of 1996 onto a federal budget bill being passed through the U.S. Congress. The rider extended the definition of “child pornography” to cover anything that simulated a minor engaging in sexual activity. Critics charged that the law was so ambiguous that it was nearly impossible for filmmakers to know whether or not they were in compliance; at the risk of 15 years in prison, they would resort to self-censorship instead. A strict interpretation of the law would now classify such films as The Exorcist, Night Moves, Taxi Driver, Pretty BabyLittle Darlings and others as child pornography. Schiff recalled, “It was so vaguely worded that it seemed to me certifiably unconstitutional, although a judge later upheld it. Broadly interpreted, it could have resulted in the banning of any number of mainstream films, paintings, book covers, photographs, MTV videos, and so forth. We didn’t even know about it until Adrian read about it somewhere and went into a panic. And the panic was contagious.”

Lolita 1997 Jeremy Irons

The firm that Pathé had contracted as production legal counsel before filming began — Troop Meisinger Steuber & Pasich of Los Angeles — suggested that the producers hire attorney John Weston to advise them on First Amendment issues. Weston was invited into the editing room to guarantee that Lolita was in compliance with the new law. Schiff admitted, “Sometimes, I thought, the cuts actually helped the film. Crotch shots had to go, and, indeed, there was a legal precedent for them to go, and their removal was fine with me. There was no legal precedent for the removal of breast shots, but we didn’t really need breast shots — in any case, they went.” But Weston also suggested that two pivotal scenes had to go; an encounter between Humbert and Lolita in a motel room in which we realize the pair are engaged in sex as she reads the comics, and a later scene in which an enraged Humbert pushes Lolita down on a bed and has sex with her. Neither scene was graphic enough to threaten the film’s R rating with the MPAA and when Lyne and Schiff challenged Weston on the exact wording of the new law, the attorney withdrew his objections.

In a February 1999 interview with The Bulletin, Lyne recalled, “I sat in a cutting room with a lawyer for six weeks. The law that came out said that essentially I couldn’t use any of the shots that I had shot with the body double; that I couldn’t have an adult imitating a juvenile. This law was aimed at the Internet and it was aimed at people putting children’s heads on mature bodies, if you see what I’m saying, and it carried over into films. So it was traumatic for me because, obviously, this lawyer was saying I had to take this out, I had to take that out … and I was hooting and hollowing and yelling and disagreeing with the guy but in the end, happily, I didn’t have to do much, actually. He was a fairly understanding man; but I did have to take out a few shots that I’d done with the body double, you know, her breasts or whatever. But I don’t think it affected the movie. It was a very unnerving period because we didn’t know, for example, where we stood in terms of legality with the film and at times we were worried about literally moving the film from California to New York. There was a lot of paranoia.”

Lolita 1997 Frank Langella

Lolita was test screened three times in Los Angeles and according to Schiff, was well received. A screening was also arranged for Nabokov’s only child and executor of his late father’s estate, Dmitri, who enthusiastically supported the new film adaptation. In March 1997, the filmmakers began shopping for a U.S. distributor. Schiff recalled, “What happened next was very strange. One by one, the studios saw the film. Many of the executives went out of their way to congratulate Adrian, to tell him that it was his best film ever, to recount in detail their ravishment over it, to beg him to work with them on his next film. And then, one by one, they refused to distribute it.” Schiff believed the political climate had a lot to do with that. “Never in history had there been such a horrified awareness of the pedophilia lurking around the fringes of American life. The Megan Kanka case, the JonBenet Ramsay case, the Polly Klass murder, the Belgian sex murders — all these were in the air. The Christian right had been fulminating for years of the subject of family values, and no film courted controversy without running into efficiently organized watchdog groups run by zealots like Donald Wildmon and others of his ilk.”

Pressure never materialized from either Christian groups or from legislators, but no U.S. distributor wanted near Lolita. Pathé had hoped to sell U.S. distribution rights for $25 million, plus the cost of prints and advertising for an additional $20 million. That quote came down, but not even the so-called indies opened up a checkbook. Schiff revealed, “Miramax was part of Disney, and Disney, with its reputation and its stockholders, was never going to spring for Lolita. We heard that October Films, the distributors of Secrets and Lies and The Apostle, wanted it, but then they were bought by Universal, which was owned by Seagrams, which didn’t want a Lolita on its hands.” Pathé chose to release Lolita in Europe first, hoping positive response there might make an impression in Hollywood. Schiff added, “To me, this plan seemed naïve at best. Since when did American distributors look to Europe for guidance? Lolita would have to be a jawdropping blockbuster overseas to catch America’s attention, and I knew that, no matter how kindly it was received, it was never going to be Independence Day.”

Lolita 1997

Months after it premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain in September 1997, Showtime agreed to buy U.S. distribution rights and broadcast Lyne’s 137-minute cut of Lolita on both Showtime and the Sundance Channel in August 1998. Critics had mixed feelings about what they saw. Caryn James, The New York Times: “Mr. Lyne (whose commercial hits include Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal) was expected to have made a titillating Lolita. Instead, he has risen to the level of his material. His direction, and Stephen Schiff’s discerning, faithful screenplay, are sensitive to Nabokov’s wit as well as his lyricism.” Manohla Dargis, L.A. Weekly: “A glum, dull, witless affair buoyed only by the minor scandal of its failure, until recently, to secure U.S. distribution, this newest translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s still-shocking novel has the singular attraction of not only confirming Lyne’s aesthetic irrelevance, but of making Stanley Kubrick’s flawed if brilliant 1962 film seem like a paragon of literary adaptation.” Newsweek (Jack Kroll) and Time Magazine (Richard Schnickel) posted positive reviews. The Village Voice (Michael Atkinson) and Variety (David Rooney) did not.

Samuel Goldwyn Films agreed to give Lolita a limited theatrical release. In September 1998, it played one theater in Los Angeles for a weeklong Oscar qualifying run. Lolita received no nominations and managed $1 million in domestic box office receipts. Stephen Schiff remained convinced that the political climate had kept Americans from being able to see the film in theaters. “Had we released Lolita in the ‘70s or ‘80s, I believe that it would have easily made its way into distribution. But the culture has contracted since then. And even if it hasn’t, its gatekeepers believe it has. (Thus the gap between the alarm the gatekeepers expected us to feel over President Clinton’s sexual shenanigans and the meager alarm we actually did feel). Still, whether or not there would have been some vast surge of outrage upon the release of Lolita, the potential distributors certainly thought there would be. Every advance article about the film included threats from advocates of child welfare and family togetherness: newspaper columns railed against the project, sight unseen, from a vantage of laborious ignorance.”

Lolita 1997 Dominique Swain

Where’d You Get All of This?
Lolita Loses Her Chaperon” By Judy Brennan. The Los Angeles Times, 24 September 1995

“Girl Trouble” By Benjamin Svetkey. Entertainment Weekly, 9 August 1996

“Lolita Comes Again” By Elizabeth Kaye. Esquire, February 1997

Lolita Reaches A U.S. Audience” By Bill Carter. The New York Times, 6 May 1998

“In Hollywood, Almost Anything Goes — Except For Lolita, That Is” By Claudia Eller. The Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1998

“Lawyers were forced to cut scenes from Lolita because of Vagueness in Obscenity laws” By Bob Van Voris. National Law Journal 17 August 1998

“Adrian Lyne: Lolita By Andrew Urban. The Bulletin, 25 February 1999

Lolita: The Book of the Film. By Stephen Schiff. Applause Books (2000)

Lolita. DVD audio commentary by Adrian Lyne. Trimark (2001)

Tags: Based on novel · Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Father/daughter relationship · Femme fatale · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · Paranoia · Remake · Road trip · Shot In Texas · Train · Unconventional romance

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Apr 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

    I’ve never seen this movie all the way through, but my opinion on the portion I did see pretty much aligns with yours. It looked good and featured good performances. Irons and Griffith are both well cast in the roles (though I love Mason and Winters in Kubrick’s version). But it lacks the wit and satirical aspects that make the novel so brilliant.
    Interesting to read about all the insane hoops they had to jump through to get the film made.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Apr 5, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Amanda: One of the reasons I may still be writing about movies — instead of making them — is all the insane hoops. Sitting in an editing room with a lawyer for six weeks is a new hoop. Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Comment